So, Commence!

©Dr. John Y. Odom, 2013

graduation-cap-diplomaYou graduated, congratulations! Have you thought about how strange it is that your graduation activities were called “commencement” ceremonies? “Commence” means “to begin.” Why would they call it a beginning when you are ending this stage of your education? It’s called “commencement” because you are just beginning – the next phase of your education or your life as an adult. So, what was it that you finished? You finished qualifying to begin.

In track, it’s called a qualifying round. You’ve run some races well enough to qualify to run in the finals. Competitive sports have qualifying rounds. Some students started classes with you but didn’t finish-didn’t qualify to begin life as an adult like you did.
I’m sure that your commencement speakers had or will have important thoughts to share. My intention here is to share some avuncular advice that others may not have offered. If others have shared similar advice, then count this as validation. In no particular order, consider the following.

1. Save those younger than you. The world’s children need your help. It wasn’t that long ago that you were a child and you may have younger siblings. In every part of America, children need better parenting, schooling, nutrition, health care, guidance and support. And you know that this is the truth.

America is aging. 60 years ago, every retired person could count on 16 workers contributing to their retirement fund. Today, every retired person has fewer than 3 workers contributing: From 16 down to 3! Old people are living longer and we didn’t have many children-if any. So we are dependent on other people’s children for retirement. So how are other people’s children doing? Are they safe? Are they healthy, well-adjusted, studious, hard-working and ambitious? Or are they: homeless, hungry, sick, illiterate, unmotivated, incarcerated, gang-involved, addicted and dying?

It would be wonderful if our concern for other people’s children were motivated by love alone. But there is a selfish motive – your retirement. Whether through love or selfishness, don’t get so busy that you don’t have time to attend a school board meeting, to visit a school, to serve as a role model, to intervene with a problem, to coach a team, to feed a child, to teach a class or a lesson.
The saddest part is that more than enough money is being spent to better feed, house, educate and rear our babies, but not enough people are demanding that organizations do a far better than they have done so far. Schools, government, social service agencies and charities that keep asking for more money to help children must produce. And they won’t improve unless they are forced to do it. Help to force them to improve.

2. Do sterling work. If you accept a job, do outstanding work. Learn your craft. Understand the unwritten rules. Come in early and leave late. Look the part. Let no one ever say that you are lazy or unmotivated. You’ve made an agreement. The organization agrees to pay you in exchange for your best effort. Do unto your employer what you would want employees to do unto you if you were the boss.

3. Find your voice. Being an employee does not equal slavery. An employer is owed sterling work, but the employer owes you respect. S/he is not your master. The employer doesn’t get to dictate your beliefs, values or thoughts. Occasionally, you may have something to say that others may not want to hear. Experience urges me to advise that the less said the better, but if you insist, you will need to find your voice to determine what you need to say and how best to say it. A reputation as a hard and dedicated worker will cause others to respect what you say when you speak and it will cause others to take seriously your words and thoughts. When you get to the point that you feel that your beliefs, value, thoughts and words are not respected, you must determine if and when it’s best to seek other employment. And it’s best for you to determine that point before your employer does.

It’s also important to find your voice in the community. Children aren’t the only ones in need of a champion. The elderly, the homeless, the drug-addicted, the incarcerated, victims of racism and those with special needs can use champions.

4. Find your positive passion. It could be music, service to others, sports, civil rights, baking. Whatever it is, identify it and become great at it.

5. Hang out a shingle. Consider starting a business – this means working for yourself and maybe providing jobs for others. The downside is there is no paycheck-you have to pay yourself. The upsides are that you have no boss and no one to limit your potential.

6. Keep a toe in the water. If your recent graduation was from high school, you owe it to yourself and to society to graduate at least once more. A high school diploma isn’t enough education: you need to register for a two-year degree or you need to pursue a bachelor’s degree. So, don’t stop earning credits. Keep going while you’re accustomed to studying. The good news is that there are more ways to earn your degree than ever.

I often ask young people about their education. And they often say that they finished high school but they had to work to earn money to go to college. And my question is “Could you take one class each semester?” With night classes, online classes and independent studies, the answer, most often, is “Yes, I could take one class each semester.” One class each semester, including summer school, can earn 9-12 credits each year while working. Working while learning is difficult but it can be done. I’ve done it. Plus it builds character. You learn a lot about how much pressure you can bear.

7. Save the Planet. No, seriously! Recently, scientists announced that the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere is 400 parts per million and the rate of growth over that past 150 years is much too fast to sustain life on earth as we know it. Melting polar ice caps, hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, disappearing shore lines will represent the future for you and your children. We are relying too much on fossil based fuels and we must reduce our usage. We dumped this problem on you and you have to lead us. Sorry about that.

8. Cut through the foolishness. Princeton professor of Philosophy Harry Frankfurt said that our society is so full of foolishness that people don’t even know that they are talking foolishness anymore. German philosopher Goethe said “… truth requires constant repetition, because error is being preached about us all the time…” We need to know the truth to solve problems. When public officials are speaking foolishness, when the majority is speaking foolishness, when friends are speaking foolishness, someone needs to call them on it. Tag, you’re it!

So, commence and I hope that these thoughts help you.

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