If I had been asked to make a commencement speech to the Class of 2012, here’s what I’d have said:
One of my favorite movies is “The Shawshank Redemption,” a tale of undying hope and redemption.
Set in a Maine prison, a lifer, Ellis “Red” Redding, played by Morgan Freeman, comes up for his third parole hearing and says in part, “I look back at the way I was then, a young, stupid kid. … I want to talk to him, tell him the way things are, but I can’t. That kid’s long gone and this old man is all that’s left. I got to live with that.”
I don’t have many regrets about how I’ve spent my life, but allow me to tell you about the way things are and how to move forward so you can avoid your own regrets.
When one is 18, I realize it just isn’t a concern that some day you will be more frail, that your health will be an issue. Indeed, to be 18 in 2012 means that the likelihood that you will live at least another 100 years is good. More importantly, almost all of those 100 years will be active ones; you’ll be able to do the things you like to do today not just for another 30 or 40 years, but for another 80 or 90.
However, you still need to live your life with a sense of urgency. You can waste 100 years just as easily as you can waste 50.
And life isn’t guaranteed. Accidents and circumstances happen. By the time I was 22, I had lost two classmates, one to war and the other to disease. Ten percent of my high school class never reached Social Security eligibility age.
So don’t pretend that you can wait to decide what to do with your life. Start right now.
Many of you will be going off for more education. Take advantage of your summer and holiday breaks, not just to make a few dollars at the same job you had in high school. Take the opportunity to work at different jobs. Spend one summer working in a health care facility, for example, another working in a manufacturing plant, another at a resort, etc.
Even if you already know that you want to be a doctor or a teacher or a beautician, you will benefit all your days from those experiences.
Choose your spouse very carefully. Don’t settle for someone just because your friends are getting married. Remember that children are forever and don’t try to raise one alone. Yours deserve better.
See the popular culture for what it is — right for some, wrong for many — and then set your own course.
Understand that the work world is a competitive place. Many of us drift along and take what comes. To get what you want, however, takes a little more focus. Remember that others have already embraced the career where you will end up and are building their edge over you.
What is most important to you? Is it family and friends? Money? Service to others? All have their place. But to create the life you want for yourself, rank them in a way that seems right for you. And then understand that only the most competent among those with your set of values will achieve everything they want — be it outstanding children, an outstanding income or outstanding satisfaction with your lot in life.
Live a life of passion. No matter how modest your goals, don’t do something because you can’t think of anything better to do. Find an activity that you love and pursue it. Even if you begin at a job that you aren’t passionate about, follow your passion in your spare time and figure out how to make it a full-time pursuit.
Act the tightwad in all of the purchases you make for yourself. That will allow you to have a more generous spirit when spending on others.
And finally, life’s greatest contradiction is that you cannot succeed at it by yourself, but, once grown, avoid dependence on others for survival. Success comes not from taking, but from giving others what they want and need. Be a giver, not a taker.
At the end of “Shawshank,” “Red” says, “Get busy livin’, or get busy dyin’. … I find I’m so excited I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it’s the excitement only a free man can feel at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain.”
So good luck on your own uncertain journey, and remember, “Get busy livin’.”
Tom West is the editor and general manager of the Record. Reach him at (320) 632-2345 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.