My Best Advice for Graduates: 12 Tips for A Happy Life

It’s graduation season.

I’m particularly aware of this, because my daughter Eliza is graduating from high school in two weeks. The days are long, but the years are short.

I’m trying to hold back the urge to follow her around the apartment giving her little bits of advice and wisdom. To relieve my mind, here’s what I would tell her, or anyone graduating from high school, college, or graduate school:

1. Know yourself

Something that’s clearer to me every day is that there’s no magic, one-size-fits-all solution for building a happy, healthy, and productive life. You have to know yourself: your temperament, your interests, your values. For instance…


The better we know ourselves, the more readily we can construct a life that will work for us.

2. Beware of drift.

“Drift” is the decision we make by not deciding, or by making a decision that unleashes consequences for which we don’t take responsibility.

You go to medical school because both your parents are doctors. You get married because all your friends are getting married. You take a job because someone offers you that job. You want the respect of the people around you, or you want to avoid a fight or a bout of insecurity, or you don’t know what else to do, so you take the path of least resistance.

The word “drift” has overtones of laziness or ease. Not true! Drift is often disguised by a huge amount of effort and perseverance. For me, law school was drift, and it was hard every step of the way, from the LSAT to my clerkship with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to the New York Bar exam. In the end, I’m happy I did go to law school — and that’s another tricky thing about drift. Sometimes drift does make you happy. But don’t count on it.

One of my drift-related Secrets of Adulthood is “You can choose what you do, but you can’t choose what you like to do.” And here’s another one: “Approval from the people we admire is sweet, but it’s not enough to be the foundation of a happy life.”

One of the problems of drift is that we try to deny we’re drifting. To see if you’re drifting, take this quiz.

3. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

I cribbed this from Voltaire, and I remind myself of it often.

I can’t let the perfect, fantasy Gretchen crowd out the actual, real Gretchen.

I remind myself that the 20-minute walk I take is better than the 3-mile run I never start; having friends over for take-out is better than never having people to an elegant dinner party.

4. Write (and re-write) your own set of personal commandments.

One of the most challenging—and most helpful and fun—tasks that I did as part of my Happiness Project was to write my Twelve Personal Commandments. These aren’t specific resolutions, like “make my bed,” but the overarching principles by which I try to live my life.

I think this is a great exercise — to distill your core values and hopes for yourself into a succinct list, so that they’re very clearly in your mind. And then you can re-visit them periodically, so you can update them as you grow older and your life changes.

As an example, here are my Twelve Personal Commandments:

1. Be Gretchen.
2. Let it go.
3. Act the way I want to feel.
4. Do it now.
5. Be polite and be fair.
6. Enjoy the process.
7. Spend out.
8. Identify the problem.
9. Lighten up.
10. Do what ought to be done.
11. No calculation.
12. There is only love.

5. Identify the problem.

This idea seems so obvious, but it has been the one of my most important insights. Now I’ve disciplined myself to ask, “What’s bugging me? Why is something not working? What’s the problem here?”

A friend hated her law job so much that she was ready to quit. But when she “identified the problem,” she realized she actually hated her commute. She started listening to audio-books, and her life improved dramatically.

Usually there isn’t such an easy, dramatic solution, but nevertheless, it astonishes me how often it works.

I could never get myself to hang up my coat, and when I “identified the problem,” I realized that I didn’t like putting things on hangers. I added six hooks to our closet door — and problem solved.

6. Take care of your body: exercise regularly, get enough sleep. 

I’ve done hundreds of happiness and habit interviews from successful, creative people. Almost all of them mention the importance of a regular exercise routine — and also that they wish they had started this habit sooner. They also frequently mention the importance of getting enough sleep.

Our physical experience always colors our emotional and intellectual experience. If we’re feeling exhausted or sluggish, it’s hard to be happy and productive. Get enough sleep, and get some exercise, and you’ll find it much easier to be happier, healthier, more productive, and more creative.

7. Don’t expect to be motivated by motivation. 

I really dislike the word “motivation.” I try never to use it. And here’s why: People use the term to describe their desire for a particular outcome (“I’m really motivated to lose weight”) as well as their reasons for actually acting in a certain way (“I go to the gym because I’m motivated to exercise”). Desire and action are mixed up in a very confusing way.

People often tell me, “Yes, I’m very motivated to achieve this aim,” but when I press, it turns out that while they passionately wish they could achieve an outcome, they aren’t doing anything about it. So what does it mean when they say they’re “motivated?” No idea.

In fact, people aren’t motivated by motivation.

Expert advice often focuses on motivation, by telling people that they just need more motivation to follow through. This may work in a certain way, for certain people (see below), but not for everyone.

The bad result of this advice is that some people spend a lot of time whipping themselves into a frenzy of thinking how much they want a certain outcome, as if desire will drive behavior. And it rarely does.

Instead of thinking about motivation, I argue that we should think about aims, and then take concrete, practical, realistic steps to take us closer to our aims.

