To a New Graduate, One Year On

One year ago today, I sat where you’re sitting — baking in my black bag of a gown, silly master’s sleeves flapping, listening to Serious People providing valedictory advice.

I don’t expect this will be much more memorable, but I want to tell you about the biggest shift I’ve seen in the year since I walked across that stage.

Quite simply, the shift is that being effective eventually requires that we get specific about what difference we’re trying to make, or whom we’re seeking to serve and how.

This may take some time after graduation. Even if you’re going to medical school, you won’t specialize for at least a couple of years; for those — like me — who proudly wear the white hoods of the humanities and have the whole world ahead (or so it seems), it may take quite a bit longer to chart a course.

You have much to offer the world. That’s not in question. Rather, the question you’re about to be living is what exactly you have to give and how you’re meant to give it.

In my experience, school doesn’t prepare most people to answer that question. In too many cases, it doesn’t even prepare people to ask that question. Instead, I think too many people collect their credentials and then climb down from the stage to find their great desire to make a difference meeting the world’s great need for things to be made better — and then get stuck because they don’t know where or how to start.

The answer, as implied in the idea of commencement, is to simply start. Don’t look for the answer to everything; look for the next thing.

It’s OK if that’s not too specific at first. There’s much to be said for gaining broad experience and exposure early. Find the best people you can, doing the best work they can, and lend a hand. Try some of column A, try all of column B.

As you go along, though, pay attention: which problems, or which people, really call to you? Where do you seem to have something extra special to offer? Where might you find an opportunity to apply your special skill to a specific need?

Class, you have — our generation has — been raised on the myth of changing the world. That myth is crumbling, and I hope we’ll tell our children a different story about how to show up and make a difference in this world. But, in the meantime, your job — our job — is simply to make lives better: our own, our peers’, our communities’.

Don’t get stuck trying to change the world. Just get specific enough to pick a place or a problem or a person to start with, and commence.