An open letter to high school graduates

High school graduation is on the horizon. You’ll soon hear speeches about how precious you are—how gifted, bright, and unique—and how you can become whatever you want. Maybe you’ll believe it—maybe not. But if you were my son or daughter, I would offer an alternate message—one that I think is more realistic and, ultimately, more kind. Although the two are related, I’ve organized my counsel into two domains: personal effectiveness and professional effectiveness.

Personal effectiveness

  1. Get over the idea you’re special (despite what your parents and grandparents tell you). Yes, you’re an amazing amalgam of bone, tissue, chemistry, and electrical impulses—but you are no more special than any other person on earth. 
  2. At commencement ceremonies, you may be exhorted to “follow your dreams.” But there is an unspoken caveat. If your dreams are to become rich and famous, you may have chosen poorly. That might work for Paris Hilton, but those of more modest means have a greater challenge. A more noble and realistic choice is to live a principle-centered life—one dedicated to service. Make that happen and you’ll become morally richer and more famous than you ever imagined.
  3. Don’t think because you were inculcated to believe something—elitism, capitalism, materialism, religion—that it is, therefore, true. Observe, read, and be mindful. Then, over time—perhaps a lifetime—shape and reshape what is true for you.
  4. When you have a choice between being right and being kind, choose being kind. Kindness is about spirit; being right is about ego. 
  5. Have a servant’s heart. That doesn’t mean being subservient. It means being empathic and ready to serve those in need.
  6. You’re not that smart. In recent years, the average GPA of high school graduates has been on the rise, while college admission tests have remained flat. Bottom line: your high school grades are inflated. Stay humble; you still have a lot to learn.
  7. Never stop reading. You will enter the minds of the brightest thinkers of all time. Nonreaders are doomed to reinvent the wheel.
  8. Here’s how to become a member of an elite order: exercise. Eighty percent of Americans don’t get enough exercise. Exercise daily for at least thirty-minutes. Alternate between cardiovascular and weight resistance workouts. Neither requires membership to a gym.
  9. Eat right. Fruit, vegetables, and water are your friends. Pizza, burgers, fries, and soda are not. Never eat a meal that comes with a toy. And, finally, the wise eat until they’re full while the foolish eat until they’re tired.
  10. Be curious. Say “yes” to new experiences, new cultures, new teachings. Learn a second language. Live in another country—a year or more is ideal—and soak in the culture. You’ll discover that the United States is grand but not necessarily the center of the universe.
  11. Remember this: Dogma divides and expels people; principles—love, peace, and understanding—unite them.

Professional effectiveness

  1. Success in your college and/or work career comes from discipline and hard work and not because you merely exist. You want to shake up the world? Good for you. Now roll up your sleeves and get to it.
  2. When your phone rings, answer it. It’s called civility. However, you rarely—if ever—need to answer your phone when you’re engaged in face-to-face conversation. 
  3. Don’t text when you need a favor or have bad news to report. It’s best to communicate such information in person or, at the very least, by telephone.
  4. Understand the difference between what is urgent and what is    important. Importance is driven by a personal mission and fuels your most noble ambition: to make a positive difference in the world. 
  5. Intimacy is not measured by the number of texts or “likes” you receive in a day. True intimacy can only emerge through transparent and empathic face-to-face dialogue.
  6. Understand the difference between policy and mission. In any organization, a policy is designed to make life easier for the organization. Mission is about customer service. When serving the customer, mission—not policy—is the gold standard.
  7. Don’t be deceived by Twitter. It takes more than 280 characters to flesh out a decent idea.
  8. Don’t be duped by charlatans. Those who sound a little too slick probably are.
  9. Contribute to community. Whatever your affinity—from artist to zoologist—experience the joy of sharing your knowledge with avid learners.
  10. Don’t be afraid of diversity. All people have value.

So, there you have it, sons and daughters: wisdom from someone who is older than rock and roll music. Here’s hoping you’ll gracefully sidestep some of the foolishness that ensnared me along the way—and replace it with humility, mindfulness, and hard work. That will make you truly special.

Oh, and by the way, congratulations on completing the first stage of your apprenticeship on earth. Only a lifetime yet to go.

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