5 Things You Didn’t Hear When You Graduated

What advice would you give a young person who is about to graduate from (finish; complete) college in 2012? Last year I talked about the tradition of commencement speeches at American colleges. A commencement speech is usually given by a well-known or important person to the graduating class of a university at the graduation ceremony (official event or celebration). It typically has advice for the young people who are now about to move on to the “real world” of work (or, for many nowadays, unemployment). You can read an example of a speech here.

One writer recently published his list of “10 Things Your Commencement Speaker Won’t Tell You,” with his advice to university graduates this year. I’ve shortened his list to five. Read them and see if you agree with his advice:

  1. Don’t Make the World Worse. Most speakers tell students to make the world better, but Wheelan says he wants to “lower the bar” (make the minimum requirement or expectation less difficult). Instead of trying to improve the world, just don’t make it any worse! This is actually a variation (another version) of the traditional advice to medical doctors to “first, do no harm,” meaning don’t make the patient sicker than he or she already is.
  2. Marry Someone Smarter Than You. With the economy in tough shape (poor condition), it is often necessary for both spouses (husbands and wives) to work. Wheelan says that the commencement ceremony itself is a good place to start looking for a smart (or smarter) partner. This is because at many colleges, the best students get to wear special clothing and have their names listed separately in the program (the official booklet for the ceremony), so they’re easy to find.
  3. Read Obituaries. Obituaries are stories usually published in a newspaper about someone who has recently died. Families can pay for one of these in order to announce the death of one of their members. Wheelan says reading obituaries can show you how “interesting, successful people rarely (don’t usually) live orderly, linear lives.” An orderly, linear life would be one which is well-planned out and moves in a “straight line,” from A to B to C. Wheelan is saying that most of our lives are not that simple and straightforward, but involve unexpected changes.
  4. It’s All Borrowed Time. To borrow something is to have someone loan or give you something for a short time that you have to give back someday. Life, Wheelan says, is not something you get to keep forever. Every day could be your last. To live on borrowed time means to be able to live only for a short time before things will change or end. If that’s true, then we must ask ourselves whether the way we are living now is really the best we can do. This idea is related to what the ancient Romans called momento mori – a phrase or a physical object like a skull that reminds you of death, that we all live on borrowed time.
  5. Don’t Try to be Great. Wheelan says that being great usually involves some luck and circumstances (situations) that are beyond your control (that you cannot change or effect). Instead of trying to be great, Wheelan says we should try instead to be solid – that is, very good at what we do, reliable, and dependable.

Do you agree with Wheelan’s advice? If not, what advice do you have for our new college graduates this year?


Photo credit: St. Jerome by Lucas van Leydan, Wikipedia CC

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23 Responses to 5 Things You Didn’t Hear When You Graduated

  1. tania says:

    Hi! Dear Jeff, why Jeff Maria? Like Rainer Maria Rilke? For sure it’s one of your jokes.
    As I like to appear like an important person, I remember that I had read something by Rainer Maria Rilke.
    Very proud I say to one of my fellow: Interesting Maria Rilke. She is a great poet.
    And my fellow says: Actually he is a great poet.

    Rainer Maria Rilke is a Bohemian-Austrian poet. He is considered one of the most significant poets in the German language.

  2. Peter says:

    Fear Jeff,
    I gotta tell you , the piece above is one your greatest work on blog.
    I really enjoyed it word by word. In fact , I plan on analyze it,English wise.
    Thank you Jeff.
    The question u have asked all of us regarding what we think of the whole thing is very inviting.
    To start off, I must say the idea is find sb smarter is a bit out of date.let’s Face it guys. The advise is typically given these days is “find sb richer.”

    Second to that ,We do live on borrowed time ,no argue there. I mean , it is a given.Every body unanimously believes that we live just once so we should make every second count.life is too short , and the pace of life is fast. If you wanna make sth great out of you life, you better snap on it that time goes by relentlessly and stops for nobody.Make it snappy ,will you:)

    The third goes for the funneral leaflets .Excuse my frankness but , give me a beak,will you? It is evident that all the obituary talk is fairy stories. It is all about pronouncing deceased people successes and glossing over their failures. No mean to be disrespectful . To me , they don’t give an authentic narrative about what trully went down in the life of passed away people.

    And, Always shoot for stars



  3. robab says:

    hi, jeff
    i praise you to the skies. yesterday was teacher’s day in Iran and you are my teacher in learning and in life.i want to thank you and say happy teacher’s day.
    about article, it was very great and i want to add something to it:
    if you want to be successful, you must respect everyone.
    from iran, tabriz

  4. emiliano says:

    Well I agree absolutely, as all he said is wise at least for me.
    To start with the first, incredible good advise just because to make the world a best place to live
    it is scarcely out of our hands but not doing it worst is our daily task if we think every day about
    making a nice surroundings place to the people who are near our own space.

