“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says,
“Morning, boys. How’s the water?”
And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and asks,
“What the hell is water?”
This is a story from David Foster Wallace’s famous Kenyon commencement address. The point of the story is that fish don’t know they are in water. And like fish, we are often blind to the clear, obvious life lessons that surround us.
Commencement speeches allow us to see the hidden truths that surround us earlier, so we can succeed. They answer the question… Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give your younger self? Unfortunately, most speakers give vague platitudes and don’t tell you how to actually go about implementing their advice.
So, today I will distil more than 80 commencement speeches into 5 pieces of advice. I will give you a lazy habit (read more below) for each- a way to turn the advice into a habit you can implement today.
1. Give the world what it needs
“Following your passion is a very me-centered view of the world. What you take out of the world over time, be it money, cars, stuff, accolades, is much less important than what you put into the world.
And so my recommendation would be, follow your contribution; find the thing that you’re great at. Put that into the world. Contribute to others. Help the world be better. That is the thing to follow.” — Ben Horowitz
Okinawa, Japan has one of the longest life expectancies in the modern world. There are a couple reasons why researchers think Okinanwans have such a long life expectancy. But the most interesting reason Okinanwans have a long life expectancy is strongly associated with something Okinawans called ikigai.
Roughly translated ikigai means “the reason one wakes up in the morning.”
You will never find a perfect job. Or a perfect career. Or a perfect company. But if you are lucky, you can follow your ikigai.
Follow your passion is terrible advice. I say, create (notice how i didn’t say find) your ikigai.
You shouldn’t be an actor, a writer, an engineer, or a doctor because you want a stability, good salary, or fame. Follow your path because you are on the path to change and impact people’s lives with things you are uniquely good at doing.
Find out what people want. How do you know what people want? Simple. Ask people. What do you want in life? What do you need? Not only will you be able to become a better conversationalist, you will also get good data on what people need. Then make a small step to solve the problem with your own unique set of tools. Put that solution out into the world. If the reception is positive (if you helped), then refine your approach, and keep doing it. If not, research some more… and try again.
Develop your toolbelt. Parlay your natural strengths and curiosities into hard skills through deliberate practice. We are all born with unique proclivities, if your tool is a shoddy copy of someone else’s then you will never find your ikigai. However, always remember that refinement is not the goal, but the way to help people in the way only you can. When you find solutions the world needs, you are going to need to have sharpened and diverse set of tools.
2. Beauty, imagination, creativity are your greatest weapons
“One of the things [Uncle Alex] found objectionable about human beings was that they so rarely noticed it when they were happy. He himself did his best to acknowledge it when times were sweet. We could be drinking lemonade in the shade of an apple tree in the summertime, and Uncle Alex would interrupt the conversation to say, “If this isn’t nice, what is?”
So I hope that you will do the same for the rest of your lives. When things are going sweetly and peacefully, please pause a moment, and then say out loud, ‘If this isn’t nice, what is?’ — Kurt Vonnegut
This idea of being in the moment is something I have been thinking about for a long time. In the past, I rejected it as cheesy because it is so often couched in spirtual earnestness that doesn’t resonate with me. But, sometimes within all the mumbo jumbo, there is some great truth.
As a busy, type A person I often never just take a second to admire the moment. Just to truly take it in. And, I have started to realize that’s a huge tragedy. I don’t want to live my whole life only to realize at the end that I haven’t really lived.
Look. I get it. All I’m saying is to try it. The course I created is all about how the little things can make huge differences. All I am saying is for couple minutes a day, look around you and say wow. Be wildered, be in awe, embrace life. The feeling you get is incomparable.
You have been given the gift of life. Of curiosity. Of imagination. The gifts of imagination, curiosity, and beauty are the greatest weapons in my life. When I am bored or directionless, I let curiosity take the wheel and allow myself to be drawn to topics and things I would never have noticed before. When you are faced with struggle, failure, and crippling self doubt, imagine a life’s that better, then figure out how to make it a reality. When everything and everybody around you looks phony, take a second to admire real beauty that still surrounds you.
Start a gratitude journal. Everyday before you sleep, write just a couple words about what you are grateful for. Don’t just write it down. Actually think about why you are so grateful for the thing you wrote down. Put a notebook on top of your bed, so you remember to do it everyday before you sleep and don’t have any excuses.
After that start practicing meditation which will allow you to better be able to stop in a moment and be mindful and grateful for your surroundings. To start a lazy meditation habit. Put your phone timer to a minute right before bed or right after you wake up. Notice your breathing and whenever thoughts pass through your head, recognize them, and turn your focus back onto your breathing. After time is up, open your eyes, and take a deep breath and feel accomplished.
