The best advice for grads? Screw up.

A graduate wears a cap with 'Free at Last' written on it as Vice President Joe Biden speaks during the commencement ceremony for Cypress Bay High School graduates on June 4, 2012 in Miami, Florida.

It’s commencement season, AKA, the month of unsolicited advice.

Many a hungover student will struggle to stay awake in a rented gown, largely tuning out the platitudes doled out from a dais.

BINGO will proceed: believe in yourself, fail, thank your parents, follow your passion. And out into the world will go another crop of young people; smart, terrified, debt-ridden and clueless.

I’ve been mulling this over since Business Insider published this list of advice their reporters wish they’d gotten.

Thinking back on my own college graduation sixteen years ago, I can still feel my own fear. “Who am I? What am I supposed to be? Who is the devil who invented Jagermeister?” Believe it or not, I remember my commencement speaker, the brilliant cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

He walked to the center of the stage and spoke only briefly, with a simple message: find your own voice.

And then he played. I believe it was Bach, though that may be a trick of memory. But it was gorgeous.

What I didn’t know is that the next few years would be hard. I didn’t have a job lined up. I’d try acting, working in a bookstore, leading outdoors trips for kids, and a presidential campaign. It took me until I was about twenty-four until I thought maybe journalism was right for me. And even then, it was a maybe.  I didn’t know for sure until I was twenty-eight, carting around a load of grad school debt. And then, not a single newspaper would hire me. Not one.

But here is what I learned: uncertainty is okay, and the best stuff happens when you are picking yourself up after a fall. A job that helps you pay the rent and pay your loans is a good job. People will help you if you ask them. You will learn through osmosis. That is what my late stepfather used to call “the college of life.”

And yes (cliché alert!), your biggest successes will come from failure.

The actor Charlie Day gave a commencement speech at his alma mater, Merrimack College, and I loved it. 

I made my way to Marketplace after a truly terrible year. I’d been very sick with endometriosis, gone on medical leave and lost my job. I didn’t know if I’d ever work again.

And then an email from Kai Ryssdal popped into my inbox.

This is not to say that everything will work out. It often won’t. But in my imaginary graduation speech, I’d say this: give yourself permission to screw up, because it’s going to happen anyway.

And write thank-you notes. Your mother was right about that. 

About the author

Lizzie O'Leary is the new host of Marketplace Weekend.

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