The Practical High-School Commencement Address I Didn’t Give

Recently, I was thrilled and honored to be invited to give the commencement address for my daughter’s high-school graduation.

For that occasion, I wanted to explore transcendent, timeless themes, I wanted to tell a few good stories—and I wanted to be brief. So there were many concrete, useful suggestions that didn’t make it into the actual commencement address.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t resist writing up everything I wanted to say, even if I couldn’t include it.

On June 15, I delivered the profound commencement address; here’s the practical commencement address.

After introductory remarks, here’s how I would have continued…


For years I’ve been collecting my “Secrets of Adulthood,” the lessons I’ve gleaned with time and experience. This is wisdom that I gained the hard way, through trial and error; I hope that perhaps I can save you graduates from making the mistakes I’ve made.

Out of my hundreds of Secrets of Adulthood, I wanted to suggest some that seem particularly relevant to your stage of life, when you’re grappling with a lot of change and a lot of decisions. 

I offer these observations for your consideration.

  1. Working is one of the most dangerous forms of procrastination.
  2. The place that hurts isn’t always the place that’s injured.
  3. If you can’t find something, clean up.
  4. It’s okay to ask for help.
  5. You can choose what you do, but you can’t choose what you like to do.
  6. If you don’t know what to do with yourself, go outside or go to sleep.
  7. Be polite and be fair.
  8. What you do every day matters more than what you do once in a while.
  9. Never ask for an extension on an assignment.
  10. Every day, ask: “What’s something can I do to put my values into the world?”
  11. Happiness doesn’t always make you feel happy.
  12. Try by 25—many lifelong preferences are set by young adulthood, so try new things now.
  13. Don’t treat a gift like a burden.
  14. One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy; one of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself.
  15. Something that can be done at any time is often done at no time.
  16. When packing an item that might leak, put it in a plastic bag.
  17. The things that go wrong often make the best memories.
  18. If you accept the blame when you deserve it, people will give you responsibility.
  19. The more you put in, the more you get out.
  20. Get your driver’s license.
  21. Don’t do something to make yourself feel better if it just ends up making you feel worse.
  22. By doing a little bit each day, you can get a lot accomplished.
  23. Somewhere, keep an empty shelf; somewhere, keep a junk drawer.
  24. Buy any ingredients you want from the grocery store; eating at home is almost always cheaper than eating out.
  25. When you can’t decide between two courses of action, choose the bigger life.
  26. Sometimes, to keep going, you have to allow yourself to stop.

And finally:

  1. Hell is other people. Heaven is other people.

Some credit for that last Secret of Adulthood goes to Jean-Paul Sartre, and he’s right: Hell is other people. I remember my mother once remarking—without any rancor, just matter-of-factly—“Everything would be so easy if it weren’t for people.” True!

But what Jean-Paul Sartre didn’t write, and what’s also true, is that Heaven is other people. As we go through life, what matters most are our relationships with other people.

Ancient philosophers and contemporary scientists agree: To be happy, we need enduring bonds; we need to belong; we need to get support, and just as important, we need to be able to give support. We must cultivate relationships with the people close to us, and we must cultivate relationship to the people of the larger world.

That is why, graduates, in your next stages of life, when you’re deciding how to spend your precious time, energy, and money, anything that broadens or deepens your relationships is probably a good choice. That’s why we must treat other people with respect.


…Then I would have given the same conclusion as the profound version.

I enjoyed writing both the Profound and the Practical. What did I miss?



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