3. Don’t fail by default
“Success is a lot like a bright, white tuxedo. You feel terrific when you get it, but then you’re desperately afraid of getting it dirty, of spoiling it in any way.
Every failure was freeing, and today I’m as nostalgic for the bad as I am for the good. So, that’s what I wish for all of you: the bad as well as the good. Fall down, make a mess, break something occasionally. And remember that the story is never over.” — Conan O’Brien
“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all — in which case, you fail by default.” — J.K. Rowling
Failure sucks. It’s soul crushing. And that’s something that is often overlooked when speakers talk about the benefits of failure. But, you know what’s worse than failure?
Regret is perhaps one of the worst emotions to feel. Some of the saddest sentences I’ve ever heard in my life have started with ‘if only’ or ‘I could’ve been.’ If I had to choose, I would choose failure every time.
We need failure. More than our successes, failure is what defines us. It emboldens us, it points in the right direction, and it offers valuable lessons. Most successful people are created through failure, rather than their successes.
Try to do something uncomfortable everyday. And make it insanely easy to do. Don’t start by saying you are going to go skydiving if you are afraid of heights. Instead, do the small things that make you uncomfortable. Like by not looking at your phone during an awkward time or grabbing a drink at a bar alone. These little brushes with fear will allow you to be more comfortable in your own skin and be more accepting of failure.
4. If you want to change the world, make your bed.
“Making your bed will reinforce the fact that the little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you can’t do the big things right. And if by chance you have a miserable day. You will come back to a bed that is made. That you made.” — Admiral McRaven, Navy Seal who commanded the Osama Bin Laden raid
I’ve had many miserable days where I came back to a well made bed and I thought, “ Hell, at least I did something right today.”
It took me a while to convince myself that I needed to make my bed. Isn’t it just going to get messier later?
As a whim, I started doing it. And I was amazed to find it actually made me feel better. Making your bed makes you feel accomplished, makes it easier to be tidy, and inexplicably affects the atmosphere of your room. It is a lazy habit that unexpectedly improved my life. Making your bed is hard because it won’t improve your life by 100%, but it will improve your life by 5%. And that 5% makes a difference.
Making your bed reminds you that the little things in life are important. We are always so worried about our huge goals, dreams, and failures. But it is amazing how often the little things in our lives build up to something magnificent.
The problem most people have with making their bed is the why. You have to find your own why to making your own bed. And your why can’t be an external reason, it has to be a deeply thought out intrinsic reason. Try to find why making your bed is important to achieving your perfect self. My why is the fact that making the bed gives me a feeling of accomplishment that makes me happier. It makes it easier to do the big things I have to do in a day. And thus, making my bed is tied into achieving my dreams. Pick a specific place in your morning routine when you make your bed (I recommend doing it right after you wake up and right before you brush your teeth). Making your bed takes such little time that it should be super easy to stick with. Don’t try to get too fancy, just make it look okay.
5. God damn it. Be kind.
“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” — Kurt Vonnegut
I cheated because I put Kurt Vonnegut on here twice and this is from one of his books. But, it is incredibly apt. Some of the most poignant commencement speeches I listened to emphasized the importance of empathy and kindness. Because as human beings we are inextricably connected, and one small act of kindness could mean the world to somebody else. If you allow yourself to stand in somebody else’s shoes, you are expanding your world view. Because we are born believing that we are the most real, and important people in the world. Instead of looking at things as being unfair or happening to you, realize that life isn’t just about you. Realize that people around have lives and struggles of their own. Realize that it doesn’t matter how shitty your day is.
Kindness… it’s hard. But, god damn it… be kind.
Everyday do one tiny nice thing for a person. It could as simple as buying someone a coffee or picking up the papers flying from the hands of that busy women running to catch the cab. But don’t stop there. Allow those little bits of kindness to expound into bigger acts of kindness.
Often the problem with watching commencement speeches is that we feel so good being inspired that we do nothing. We relish the idea that we are now inspired, but we fail to actually do anything tangible.
Because our lives naturally tend toward mediocrity. To be great, to be happy, to be successful…these take concerted effort in the right direction day in day out. But I have found that success is like a muscle. Armed with the right training, tools, and questions your perfect self is possible. You just have to train. One lazy habit at a time.
“Dreams do not come true just because you dream them. It’s hard work that makes things happen, it’s hard work that creates change… Ditch the dream and be a doer, not a dreamer... My dreams did not come true. But I worked really hard. And I ended up building an empire out of my imagination. So my dreams? They can suck it.” — Shonda Rhimes