Class of 2016: Be Your Authentic Selves

“Wear sunscreen.” Nineteen years ago Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich shared that advice in a hypothetical commencement address to the Class of 1997. It went viral in part because it was rumored to be a speech given by Kurt Vonnegut to MIT grads. So as Glenbrook North prepares to graduate the class of 2016, I thought I’d share some thoughts and ideas with them as they spread their wings and leave the nest of GBN. And if you want to start a rumor that this was delivered by a famous writer at some big college, I won’t object.

Read a book this summer. And at the risk of inviting the scorn of teachers everywhere, I’ll go one step further and say this: Don’t active read a book this summer. I know that active reading has its benefits and secretly I wish I had learned some active reading strategies when I was growing up. But active reading has drained my kids of some of the love for reading they had growing up. I’m not saying never active read, but this summer find a good book, a quiet place, and re-discover the joy of reading.

Don’t be in such a hurry. I know it seems like the goal of high school was to get into college, and the goal of college is to secure a job upon graduation, but trust me when I say that your adult life will start soon enough. You don’t have to have 50 internships before you graduate from college; you can learn a lot about people and gain valuable customer service skills by waiting tables or working in retail.

Be intellectually curious and seek out people whose views are different than yours. These days, people tend to read and watch news media that reinforces what they already believe. Both sides of an argument then dig in their heels, blame the other side, and kick the problem down the road for another day. Our state government is exhibit A. Be better than that. Work to understand people with whom you disagree and resolve to find solutions to the problems we face.

Commit to being your authentic self. I spoke to a group of teenagers last year and asked if any of them knew what career they’d like to pursue. A young man rose his hand and replied that he wanted to be pediatrician. When I asked him why he wanted to be a pediatrician he said, “Well, my mom said I could be anything I want, as long as I was a doctor or a lawyer.” Yikes. What if that boy’s passion is classical music? What if he wanted to be a teacher? Or a chef? No one is going to live your life for you. At the end of the day, you have to look in the mirror and like what you see. The best way to insure that happens is to work to understand yourself—not what someone else thinks you should be.

Strive for happiness, not material wealth or “success.” I’m not suggesting that it’s wrong to accumulate material wealth but it’s the means to the end, and too often people sacrifice happiness for money. Worse yet, most people still believe that there is a correlation between material wealth and happiness (there isn’t). In fact, much of the well-being research suggests that happy individuals are successful across multiple areas of life: marriage, friendship, income, work performance, and health. To paraphrase Tal Ben-Shahar in his book, Happier, don’t live to accumulate; value the unmeasurable (emotions and meaning) over the measurable (material wealth and prestige).

And yes, please wear sunscreen.

Congratulations to the Class of 2016!