Advice to Graduates

Grad photoAs I agonized over what to say at the 2013 University of Oregon Commencement I really wanted to do something in the vein of “Wear Sunscreen” by Mary Schmich, which was never an actual commencement speech, but her attempt at one. I decided against it because plagerism is bad and I wanted to be more original. Three people told me that the most valuable advice I ever gave them was:

When you start a new job, set your boundaries early; if you start out working tweleve hours day, they will come to expect it of you and working twelve hour days is no way to live your life. Taking time for you and having a good work/life balance is important.

When I asked my former employee what the most valuable advice I gave him was, he replied you told me, “You can’t stop a train wreck, but you can monitor the hell out of it.” I was the monitoring and evaluation manager for a $53 M USAID program that was a disaster.

Below is the advice I give to the graduates in my family, in the vein of my favorite commencement address “Wear Sunscreen.”

Dear Graduate,

Congratulations and welcome to this great adventure called life. As I tried to remember my own college graduation, back in the stone age. I thought about how much I didn’t know then and the advice that might have been valuable had someone bothered to impart it to me.

So if I can offer you one tip it would be to always wear your seatbelt, no matter what seat you are in. That seatbelts save lives is a fact, in addition I have personally tested this theory, whereas the rest of the advice that I will impart to you, has no statistical backing, it is just based on my own meandering experience.

Be a good e-mail communicator, there is nothing more annoying than someone who doesn’t answer all your questions, someone who writes in stream of consciousness or someone who doesn’t respond until days later.  My rule of thumb is I answer all work-related e-mails within in 24 hours, if I don’t have an answer than I respond letting the person know when I will get back to them.

There are a lot of bad managers in this world; your best bet is becoming good at upward management.

You are, smart, beautiful/handsome and giving, it is highly likely that you will run into people who will be jealous of you, remember the only person really worth competing against situation is yourself. And really smart people can figure out how to turn a rival into a teammate.

People will always offer you constructive criticism, some of it will be useful, a lot of it will be bullshit, learn how to evaluate it, take what is worth taking and let the rest go; you know who you are and you will know what criticism is valid and what is based on someone else’s incomplete perception.

It is never, ever wrong to tell the truth, sometimes imprudent, but never wrong.  Never compromise your values for a job, you can always get a new job, your integrity will be much more difficult to recover.

You will make mistakes, this will not change as you get older; I continue to make mistakes on a daily basis.  Once is a mistake, twice is a pattern of behavior, the only thing more annoying than someone making a mistake is when the person who made the mistake blames someone else.  Be willing to take responsibility for your mistakes, when you do something wrong, stand up; admit you made a mistake and be willing to fix it. A mistake is only a failure when you fail to learn from it. When something goes wrong be willing to evaluate the situation, the part you played in it, accept responsibility and move on.

I have spent hours lamenting over mistakes, over situations where I have failed, sometimes it will suck to be you, but for me it has been through my greatest struggles my most significant failures as a human being and yes, I have at times failed horribly as a human being, that I’ve achieved my greatest triumphs, and it was because I was able to look in the mirror and accept the responsibility that was clearly mine.

When you start a new job it’s always a good idea to spend the first three months or so listening and observing; rather than jumping in with both feet, talking at every meeting, sharing your opinion with everyone; I have never done this, but people tell me it’s a good practice—I am planning on trying it sometime.  If you end up doing it before me, please let me know how it goes.

Having a good sense of humor is imperative for surviving this world intact; when everything is going to hell around you either literally or figuratively the best way to stay sane is by recognizing the lunacy and laughing at it.

You only have one body, take good care of it or you’ll be sorry and I will not be listening to you whine about getting old, or your knees going.

If you are early you are on time, if you’re late you’re late. Being late to appointments and meetings is saying to someone; “my time is more valuable than yours.” It is horribly disrespectful; however, sometimes being late will be unavoidable, if that is the case, call and let them know you are running late.

I come from a family that has high expectations of themselves, other family members and pretty much everyone around them; other people don’t have such high expectations and coming from this background I have found myself routinely disappointed. It is highly likely you will meet people who don’t and won’t meet your expectations that doesn’t mean you should expect less of yourself or lower your expectations, just be aware of this fact.

Remember if you choose to climb the corporate ladder it matters how many people you step on to get to the top.

Don’t let anyone place limitations on your abilities; you will place enough limitations on your own abilities, don’t let other people do it for you.  If I had listened to other people I never would have participated in the Paralympics, written a book or worked overseas. Only you get to decide what you are capable of and how far you are going to go in this life—only you.

I have spent my life focused on goals, the Paralympics, the book, working overseas; I was often so busy working towards the next goal I forgot to enjoy the journey. Life is the journey and there will be ups and downs, but it is the journey, not the destination that is important. It’s taken me a long time to learn this—I hope it doesn’t take you as long.

The most valuable gift you can give is of yourself, your time.

Speaking of the most valuable gift being your time, volunteer work can be very career enhancing. I know a lot of the decision makers in Portland, not because I was senior management or had a big title in some company, but because I volunteered my time. It is a great way to network and can also help you gain valuable career skills that someone may not be willing to pay you to learn.

That being said, it’s important to be able to support yourself, but remember money can’t buy the most important things in life, for me, it can’t bring back my father, it can’t make me whole again.  Loving your job, is more important than making a buttload of money so you can buy a ton of crap that you will realize is meaningless twenty years after you spent all your time working.

At 45, I have realized that I really don’t know much more than I did at 22, but I do know one thing, the most important thing in this life is to be happy. I remember several days where I felt the universe was aligned and all was right with the world, I live for those days.

I love you, I always will, and as you embark on the next leg of your journey and navigate the employment world, please know that any issue you may encounter, any mistake you may make, any situation you run into, it is highly likely that I have done it, stepped in it or dealt with it and if you want advice, I’m here, if you just want someone to listen I’m here, or if you need me to tell you about my most embarrassing moment, my most heart-wrenching mistake to put your situation in perspective I will do that also.  For you, I will relive any painful memory.

The advice I offer is free so take it for what it’s worth, other than the fact that seatbelts save lives, I also know that it is important to have a good frying pan.

I wish you the best of luck as you move forward.  I’m proud of who I know you are and I remain engaged in discovering who you will become.

I remain fatally flawed, but sincerely,

Your cousin TT

To see the U of O Commencement Speech visit

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