13 Things I Wish I Knew on Graduation Day

  Dreams are great, but sometimes sleep is more important.

A graduate at Howard University’s 146th commencement exercises on May 10, 2014, in Washington, D.C.
A graduate at Howard University’s 146th commencement exercises on May 10, 2014, in Washington, D.C. Allison Shelley/Getty Images for DKC

I have no idea who spoke during my college-graduation ceremony or what she (I think it was a woman) said. Chances are she talked about passion, service to others, following your dream, learning from failure, changing the world, fears, opportunity, blah, blah, blah. Commencement speeches often follow these worthy themes

Here is what I wish somebody had told me, and what today’s college graduates need to hear:

1. Get a dream consultant. 

You’re told from childhood to graduation day to follow your dreams. While the commencement speakers who dole out this advice are often wildly successful, chances are you won’t be. And that’s OK. How many of us are actually living out our dreams?

Dreams sound great before the first student-loan payment is due. Someone should sit you down to assess whether your dream is a worthwhile and reasonable pursuit, and let you know that you’re not a failure if you don’t achieve whatever dream you had. There’s nothing wrong with aiming high, but your idea of what it means to be happy and successful changes with experience in the real world. 

2. Be afraid. Be very afraid.  

You’re told to be fearless in your pursuits. But it’s OK to be scared. Fear gives perspective, though you shouldn’t let it stand in your way. Be the person who recognizes and feels the fear and then does that scary thing anyway. That’s courage.

A fearless person is actually pretty scary—someone who doesn’t understand what’s at stake and pursues it with a reckless disregard for the consequences. You don’t want to follow him or her.

3. Resist calls to have a precise answer to this question: “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

There are countless articles online dedicated to helping you answer this question during a job interview. Do what you have to do to get through the interview, but be careful in trying to map out your life so precisely. You can get discouraged when things throw you off course, and become blind to other golden opportunities that don’t seem to fit into your concrete plan.    

4. Find something more interesting than sex.

This goes beyond just having a hobby. You should have an intellectual pursuit, something that you crave because of how it stimulates your mind. Poetry? Economics? Astronomy? Even auto mechanics or a particular culture. Whatever. (Admittedly, this one took me a while.)

5. If your gut tells you to do something, get a second opinion. 

Following your gut or instinct is a common refrain in commencement speeches that should be taken with a grain of salt. Don’t wait to be overcome by some feeling, and don’t misinterpret it if it comes. A feeling is often emotion minus the intellect. I assure you, I’ve had a gut feeling about every Powerball ticket I ever bought.  

6. Make sure your circle of friends is doing better than you are.

Being around people who are in the same struggle as you gets you nowhere. Don’t get jealous, feel inadequate or be intimidated because of people’s happiness, success or stuff. You should get around them as much as you can. It will rub off on you—plus, you’ll be around people in a position to help.