    The second, it is one of the best difficult choose every one of us could do.
    By my side Cuca is smarter than me by all means and she always gives me the best advises
    a spouse could give a husband along so many years.

    The third, yes I use to read some of them, doing that It conducts me to the fourth thought.

    The fourth, incredible good advise but we don´t are accustomed to do such a thing what is
    a big mistake as by my point of view.
    Being conscious about the fact than nothing belong to us, we have borrowed everything, our
    house, our books, our time, finally our life, all it woud be more ease and we could be better
    persons but also giving less importance to the material things as at the end all will remains
    here after a short period of time.

    The fith, a nice good advise. Yes, being solid knowing that lot of things are out of our
    control would be the best actitude to accept the changes of our own life.
    Sad changes like diseases, losts, lack of interest from the persons we love, and so forth.
    But also good events as travels, love, funny shot times, relatives close to us in the thought
    that all these good moments are momentum with a measument in the life of every one
    of us.

    Yes, I agree with Wheelan´s advise and like a lot all of them but sometimes it is quite
    difficult to follow these advises despite they would make our life just more easy.

    Great note Jeff, it could be good for us if we use to meditate frequently about it.


  5. Tania says:

    “Here are my buds of lily and of rose,
    And here’s my namesake-blossom, may;
    And from a watery spot
    See here forget-me-not,
    With all that blows,
    And every nightingale
    And cuckoo tells its tale,
    And all they mean
    Is love.”

    May by Christina Rossetti

  6. Dan says:


    I would tell Him/Her:

    Do not listen to anyone and do not trust anyone.

    There is not a way,recipe for living your life.

    Something that worked for someone else can be damaging for you and the contrary is true as well.

    Love and respect this planet, you have to leave it in a short period of time to someone else.

    From the list above, I only pick the first one.

    Thanks, Bye!!

  7. Sara says:

    Thanks Dear Dr.Jeff,it was great and I totally agree with it excluding the part that advise to marry someone who is smarter than you.maybe I can change it to :someone who knows more than you and helps you to go upper.

  8. Hilario says:

    YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE: Mr. Wheelan’s advices are all right, what else? The first three appear to be pretty obvious ones but fourth and fifth seem far way fundamental to me. You only live once Is a good complement to the memorial phrase Memento mori, you’re now here and so, tomorrow who knows. A memento, in our latin based European cultures literally means “remember” is an object, a physical object like a lace around your finger or wrist or neck or even something in your pocket to be palpated with your hand. In fact there’re in Italy some lovely, silver made, ring designs showing up a not less beautiful skull on it. If life is a loan it must be a without doubt a mortgage type. A mort-gage, an old French Latin rooted mixed with German Franconian word, means you’re pledged with something until you dye, but bankers don’t apply right at that, at least here in Spain. As far as the five advice is concerned it seems clear that if you were born to hammer the nails will fall from the sky and if you do not have happiness, you have nothing wise, there isn’t like a next time I will.

  9. Tania says:

    Hi! Thank you for the new series about American authors starting with English Cafe 344.
    I have known that Tennessee Williams (1911 – 1983) was one of the greatest playwrights in the history of American letters, but watching on Wikepidia his works, his great number of works…
    I am very impressed. And I now realize that I have not known that many great movies are after his works.
    I am happy that I have seen the following movies:
    – The Glass Menagerie;
    – A Streetcar Named Desire;
    – Cat on a Hot Tin Roof;
    – Sweet Bird of Youth.
    And “The Night of the Iguana” is a play often acted in our theatres.
    I have to keep in my mind all these masterpieces for ever.

  10. Tania says:

    Hi! May I write some Tennessee Williams quotes?

    “All cruel people describe themselves as paragons of frankness.”

    “All good art is indiscretion.”

  11. Tania says:

    “All of us are guinea pigs in the laboratory of God.
    Humanity is just a work in progress.”

  12. Tania says:

    “Don’t look forward to the day you stop suffering, because when it comes you’ll know you’re dead.”

  13. Betty says:

    Thank you very much indeed, Jeff, for this annual topic about ‘Graduation’.

    The article refers to so many past episodes which are very resourceful and valuable for me.

    Mary Schmich’s assertions: “Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young” and “You will not understand the power and beauty of your youth until they’ve faded .” make me want to cry.

    I wanted to cry on Mary Schmich’s assertions because they have negatively stereotyped the young generation. In fact, many young graduates are full of energy with ambitions to make this world a better place.

