10 Authentic Pieces of Advice Graduates Actually Need to Hear

05/28/2015 01:51 pm ET | Updated May 28, 2016
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For some reason, probably budget problems or because someone forgot to get a speaker, I've been the commencement speaker for the University of Idaho, the College of Southern Idaho and several high schools. Before each speech, I create inspirational, 20-minute messages to convince clueless graduates that life will be great if they just get a job, floss daily and call their mom once a week.

On the other hand, I could tell them they are doomed, there aren't any jobs, the country is on the brink of destruction, they'll never get out of debt and they should move into the woods and make macramé hangers to sell at craft fairs. But that advice might not motivate them to attain their potential greatness.

Thousands of graduates and their families will sit through commencement ceremonies this spring, and I hope they glean a few tidbits of wisdom from the speakers who will desperately be searching for eye contact. It's difficult for motivational speakers to keep going when they know the audience already has checked out.

In between the pomp and the circumstance, I try my best to offer 10 simple suggestions for a good life:

1. Accept the fact that life isn't fair. You could work hard, excel at your job and miss your kid's school programs, only to see some pretty woman have an affair with the executive vice president and be given your job. (I write, somewhat bitterly, from personal experience.) Or you could get hit by a beer truck or your spouse could run away with a carnival worker or your hillbilly neighbor could get a lucrative reality show on television. Just grit your teeth, change your profession and write country/western songs.

2. No one owes you a living. Chances are, you're not going to win the Publisher's Clearinghouse Sweepstakes or the million-dollar lottery. And you can't live with your parents anymore, because they want to buy a recreational vehicle and travel around to casinos and roadside attractions. Go into the world and make your own way.

3. Take risks. Watch children if you need examples of expert risk-takers. Kids love to stomp in puddles, fall out of trees, catch frogs in a ditch and ride anything with wheels. Be like they are and experience true freedom before life gives you a mortgage, kids, in-laws, 50 extra pounds, buffoon bosses and irritable bowel syndrome.

4. Mansions, fast cars and luxury vacation don't guarantee happiness. Many good people are honestly delighted to have a small house with indoor plumbing, a pickup truck that runs, a pantry full of homemade food and a favorite camping place. Be like that.

5. Get out of debt. Why work your entire life just to pay interest to a bank? In most cases, that $100 debt on your credit card for that sassy pair of boots will remain long after they have worn out. Pay cash or go bootless.

I told graduates at the College of Southern Idaho to avoid student loans because the devious program would make them indebted to the government for several decades. I could tell by their groans that the warning came too late. So I advised their younger siblings in the audience to investigate other financial aid options, including scholarships, grants, work-study programs or trade schools. These students will have homes and new trucks while their older brothers and sisters will be living in a crowded commune while paying on their endless student loans.

6. Enjoy relationships. The happiest people are surrounded by family members and friends who accept their faults, celebrate their achievements and invite them over for barbecues and wine.

7. Avoid crabby people. They will suck out every last ounce of your energy and leave you a withered, bitter shell of wretched humanity. Purge your contact list now before it's too late.

8. Don't fight. No explanation needed.

9. Love more. Ditto.

10. Laugh, dance and sing. Triple ditto.

I purposely avoided any mention of politics or religion, because I'd rather smack my head with a hammer than tiptoe through the mine field of political correctness. I always conclude my speech with this last bit of advice: Call your mom and thank her for putting up with you. If she's no longer living, call another mother and wish her a happy day. You'll both feel good, and the world needs more people who are truly grateful.


The author giving a commencement speech.