Instead of thinking, “I want to lose weight so badly,” think instead about the concrete steps to take, “I’ll bring lunch from home,” “I won’t use the vending machine,” “I won’t eat fast food,” “I’ll quit sugar,” “I’ll cook dinner at home at least four nights a week,” “I’ll go to the farmer’s market on Saturdays, to load up on great produce.”

Of course, in my book Better Than Before, I argue that the great thing about habits is that you don’t need to feel “motivated!”

In my forthcoming book, The Four Tendencies, I do talk about how thinking about reasons for action can help some people to act, and how desire does help some people to act — but that’s not the same as motivation.

For Upholders and Questioners, thinking about reasons helps.

For Rebels, thinking about desire helps.

For Obligers, outer accountability is the crucial element. What does this mean? It means that Obligers are the least likely to be helped by thinking about “motivation.” And guess what? They’re the Tendency that talks most about motivation! They keep trying to amp up their motivation, and then they get frustrated because that doesn’t work. Nope. Obligers should focus on systems of outer accountability.

We really can’t expect to be motivated by motivation.

8. Give time and energy to keeping relationships strong.

Ancient philosophers and modern scientists agree: the most essential key to happiness is strong relationships with other people.

We need enduring, intimate bonds; we need to feel like we belong; we need to be able to confide; we need to be able to get and give support.

Anything that tends to deepen or broaden relationships is likely to boost happiness. Things like:

  • attending reunions
  • going to weddings
  • remembering birthdays
  • keeping up a group chat with your friends who are spread across the world
  • starting a book club
  • making friends with the friends of your friends (this is called “triadic closure”)
  • having a standing yearly date to get together — for a few years out of college, my friends all got together for an Ides of March weekend. Somehow, we stopped, and I’ve always regretted that. Along those lines…
  • if someone’s important to you, make concrete plans to see them; remember, something that can happen at any time often happens at no time.

9. Ask yourself, “Whom do I envy?”

Envy is a very unpleasant emotion, and we often don’t even want to admit to ourselves that we’re feeling envious.

But negative emotions play a very important role in a happy life, because they warn us that something needs to change. When we envy someone, it’s a sign that that person has something that we wish we had for ourselves. And that’s useful to know.

When I was considering switching from law to writing, I noticed that when I read in my college magazine about people who had great law careers, I felt a mild interest; when I read about people who had great writing careers, I felt sick with envy. That was an important clue.

10. Remember, everyone makes mistakes.

Everyone makes mistakes; it’s inevitable. And if you’re not failing sometimes, you’re not trying hard enough.

11. Know your “tell.”

In gambling, a tell is a change in behavior that reveals your inner state. Gamblers look for tells as clues about whether other players are holding good or bad hands.

And it’s common for people to have a  “tell” in everyday life, too.

For instance, my “tell” is that when I’m feeling anxious or worried, I re-read books aimed at a younger and younger audience. Under all circumstances, I love children’s literature, and read it often, but when I’m reading these books as an anxiety tell, I inevitably re-read instead of reading books I’ve never read before. I want the coziness, the familiarity, the high quality of a book that I know I love.

Self-knowledge is one of the greatest challenges for happiness and good habits. Why is it hard to know that I’m feeling anxious — don’t I feel it? Why is it so hard to know myself? It seems like nothing should be easier and more obvious than to know ourselves – but it’s not.

Recognizing and watching for your “tell” can help you manage yourself better.

12. Collect your own Secrets of Adulthood.

For years, I’ve been collecting my “Secrets of Adulthood,” which are the scraps of wisdom I’ve managed to grasp as I’ve become an adult. It’s fun — and helpful — to keep track of these.

For instance…

  • Outer order contributes to inner calm.
  • Working is one of the most dangerous forms of procrastination.
  • Over-the-counter medication is surprisingly effective.
  • Self-regard isn’t selfish.
  • Most decisions don’t require extensive research.
  • Things often get harder before they get easier.
  • It’s easier to keep up than catch up.
  • Soap and water removes most stains.
  • We can’t make others change, but when we change, a relationship changes.
  • Don’t let yourself fall into “empty”: eat when you’re hungry, put gas in the car, keep some cash on hand.

What advice would you give to a graduate? Or what useful advice did you receive, when you were graduating?

  • RDB

    Excellent advice! This would make a terrific commencement speech. I would put a slightly different spin on your point about motivation. It seems to me that the key to motivation is pursuing goals that align with your true self (“Be Gretchen”) and doing so in a way that matches your tendency. For example, if I were to set a goal to be as thin as a supermodel, this would be in direct conflict with my true nature as a passionate foodie. Knowing that I would not be willing to sacrifice the pleasure of eating delicious food to lose that much weight, I set a more modest goal to be slender but not skinny. This allows me to maintain my motivation to eat healthy most of the time, and indulge in delicious foods in moderation. I often find myself unmotivated to exercise, because I don’t enjoy it for its own sake. But, I’m an extrovert, so pairing exercise with conversation with a friend or with my hilarious trainer makes exercise more of a pleasure and less of a chore. I completely agree that motivation isn’t going to magically appear to spur a new graduate into action. But a lack of motivation is a signal to examine whether the goal is the right one for you, whether you have identified a concrete action to advance yourself closer toward your goal, and whether that action plays into your tendency or fights against it. Your work on the four tendencies has really helped me examine my own goals and motivations. Now, rather than feeling bad when I am unmotivated, I ask myself why I’m unmotivated and look for ways to change the goal, the action or the approach.

