‘How many times does an adult pull us aside and tell us the world might not be our oyster?’
Welcome to disorientation.
In my years at Brown, an elite university full of high performers, I’d pretty much coasted by on the bare minimum of requirements. Now, my friends were graduating Phi Beta Kappa, Cum Laude, or with special department honors. I hadn’t even written an honors thesis. But it didn’t matter, because I already felt unworthy of being celebrated.
The only commencement address that would have helped would have been one that said, “You feel depressed and like a failure. In fact, it was hard to shower and get dressed this morning. Just try to get through today.”
The year before I graduated, Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich was a pioneer in that regard. In June of 1997, she wrote the iconic column “Wear Sunscreen,” which acknowledged many of the setbacks and ambiguities of life. There, she told us that that success was half-chance, it might be better to lack direction, and that with hope comes always a twinge of sadness.
It’s not what graduates hear today. An analysis of 90 commencement addresses confirms what most of us suspect: most speeches encourage graduates to go big or go home. 64 percent of speakers urged graduates to “give back,” “serve humanity,” or “make the world a better place.” 61 percent told them to “do the right thing,” using phrases like “do your duty,” “have integrity,” and “value higher order principles.” Over half the addresses encouraged the students to “expand their horizons” and “seek challenges in their lives.”
It’s important to give back, aim high, and work to change the world. But today, ambitious and privileged young people on the path to college are raised with a narrative of achievement—a surround-sound, multi-faceted version—that no generation has experienced before. At the same time, anxiety and depression among college students have skyrocketed. Students face higher debt than ever before, so they have less wiggle room to mess up. Pressure to find the perfect mentor, most elite internship, build the strongest online brand, and manage to pay the bills means the calculus to stand out is more daunting and complex.
The advice they’re given on the day they’re launched in the world couldn’t be more irrelevant.
In honor of the graduation season, I asked Schmich what prompted her speech then, what her own graduation was like, and what she’d tell graduates today.
As it turns out, Schmich watched her own college graduation from the risers, because she’d neglected to turn in her senior project and couldn’t graduate.
But her advice to graduates wasn’t drawn from that day; ironically, she wrote it as she was coping with becoming middle-aged. “It was me coming out of a melancholy phase in my life and seeing the light again. It had a sense of having come through something. That’s what I call the ghost of the piece.”
My friend Benish Shah loved her graduation day, because she felt like she could finally begin executing on her carefully crafted plan for success. She was going to “be a lawyer, get married, become a professor, have kids, and then be all done with life by 30.” Needless to say, her plan worked out differently. “A month before my 36th birthday, I look back at my life since graduation and how amazing it has been because I veered off my plan,” she says. Her advice for graduates now is in stark contrast to the go-big-or-go-home mindset. “You never have any idea where life will take you,” she says, “and while having a plan is great, it should be more like having general guidelines, so that life can take you to places you couldn’t have imagined.”
That’s certainly been true for me. While at my college graduation, I was out of sync with the day, but I hit my stride in my mid-thirties.
When I was first invited back to speak at Brown in 2013, I spoke to current students about how sad and unworthy I felt when I was in their shoes. And after, they came up to tell me it was such a relief to hear, and that no one ever told the truth to them. It’s true. Through all those years of achievement, how many times does an adult pull us aside and tell us the world might not be our oyster?
But we owe that to our students: the melancholy, the dispiriting, and the downright scary. And then we need to tell them, “It will get better. You will get better.”
When I left campus after my speech in 2013, I felt the elation I’d missed on graduation day. Since then, I’ve gone back to Brown many times. I’ve mentored students, coached young entrepreneurs, even spoken during commencement weekend. Students ask me questions about my success, and I always tell them the truth about my struggles with anxiety and depression, which continue to this day.
When I read Schmich’s piece in 1997, I didn’t know why, but my favorite piece of advice was: “The race is long and, in the end, it’s only with yourself.” As it turned out, it was the one I really needed.
Morra Aarons-Mele is the author of “Hiding in the Bathroom: A Roadmap to Getting Out There (When You’d Rather Stay Home)” and the founder of Women Online.
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