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This post was inspired by several writers in the personal finance blogging community. I have intended to write it for the past three weeks, but recently, I have felt inspired to write on other topics. After attending a graduation open house honoring my cousins last weekend, I was reminded of my drafted notes for this address.
My address represents the thoughts and advice I would share if asked to offer a commencement address to graduating high school seniors.
To the Class of 2016:
Today is a day for celebration! Congratulations on your noteworthy achievement!
At this time, you may be experiencing mixed emotions: you may be proud, excited and joyful; nervous, wide-eyed, and nostalgic. Perhaps you are nervous, even fearful.
Your generation saw one of the most robust economic periods in our nation’s history come to a crashing halt in 2009. Though you likely did not understand it at the time, the first two months of that year saw the S&P500 plummet by nearly 19 percent. Many of you watched your parents lose their jobs, their homes, and roughly half of their retirement savings in a relatively short period of time. The time period that followed was certainly strange; while talking heads on the television and elderly family members compared economic conditions to the Great Depression, you probably barely noticed a change. Yet, in subtle ways, the world around you was changing, a digital culture rapidly emerging.
Though just beyond a decade older than most of you today, my childhood was wildly different than yours. While I collected Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figures, played baseball and hockey with a crew of neighborhood friends, and stayed outside until the street lights came on, your generation primarily played games designed presumably to develop the dexterity of your opposable thumbs, had arranged play dates, and spent time outside only when forced to do so.
At the risk of sounding like a grumpy old man at the ripe age of 29, I feel it is a shame that your generation missed out on the natural lessons of my childhood: the proper utilization of imagination, collaboration with others, and age-appropriate independence.
Your upbringing was not without its advantages, however. Yours is the most tech-savvy generation to date; that is, until your younger brothers and sisters, who played with iPads moments after exiting the womb, prove themselves more capable. When you were born, telephones were still attached to the walls in many homes, or at the very least, were cordless phones that required charging on a base. Today, phones are miniature computers that fit in your pockets — barely. You can check e-mail on your Apple Watch, order pizza delivery without actually speaking to a human being, and buy just about anything with Amazon Prime. And texting will likely soon replace voice calls as the universally-preferred method of social communication, even for adults. What a wild world compared to the late 1990s!
As you commence onward and into a time of career preparation, technology will continue to progress at even more rapid rate. Careers which are not yet possible will emerge in no time. You would be wise to embrace change and develop a diverse array of talents. Jobs will come and go, but skills are transferable.
Speaking of careers: those you once thought were noble and distinguished are now anything but in the public eye. Teachers face constant public ridicule, law enforcement professionals are now the enemy, and financial professionals are viewed with unabashed skepticism.
When finding your niche and choosing a career path, I urge you to ignore the detractors and naysayers. Yes, consider your skills and interests, and by all means, consider factors like employment outlook, salary, benefits, opportunities for advancement, and recent hiring statistics. But do not do so without also examining your values and considering what provides you with a sense of fulfillment and purpose. If you do not yet possess this level of self-understanding, you would be wise to learn about yourself quickly.
The college experience is a costly one, and you should strive to get it right the first time around. Despite what others will tell you, there is no shame in attending a community college to save money or explore areas of interest for your first two years. Furthermore, when evaluating recent graduates, most employers care far more about things like work ethic, internship experience, and volunteer work than they do about your college’s reputation and your grade point average. You have been misled if taught anything to the contrary.
So, if you attend college, focus upon what matters the most in the next four years: develop relationships and learn to work with other people; make mistakes and learn from them; experience new things while remaining true to yourself and what you value most; embrace change every step of the way.
If you are not attending college, no matter the reason, do not let that hold you back. Success is no more a logical outcome of college than it is other career training paths, whether they are trade-based or entrepreneurial in nature. Rather, success stems from innovation and valuable contribution to society.
Consider the example of Matt Mullenweg. Matt is not a household name, by any means. In 2004, the Political Science major dropped out of the University of Houston to accept a job at CNET. The early developer of WordPress and founder of parent company Automattic is a shining example of just how valuable innovation can be, even without a college degree. Today, Mullenweg’s company powers a significant percentage of the world wide web and was valued at $1.16 billion as recently as 2014.
Amidst the focus on your career path, I would be remiss to fail to remind you that there is much more to life than a job. Most of you will make your greatest contributions to the world outside of the daily grind of work. If forced to choose between work and money or people and relationships, choose the latter. Every time.
In my experience, the two greatest forces in this world are love and compound interest. Strive to learn all you can about both and seek to honor their related principles in all you do.
In conclusion, while others will tell you to chase your dreams, shoot for the stars, and a host of other clichés, I urge you to think responsibly and discuss your dreams with a seasoned, trusted mentor. Be realistic, temper your dreams, and evaluate how hard and how long you are willing to work to achieve them. After all, as John Maxwell said, “Dreams don’t work unless you do.”
Readers, what advice would you give to this year’s graduating class?