    Charles Wheelan’s “10 Things Your Commencement Speaker Won’t Tell You” was not very nice to tell the young graduates – that’s why they are not told by the Commencement Speakers.

    Think about it, a graduation ceremony is one of the most emotional days for the young graduates, the Commencement Speakers should take care of that when he/she plans the speech.

    By the way, I have enjoyed watching and listening to Oprah Winfrey’s speech at Stanford University’s Commencement ceremony on Sunday 15 June 2008 from youtube.

    She talked to graduates about feelings, failure and finding happiness on that day.

    I especially like the following contents of her speech:

    “I realized that TV could be more than just a playground, but a platform for service, for helping other people lift their lives”.
    “When you’re doing the work you’re meant to do, it feels right and every day is a bonus, regardless of what you’re getting paid”.
    “If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it”.
    “Forget about the fast lane. If you really want to fly, just harness your power to your passion. Honor your calling. Everybody has one. Trust your heart and success will come to you”.
    “Having a lot of money does not automatically make you a successful person. What you want is money and meaning. You want your work to be meaningful. Because meaning is what brings the real richness to your life. What you really want is to be surrounded by people you trust and treasure and by people who cherish you. That’s when you’re really rich”.
    “What matters most is what’s inside. What matters most is the sense of integrity, of quality and beauty”.
    “To move forward you have to give back”.
    “To be happy, you have to give something back”.

    Oprah ended her speech with a quote from Dr Martin Luther King: “Not everybody can be famous. But everybody can be great, because greatness is determined by service.” “You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato or Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love.”

    Thanks again, Jeff, thanks for reminding me about ‘graduation ceremonies’ again. I predict it will come again next year this time.

    Best regards

    Betty 🙂

  14. Tania says:

    “Enthusiasm is the most important thing in life.”

    “Hell is yourself and the only redemption is when a person puts himself aside to feel deeply for another person.”

    Tennessee Williams Quotes

  15. Tania says:

    “Life is an unanswered question, but let’s still believe in the dignity and importance of the question.”

    “Life is partly what we make it, and partly what it is made by the friends we choose.”

    Tennessee Williams Quotes

  16. Tania says:

    “What is straight? A line can be straight, or a street , but the human heart, oh, no, it’s curved like a road through mountains.”

    “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”

    Tennessee Williams Quotes

  17. Tania says:

    I found out how great is Oprah Winfrey after Jeff had told us about her famous TV show.
    Dear Betty, I think you are right to quote her. From all quotes, this I like most :
    “When you’re doing the work you’re meant to do, it feels right and every day is a bonus, regardless of what you’re getting paid.”
    Yes, it is very, very important to love our job, our daily work. It seems we do not have enough time to finish our exciting work, … and every day is a bonus.

    All the best to you all,


  18. Jerry says:

    Wow~it’s a very good article. I can’t agree with you more, Jeff

  19. Tania says:

    Hi! I know that “memento mori” is not a theme for a graduation ceremony.
    “Remember you will die” even in a such special day from the life of a young?
    “The most obvious places to look for memento mori meditations are in funeral art and architecture.”

  20. Tania says:

    Hi! Anyway it was a surprise and a pleasure to me reading this old Latin phrase because “memento mori” was an important literary theme,
    literary meditations on death centuries ago. Memories from my school time.
    I keep in my mind this phrase as our greatest poet wrote a very long poem called “Memento Mori” .
    With this occasion I have read it again. Thank you.

  21. Tania says:

    Hi! After “Dem Bones”, “The Dance of Death”, what’s next?
    I know. The artistic anatomy. I have just seen a book with this title “Artistic Anatomy” in a bookshop. Many skeletons in different positions, maybe dancing, on its cover.
    Too, too macabre.

  22. Betty says:

    Hi Tania

    Thank you very much indeed for your message.

    I have read quite a lot about Oprah because I admire her strengths.

    I am glad you appreciate her as well.

    Nice to see you again, and thank for always giving us hints for good reading materials. I always look up the topics etc after reading your messages, and I always discover something special.

    Best regards

    Betty 😉

  23. meMe says:

    FoR SURE 100% I’m with him
    what he think and what wrote is right 100%
    becuz I live this situation >>>> ABSOLUTELY I AGREE with him in First,second,third,and fifth….
    And sometimes I have thought like this abt what he mention BUT I cant jots it down,Becuz i’m suck in writing
    I can’t exit my feeling in a piece of paper
    SO thx Wheelan…. to exit those IDEA and make it true real…..
    I give U BiG Bow FOR The Great article and have my praise to U

    THNX Jeff FOR this article I’m really enjoy in reading it, amazing, Smart Job

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