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  • Writer's pictureKristine Goad

Four Questions to Ask Yourself at Commencement Time, Especially if You’re Not a Recent Grad

My nephew graduated from high school this week, and as I sat and listened to the adult commencement speakers urging the young graduates on to amazing endeavors and lives filled with service and meaning, I felt conflicted.

Yes, there was the usual “my baby’s growing up and I’m so proud and so sad at the same time” because the person who is the closest I will ever have to a son is now a young man and moving on to the next chapter in his life.

But I also felt conflicted because of the expectations that were being set for the young people in the audience. To be fair, this was a class of students graduating from a magnet arts school, so chances are good that these particular graduates will go on to lead creative, adventurous, offbeat, and hopefully fulfilling lives. But it won’t always be easy and it will rarely be glamorous, and they won’t want all that lies ahead of them to end up in their obituaries. They will have times of self-doubt and times when they’ll look at their lives and wonder what they’ve achieved and if it has any value.

Or, at least, I think they'll have those times, because I've had them. In fact, I was having one right there in the middle of the commencement ceremony because the speakers were also speaking to us, the adults who've had twenty or thirty years since our own graduation from high school to become established in our lives and have something to show for our time on the planet. Graduations, class reunions, and every day encounters on social media are all invitations to fall into the comparison trap, and even the best of us can succumb.

So, as I looked around and compared myself to the rest of the audience and my own former expectations for what my adult life would look like, it was clear that a large number of the people there were parents or grandparents, so they, at least, could point to the families they had built as a source of pride and accomplishment. I, as a mere aunt, and a childless one at that, could not share in that baseline. I had to dig a little further in order to assure myself that I'm living a life of meaning, adventure, service, and value because I've been something of a “late bloomer,” to quote several of my older family members, and have traveled quite the crooked path when it comes to creating a life I love.

I went on a cross-country bicycle trip when I was twenty-nine to figure out my life’s purpose.

It didn’t make itself known to me until twenty years later, but now that I’ve finally found it, I’m working to bring it to full fruition. Sure, I’ve accomplished things along the way and have had experiences I would not trade for anything, but because I haven't jumped through traditional hoops, climbed a corporate ladder, or achieved titles that garner immediate respect, it can be a challenge to remember the value in walking the less traveled path. There’s that whole comparison thing in full force, along with the problem of how do I justify to anyone else that I've made a valuable contribution with my life.

So, if you are subjected to commencement speeches this season, here are the questions I think you should ask in order to inoculate yourself against comparison and unrealistic expectations, as well as to get a more accurate sense of where you are in your life:

1. How often do you try something new, step out of your comfort zone, or dare to dream of accomplishing something you don’t currently know how to accomplish? If these are regular habits for you, you can be pretty sure you're living your life fully, always growing, and consistently engaged—not to mention practicing the skills you need for reinvention and protecting your brain health by creating new neural pathways.

2. Who are you being in the world? We put so much emphasis on accomplishments and statistics that can prove we’ve added value, but you are not your résumé! Who you are being—how you are showing up every day—is a much better standard for determining whether you are living your life well. And, since we can’t seem to leave the striving for accomplishments completely behind, consciously choosing who you want to be every day is also the best insurance that you’ll actually achieve the goals you set for yourself.

3. Are you happy? I mean, like, really happy? Like happy no matter what, or happy for no reason, most of the time happy? I’m not talking about being able to put on a good show of being happy, or being Pollyanna-ish, or being unwilling or unable to feel other uncomfortable, sad, or negative feelings—there are times when those are definitely called for and need to be respected and experienced. But to a large degree, being happy—consciously choosing to be happy and love your life—is a mindset and a skill you can practice and adopt. You’ll know you’ve achieved that mindset when you have a general sense of well-being and that everything is going to be alright, even when you’re going through stressful situations. If you’re not there yet, don’t judge yourself too harshly! This is one many of us will chase for a long time. Luckily there is a ton of research being done on happiness, so the resources are readily available if you need a boost in this area.

4. What is your current definition of success? My nephew was asked this question in his college admissions interview. He wasn’t prepared with a strong response. Are you? Have you taken the time to decide for yourself, right now at this stage of your life, what success feels and looks like for you, independent of what anyone else might think and even independent of what your definition may once have been? How are you measuring up to your own definition of success?

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