  • Rowey Perrett

    I cannot believe that your elder child is leaving school this year! Your piece about walking/ bussing them to school when they were little is one of my favourites , and the thing that I use to demonstrate to people why I enjoy your work so much. I look forward to reading your new book soon.

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks so much! I know, I can’t believe it either.

  • Natalie Adkins, PhD

    What is the 10th piece of advice? Seems to be missing…so appreciate the other 11. Thank you.

    • gretchenrubin

      Fixed! Thanks for the catch.

  • Tanya Reader

    Hi. The Marathoner/Sprinter link goes to the Lark/Owl page. Same with the Abundance- Simplicity-Lover link.

    • gretchenrubin

      Fixed! Thanks!

  • Katie

    Great list! Yes, I think #10 is missing from the list? Would love to know what it is. Thank you

  • Dotty

    These are excellent ideas and worthy for all to read. Even though my graduation was a LONG time ago, I see so many ideas I would like to explore. Thanks for the chance to think a little deeper.

  • Patti Holler Henry

    Excellent advice even for someone who “graduated” into retirement. I will print out this post and keep it where I can refer to it daily. Thank you.

  • Karen

    It’s funny (ironic?) that the missing 10th piece of advice was “Everyone makes mistakes”

  • Jill

    Would love to see this in a PDF for printing! Great reminders for those who graduated long ago…

  • Barbara

    Wonderful list, and yes, a PDF would be great!

  • Lori in CT

    Thank you, Gretchen — a wonderful road map for life. We are in a year of transitions, one of my children graduated from college last weekend, another will graduate from high school in three weeks. I will pass your wise words along to both of them as well as keep them in mind for myself!

  • Nicole Masterson

    One of my favorites for young adults i pilfered from the great French artist, Corot. Remove to add. Sometimes knowing what you do NOT want is more important thank knowing the thing that you want. It takes years to find the holy grail of self, but if you can thoughtfully remove the unwanted layers, you might find what you were looking for all along!

  • Gretchen Lindsey

    I love the list! I would add: Model what you want first. I did not want to hear this 3 years ago, but honestly now it is my mantra and it is part of what saved our marriage. You want your spouse or kids or whoever to treat you with more respect and stop screaming and swearing? Do it first yourself. You want your spouse or kids or whoever to take personal responsibility for negotiating their needs by making requests (“Would you be willing to…?”) instead of making demands or hinting? Do it first yourself. You want your spouse and kids to pick up their clutter? Do it first yourself. You want someone to take personal responsibility for their behavior that you dislike? Do it first yourself and apologize for what you have done/said that hurt their feelings (following the 5 languages of apology, of course).

  • Elizabeth Almeter

    This is fabulous. I work with high school boys as their college counselor. I would LOVE if your list could be created into a pdf/gift. Until then, I’ll share this link to your blog. Wise words.

    • gretchenrubin

      Ok, I’ll try to make it into a PDF.Stay tuned!

  • Delft Naturopath

    I would add to number 6, avoid eating too much sugar. If there is one thing that really makes me unstable mentally, it’s overindulging with sweets/carbs.

  • Jerri Udelson

    Most decisions don’t require extensive research. That’s great!

  • laurapepwu

    A fantastic collection of life advice not only for college grads but for the rest of us too. I’m sending it round to friends and family – thanks Gretchen! And yes, a PDF would be great. I want to print it off and save it for my son when he’s older.

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  • Kim

    ALWAYS, for the rest of your life (i.e. until you die), do something or have an interest in something, that will produce a result in the future. In other words, keep active doing something that has a positive future.
    You can will yourself to live and will yourself to die. A story I saw on television when living in Canada in the mid 1960s was an interview with a man who had turned 100 years of age. The interviewer was young and didn’t comprehend the information he was given. The man grew tropical orchids (in Canada!) and had a hothouse into which he ushered the reporter and the camera crew. He then proceeded to tell the interviewer about all the orchid hybrid crosses he had made and his expectation of when the seedlings would flower, in 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 year’s time and the flowers he was looking to achieve by the crosses. He had done something that would produce a result in the future.
    After being the owner of a funeral directing business from 1969 to 2005 (36 years) and talking to numerous families, I know this maxim to be true: You can will yourself to live and you can will yourself to die. For the rest of your life, do something that will produce a result in the future and you will go a long way towards living a long and fulfilling life.

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