When I attended my daughters’ college graduations, I listened to the speeches and then retired promptly to my own computer to type my imaginary commencement address, highlighting what I would have recommended for their lives. After attending my own recent reunion (see blog at boomerhealthinstitute.com), I realized something. What people recommend for others is usually what they are secretly recommending for themselves.
So, let me ask you. What are you recommending for your children as they progress through life? Does it differ much different from what you are recommending for your own life? Take a look at my two imaginary college commencement speeches. Do you agree with the suggestions? Are they striking a familiar theme that you offer to your own children? Give me some feedback. I would love to see how we vary in our approaches to a happy, successful, rewarding life. I think you will discover that your advice to others is your best advice to yourself.
At your two graduation speeches, your classmates were told you were brilliant and should now turn that brilliance into action. The various speakers were good, but if I had addressed your class, I would have offered a far different message. Typical for your dad, yes? The man who repeatedly promised to give less advice cannot even resist the thought of giving more advice, not just to you, but to your entire graduating class. You can probably guess what I would have preached in my speech. So, go ahead. Think back to my four years of letters to you.. If I had to summarize my basic life tenets, what suggestions would qualify for a short overview? Here is your challenge. Write down a list of what I have tried to teach you and see if it matches my imagined speech. I am betting you hit 75 percent of my speech. But what have you missed? Is there anything else I would recommend?
I would have started my speech with a summary of Russell Conwell’s sermon “Acres of Diamonds.” I would have told the story of Ali Hafed, a Persian farmer, who lived in Africa near the River Indus around the time when diamonds were discovered. I would have told them how Ali Hafed sold his farm, deposited his family in the nearby village, and started his decade-long search for wealth. How he covered much of Africa, parts of Asia, and a wide path through Europe, always searching for diamonds, but finally committed suicide in Spain, distraught and penniless. I would have explained how one year after his suicide, the new owner of Ali Hafed’s farm stumbled across a large, unusual rock just beneath the top layer of dirt, and placed it on his dining table. A neighbor declared it had to be a diamond. The new owner laughed, saying that would be impossible because his farm, Ali Hafed’s old farm, had acres and acres of those rocks. Well, those rocks were indeed diamonds, and that single plot of land produced one of the world’s largest diamond mines. I would have highlighted the moral of this true story and how it relates to the graduating students.
Each of NYU’s students is like Ali Hafed. They are leaving the farm, New York University, and venturing out into the world. Many of them will be searching for money, willing to travel to distant locations and willing to work long hours into the night. Here is the hidden truth, one of the keys to life. You do not need to travel the world to find wealth. It is right beneath your feet, buried within yourself. Buried within your friends and your family. Your real wealth is not your money; it’s not your fame or acclaim; it is your level of happiness. How do you establish your happiness? One clue. It’s not an acquisition; it’s a skill. I have a simple belief each person is born with a special gift. You need to find and develop that gift; and you need to find a way to share that gift with the world. It sounds simple. It is not. First, it is a skill that you have to nurture and refine. Second, there are many obstacles, including many societal factors, working against your path to employing those skills. For too many people, their skills and their passions require going against the grain, often going against the expectation of the people in your life.
For that pursuit, I would have offered the cautionary tale of the Indonesian monkey trap. I would have asked them if they knew how they caught monkeys in the jungles of Indonesia? I would have explained how the natives create a hollow coconut, stake it to the ground, and then fill it with rice or peanuts. I would have described how the monkey will squeeze a hand through the small opening, clench the goodies, and then be unable to pull the wider, larger fist back out through the opening. Trapped, sometimes for hours, the monkey just sits there, pulling and pulling without success. Finally, the natives return and capture that monkey. I would have explained how many of us are like those monkeys in Indonesia. Too often, we allow ourselves to be trapped, holding onto the wrong goodies. Some of those treats look tasty, but they can be poisons. The good opinion of others can trap you. A promise of a fancy reward can trap you. The lure of some false belief can trap you. How do you escape from those traps? It takes more than just an act of letting go and breaking free. It takes more than a refocus on finding your gift, developing your gift, and sharing your gift. It takes a clear change in your thinking and your assumptions about what leads to happiness.
That’s where Ali Hafed went so wrong. He failed to realize that happiness comes from your friends, not from your possessions. Yes, your friends can test your tolerance. Yes, your friends can make offensive remarks. Yes, your friends can become jealous of your skills and your path. But friendship and love are still the most important components of anyone’s life. Remember: when you scale a mountain, there’s no joy in being alone at the top. You need companionship. You need your friends and family. You need your gift; you need to share your gift; but you also need the people whom you love (and whom love you) to be around that gift. Those people are the true goodies of life. Look around you: your roommates, your fellow students, and your family. Take some of those people along on your journey. Friendships, not a handful of diamonds, are the real reward for a life well lived. As stated by Emily Dickinson: “My friends are my estate.” If you have learned nothing from these four years of college, know this. Develop your gift. Share your gift. Follow your passion and purpose. And develop great, lifelong friendships. Accomplish all of that, and your life will be more than outstanding. It will be incredible.
Now, aren’t you glad I did not have a chance to address your class?
Now what would I have said to your graduating classmates to prepare them for life? Would I have lectured on the importance of finding your gift, creating your passion, and developing your purpose? Would I have addressed the need to push aside society’s focus on income and would I have encouraged them to follow theirs interests and dreams, making life an adventure, not just a job? On the topic of money, would I have tried to clarify the difference between wealth and personal happiness? Would I have cited the tabloids and all the problems of the wealthy? How we spend more, but have less. How we build larger houses, but still have broken homes? How we take more pills, but have less health? How we connect more today on the Internet, but actually communicate less. How we preach tolerance, but still show prejudice? How we pretend to stand for peace, but repeatedly create conflict? Would I have asked your classmates to re-evaluate all of those issues, coaching them toward a more rewarding life with giving, not taking? Nope. All of that material has been well covered.
