My Words of Wisdom to All the University Graduates.
Regardless of how you think your life ahead will look—it won’t.
You will achieve greater heights, feel greater joy, and suffer greater difficulties than you ever imagined.
The solution is to remember that life has phases. No phase, however terrible or wonderful, lasts forever.
The trick is to find the lessons and the treasures in those phases.
Surround yourself with people you care about and who care about you.
And through it all, focus on doing stuff, not owning stuff. It will bring you far more happiness.
Those were the words I wrote to a dear friend’s son on his recent graduation. Like young adults all over the world, he and his family were deprived of the opportunity to celebrate his achievement in the way they had hoped.
My friend, planning a small home-based, family-only celebration, asked each of the intended guests to provide a few lines to wish her son well, a type of mini commencement speech from each guest. I loved the idea and quickly wrote and later dropped off the letter at their home.
Weeks later, while tidying my desk, I came across a rough copy of the letter. Reading it more objectively—rather than excited for the young man’s achievement—I wondered if my opening line hadn’t been too harsh: Regardless of how you think your life ahead will look—it won’t.
I put the paper aside to recycle, and let the question swirl around in my head as I went about my day. By the time I made my afternoon tea, I was convinced that what I wrote was good advice. We all have a vision of how our days ahead will play out, but how often does that vision match our reality? I know in my own case, and for friends and family around my age, the lives we’ve lived to get to this point—regardless of how happy—in no way reflect the lives we envisaged the day we grasped that graduation certificate in our hot little hands.
Which led me to think about my second sentence: You will achieve greater heights, feel greater joy, and suffer greater difficulties than you ever imagined. Regardless of the age or stage of life, when we think about the years stretching out ahead, we imagine all the highpoints, all the triumphs, all the joy. Not surprisingly, we don’t imagine the challenges, hardships, and downright awful things that may happen—but happen they do. This is when we dig deep, even though we often want to wail, “but that’s not fair!”
As I tried to teach my children from a young age, there is no Fairness Fairy. Even though hard work should be rewarded, often it isn’t. Even though you look after your health and should, therefore, be the picture of wellbeing, this may not be the case. Even though you are kind and thoughtful and should be treated so in return, your neighbor may still be a rude twit.
Life goes on, and there isn’t a person alive who hasn’t struggled or suffered in some way, but how do we live through these hardships? The solution is to remember that life has phases. No phase, however terrible or wonderful, lasts forever. When we hit truly difficult times, it is hard (sometimes almost impossible) to remind ourselves that this is just another phase in the many we have already experienced and that, just like the others, it too will end.
On the flip-side, when we hit those magical, perfect times, we tell ourselves it will last forever because that is what we wish would happen. But, as they say, all good things must come to an end, and so do each of these golden phases.
How do we live through these ups and downs? The trick is to find the lessons and the treasures in those phases. No matter how awful a situation, take a moment, and find one positive thing. If it feels like you cannot even see that one treasure, then list all the things for which you are grateful. When my son was desperately ill, my list included: I was grateful we lived 15minutes from a hospital with a brilliant pediatric oncology team; we had excellent health insurance; I was able to stop my part-time work to care for him. Just doing that moved me toward the point where I could start finding the jewels, those unexpected gifts that put everything in a different light. My jewel was spending so much time with my teenage son and really learning about the man he would become. Just as most 14 year-olds are pulling away from parents, we were thrown together every minute of every day—for years. The bond that formed was my jewel.
During the trouble-free phases of life, it is easy to find those golden moments, so that is the time to turn your thoughts to the lessons to be learned. Take nothing for granted, but file away all the great lessons you learned to get you to that wonderful point.
Most importantly, Surround yourself with people you care about and who care about you. And through it all, focus on doing stuff, not owning stuff. It will bring you far more happiness.
As I slid the letter into the recycle bin, I felt satisfied with what I had written but wished I had added one last thought: No matter where you are on your path of life, choose to be happy.