Onward and Upward: Some Advice for Graduates

May 18, 2021 Updated: May 18, 2021

Congratulations! The big day is here!

You’re receiving your high school diploma and are now off to college, to enter the workforce or military service, or to learn a trade such as welding or auto repair. For at least 13 years, you’ve advanced from kindergarten to cap-and-gown, learning the language arts, mathematics, history, and science.

Diploma in hand, you now find yourself ready to take a big step into adulthood.

Or maybe you’re graduating from college. You’ve spent four years or more going to classes, taking tests and writing papers, and acquiring new knowledge and skills. You stand on the threshold of a world outside the cloistered halls and classrooms of your universities, hoping your degree will act as your passport to this new land.

Whether you’re primed and eager to embrace this major change in your life, or whether you’re shy and a little fearful of what awaits you, here are some tips to help you succeed, to ease your passage on this grand journey.

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A graduate (R) hugs his brother during a socially distanced graduation ceremony at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., on May 13, 2021. (ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)

Practice Gratitude

Make appreciation Number 1 on your post-graduation checklist.

Did Aunt Cecily send you a check for commencement? Write her a thank you note. Did Mom and Dad have your back, attend your soccer games and school plays, talk you up when you were down, and have your back when you got into a jam? Sit them down some evening and tell them face-to-face how grateful you are for their love and concern. Did a teacher, a Scout leader, or a coach inspire you to become a better person than you ever thought possible? Go to those people and tell them what they meant to you, how they helped you pursue your dreams.

Make this spoken acclamation of gratitude a lifelong habit, even in times of horrible distress. For the past six months or so, I wake each morning, pour my first cup of coffee, and thank God for another day, for my children, grandchildren, family, and friends, and then throw in a few prayers for others I know who have either requested them or who are facing trials and troubles. This thanksgiving kick-starts the day in a positive direction.

Don’t wait, as I did, for decades to practice daily gratitude. Try it now, and you may find this appreciation of people, events, and life becomes a shield against despair and fear of failure.

New York City's Pace University Holds Small In Person Graduation Ceremony At South Street Seaport
Jasmeet Ubhi walks the stage at a Pace University graduation ceremony at South Street Seaport in Manhattan on May 3, 2021. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Strive for Excellence

You attended a prestigious college and majored in English literature. For two summers, you interned at publishing houses and hoped to find a position in that industry. During the spring of your senior year, you submitted a dozen applications to places such as Simon & Schuster and Random House, but no one was hiring. So instead you end up as a barista in a coffee shop, taking orders day after day for mocha lattes and cold brews. You’re wondering if you’re a failure, if your expensive degree has any worth or meaning, if your future is over before it’s even begun.

Stop right there.

Besides looking at the positives—you’re working, you’re paying your way—don’t try to second-guess your future. You’re 23 years old, and life with all its surprises is still unfolding before you, though you may not comprehend it.

During our 20s, many people, including me, work a variety of jobs. From the time I left graduate school at age 24 until I turned 30, I worked as a clerk in three bookstores, a painter in an apartment complex, an apartment manager, a dishwasher, a house parent along with my wife in a sorority, and a waiter. Some of these jobs I liked—as a waiter, I loved carrying my tips home every night—and some were less than satisfactory.

But my wife and I scrimped and saved, and soon had enough money in the bank to buy a business.

My point: Push to excel at whatever job you do. Always. Your diligence and hard work will pay off in unexpected ways. If nothing else, you can go home at night, look in the mirror, and take pride in the day.

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Rahul Shah gives a thumbs-up at a Pace University graduation ceremony at South Street Seaport in Manhattan on May 3, 2021. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Accept the Normality of Fatigue

Being an adult means being tired a lot of the time. Very tired.

You’re a mom with a toddler and a 6-month-old baby, and all you want to do is collapse into bed at night. You’re a carpenter working 10-hour shifts four days a week who’s married to that mom, and all you want to do is crash into sleep beside her.

All sorts of books and articles emphasize the importance of sleep for our health, but here’s the truth: for most adults, that commodity is as hard to come by as a pot of gold. Adults are the providers, the ones responsible for paying the mortgage, clothing and feeding the children, and making the tough decisions. Long hours of sleep are rarely on the agenda.

Accept being tired as a given for grownups.

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“Character is destiny,” said ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus. (Public domain)

Take Charge of Your Self

It’s easy to foist off our failures on others, pointing a finger at a supervisor or a parent and blaming them for our shortcomings. I’ve known men and women, old as well as young, who complain of losing the game of life because a father deserted the family when they were 12 years old or who talk constantly of promotions lost because the boss simply didn’t like them.

But I’ve also known many other people who overcame the obstacles of their past: a woman who had a terrible mother but who early in adulthood consciously decided to live her own life with joy as her foundation stone; a man imprisoned for burglary who on his release trained as a welder, reconnected with his family, and led an entirely different life; a drunk who lost a great job, gave up the bottle, and found less lucrative work but made peace with himself.

So don’t play the “blame game.” Legally, you are an adult, and the first mark of that stage in life is responsibility. Many of your contemporaries may spurn duty and responsibility, but you have the option of taking on this mantle while still young. Command yourself, and you’ve taken a giant step forward toward success.

Achievements and Reputation

We live in a place and a time where we associate success and prestige with money and fame. The wealthy among us, our sports and movie stars, and some of our politicians receive acclaim for their wealth, power, and fame.

Far more rarely do we applaud people for the content of their character. We may recognize hypocrisy in a senator caught stealing from his campaign fund or moral failing in a movie producer mistreating women, but those who practice the virtues rarely make the evening news.

Nevertheless, I urge you to construct a moral code and refuse to violate it. Build a reputation for honesty, goodwill, and clean living. Those of us who have violated such a code, including me, know well the cost this failure exacts. Guard your reputation as you would defend a loved one.

“Character is destiny,” said the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. Notice that he doesn’t distinguish between a bad and a good character. If you want the respect of others, and especially if you want the respect of what writer Peter Dale Wimbrow calls “the man in the glass,” put character ahead of fame and riches, and see where destiny leads you.

Joy and Happiness: The Difference

We often confuse these two terms.

We’ll hear people say “I just want to be happy,” but those who utter these words are confused. Happiness is transitory, a fleeting byproduct of some event, a house built on sand. It depends for its existence on external circumstances—a promotion at work, a surprise birthday party, the unexpected visit of a friend—and then vanishes.

Joy rests on a more solid foundation. It is an internal state of emotional well-being that can bring us peace and deep pleasure, that is lasting, and that we can experience on a daily basis. Some find this joy in their religious beliefs, some in the work they do, and some by force of will. Whatever the case, a deep, interior sense of joy will help you celebrate your victories and carry you through your defeats.

Make Your Life an Adventure

By this piece of advice, I don’t mean you need to climb Mount Everest, join a rodeo, or parachute from an airplane.

What I do mean is that if we look at life as an adventure, we make it so. The mundane tasks of life take on a new and different meaning if we remember we are part of an incredible world. We look at our loved ones with new eyes; we experience minor disasters like a car failing to start with a jaunty insouciance, rather than filling the front yard with blue language; we look for ways around obstacles, rather than letting them stop us.

Commencement is often regarded as an ending, but the word itself means beginning. You are at the beginning of the greatest adventures, a path filled with comedy and some tragedy, a path only you will ever travel.

Writing these recommendations reminds me to live them more fully myself. So keep in mind that though we are all on our own individual journey, we have common tools at hand that make that journey more pleasurable and more meaningful.

May your futures be bright—and filled with adventures!

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust on Their Wings,” and two works of non-fiction, “Learning as I Go” and “Movies Make the Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.