Instead, I would have warned them how life can be like stepping onto a conveyor belt, how it can transport you forward on your career, constantly picking up speed with each year and every decade. I would have warned them how hard it may become to step off of that conveyor belt. After all, most companies make money off of your hard work; and most companies want you working harder and harder, right until you drop at the end of your career. I would have encouraged them to consider taking at least three or four 6-month, planned vacations or breaks during their careers. I would have encouraged them not to save those breaks for retirement or the end of their lives. I would have used myself as an example, sharing how I had taken three significant breaks in my career, each time giving up income. I would have highlighted the benefits of those breaks for learning more about myself and more about my life options; I would have encouraged them to use those breaks for re-evaluating their current careers and future goals; and I would have suggested how those breaks can be used to unearth talents, clarify passions, and change life paths. I would have quoted Steve Jobs, reminding them to pause from time to time, making certain they are following their hearts, not someone else’s goals.
Of even greater importance, I would have encouraged them to use those breaks for expanding two other key components in their lives. The first component is personal development. Careers force you to focus on work skills, not life skills. I would have recommended setting aside some time, during these breaks, for some new self-exploration. I would have told them the story of Wayne Dyer. How, when walking one night, he came across a man who was searching for his lost car keys under a light post close to his car. The man explained he had accidently dropped his car keys as he had crossed the lawn to the front curb. Wayne stopped and helped the man for 15 minutes, searching through the grass and bushes under the light post. When they could not find the keys, Wayne finally asked the man,” Is there any chance you could have dropped the keys over there on the lawn where it’s dark?” The man responded, “Yes, that’s exactly where I dropped them.” Confused, Wayne asked, “Then why are you looking over here?” The man did not hesitate with his answer, spoken while still searching around the lamppost, “I am looking over here because it’s light. Over there it’s dark.” Wayne Dyer implored all of us to examine new areas, especially those “dark” areas, which we normally don’t explore.
In that vein I would have highlighted how few people read nonfiction books after graduation. While working, we are often too busy for outside reading. That is another reason for the repeated, long vacation breaks. Travel? Yes! Decompress? Yes! But read some nonfiction books? Why not give it a try? I would have offered the suggestion to read some of the authors who focus on personal growth or who focus on successful life habits. I would have recommended Benjamin Franklin, Henry David Thoreau, Russell Conwell, Dale Carnegie, Og Mandino, Norman Vincent Peale, Napolean Hill, Earl Nightingale, Zig Ziglar, Steven Covey, Wayne Dyer, Anthony Robbins, Brian Tracy, Michael Broder, Deepak Chopra, Tom Peters, Denis Waitley, Jim Rohn, Marianne Williamson, Kerry Johnson, Don Miquel Ruiz, James Huber, Daniel Burros, Barbara De Angelis, Jay Abraham, Peter Lowe, Robert Allen, Debra LaCroix, Paul Pearsall, and many others. Do you think any of those names would have been remembered by the graduating seniors? Probably not. But maybe the idea of personal development would have stuck a chord with some of them. Maybe it would have inspired them to take those well-deserved and much needed breaks from constant employment and put those breaks to good use.
For the second component, something else to focus on during those work breaks, I would have encouraged a re-evaluation of their commitment to their relationships, coupled to an attempt to improve those relationships. I would have emphasized how much of their happiness in life, much like their happiness in college, comes from their relationships, not just from their work. I would have applauded any break around the time of a marriage, any break around the time of the birth of a child, and any break whenever a person hits a period of staleness with either career or family. That is the best time to re-evaluate and re-energize your relationships, your family ties, and your friendships. I would have also emphasized how the quality in a relationship does not occur without sufficient quantity, without sufficient time together. As examples, I would have used my time with your mother in Spain before we were married or the time of your birth when I took four months off from work to help in the care of you and Skyler. Those periods cemented a great relationship and a wonderful family. Lastly, regardless of these longer work breaks, I would have highlighted the advantage of long, annual vacations with your family. Too many people get sucked into working week after week, paycheck after paycheck. I would have quoted more Steve Jobs, encouraging them to stay hungry and stay foolish, even as they grow older. A pattern of regular, long, annual vacations helps keep those foolish, hungry impulses fresh and alive. Explore the world. Explore new cultures. But explore them with others. Go for those experiences. Don’t stay on the conveyor belt just for the money. Experiences, relationships, and personal growth: that is a triad, which trumps everything else in life.
So, that would have been my message to your fellow graduates. That’s my message on how to reach your highest level of happiness. So, how different am I after Skyler’s college experience and your college experience? Would I have made those recommendations to her? Would I have made those recommendations without learning so much from the two of you? With your graduation on Friday and your start of your Masters program on Monday, would you have agreed with most of my points? Will you be planning your own annual, vacation breaks? Have you given any thoughts to periodic longer breaks? Skyler is already planning on a six-month break at her five-year mark of employment. That decision shows more than intelligence; that decision shows wisdom. Maybe the two of you can travel together sometime in the future? Renew and rejuvenate together? Or with your significant others? Oh well, you have heard my pitch for a better life. Do you like it? I hope so. However, like Skyler, I am sure you are delighted I remained silent on your graduation day. For my silence, do I get any reward? How about a series of shared vacations over the course of your life? Or better yet …
A lifelong friendship with you?
Any additional thoughts? Suggestions?
What’s good for your children is good for you …
We all have much to teach and much to learn …