American colleges and universities will confer just over 2.8 million academic degrees in 2019, the majority of them this month in highly anticipated and celebratory ceremonies full of pomp and pageantry.
It’s been exactly a quarter-century since I stood in the warm May sunshine on the back lawn behind Molloy College’s Kellenberg Hall to receive my college diploma. It was the culmination of three-and-a-half years of study — a time of lectures, papers and lots of late nights coupled with juggling part-time work in-between.
It felt good to graduate and I was confident my degrees (I doubled majored in history and political science) had equipped me to earn a decent living, though at the time I wasn’t exactly sure what came next.
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Two-and-a-half decades later, it’s clear that while college opened a whole new world to me in terms of academics, there are plenty of practical and critical things that no academic course could ever teach.
Here are seven of them.
1. A good life revolves around healthy relationships. The oft-quoted observation is true: “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” Do you know how to get along with people? A good place to start is to try and always see things from another person’s point of view.
High emotional intelligence is more important than intellectual head-smarts. Maintaining friendships is an art. And remember this: No success outside the home will ever compensate for failed relationships inside of it. Pour yourself into people you love and who love you.
Congratulations to this year’s graduates. Go get ‘em! Just remember, though, that your diploma is only the beginning of an education that will last a lifetime.
2. Only a fool believes everything that pops into their head. My friend John, a retired Marine officer who used to teach a Sunday school class we attended, told us he wrote out his entire lesson. Why? “Sometimes I get carried away and say things that even I don’t believe!” he said. He was onto something. Our emotions can get us in trouble.
The next time you get irritated and inclined to speak out, take a big deep breath before opening your mouth.
3. Be patient. Your career is a long book of many chapters. Many graduates expect to land a top job and salary. In reality, professional growth often unfolds over many seasons, like an orange tree that doesn’t reach its peak of production until the 12th or 13th years. It takes time to mature and learn the ropes of any profession.
Don’t always be so quick to chase after the next thing — first master the thing in front of you. The writer C.S. Lewis urged students to do what they loved to do — with the people they loved to be with — and assured them that in time they’d form their own rich ring to work and play in.
4. Beware the golden handcuffs. Bruce was my boss at the newspaper Newsday, my first full-time job out of college. He once asked what I really loved to do. At the time, I was working in the advertising department but submitting editorial pieces in my free time. I told him I liked selling but preferred writing. He smiled. “You’re successful at your job,” he said, “but if you don’t love it and you stay too long, you’ll be making too much money to leave.”
He then proceeded to lament his own lot, that he would rather be doing something else, but felt shackled by his good salary. You might not be able to afford to pursue your dream full-time — but do something every day to draw closer to it.
5. There is an opportunity in every problem. Winners don’t whine. If you study the titans of industry, you’ll see two common themes emerge. First, they were successful because they sought to solve some problem that other people were facing. Second, they solved it in a unique fashion.
The old maxim rings true: “Any man can do what any other man has done.” Don’t be afraid to be different. See problems as job opportunities that nobody else wants — and creatively tackle them in search of a solution.
6. Good manners are worth more than a million dollars. My mom and dad used to tell us this all the time and I was often skeptical, joking that I’d like to test the theory. But it’s true. Good manners will open doors that would otherwise remain closed to you.
“Good manners are necessary,” wrote Judith Martin of Miss Manners fame, “otherwise we would live amongst perpetually furious people.” Instead of just wanting to leave your mark, first strive to leave a good impression.
7. Make time and space to ask and answer life’s biggest questions. Have you ever sat with someone in the final days or hours of their life? Shouldn’t what’s important then also be what’s important now? True fulfillment only comes when we’re able to answer the most important questions like, “Who am I?” “Who made me?” “Why am I here?” “Where am I going when this life is over?”
My old boss and friend Dr. James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, tells the story of competing — and winning — a game of Monopoly with his wife and kids. But then everyone went off to bed, and he was left to clean up the game alone. It struck him.
“Hey, this isn’t just a game of Monopoly, this is life,” he thought. “You sweat and strain to get ahead, but then one day, after a little chest pain or a wrong move on the freeway, the game ends. It all goes back in the box. You leave this world just as naked as the day you came into it.”
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Speaking personally as a Christian, I believe God has created and prepared all of us with individual gifts for our own unique purpose. He has a plan for you and for me. Maybe college was or is part of the plan. Maybe not. Most importantly, I would encourage you to devote a portion of your time to discovering what that might be for you.
So, congratulations to this year’s graduates. Go get ‘em! Just remember, though, that your diploma is only the beginning of an education that will last a lifetime.
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