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Zak of All Trades: Lessons learned from the graduation speech

May 31, 2013

Friday night, I had the pleasure of covering one of the most important annual events in the town of Punxsutawney.

Right up there beside Groundhog Day is the day that we see off another year's worth of students from the high school and send them out into the world.

We hope that the 13 years of education they've received has prepared them for the next phase of their lives and trust that the 18-or-so years they have spent gaining education outside the classroom in this town has done the same.

Friday, it was also my pleasure to hear Alan Freed — a man I just recently met, but already respect and appreciate greatly — deliver his message to the Class of 2013.

As a member of the Class of 2000, the math is simple.

It's been 13 years since I walked across the stage and received my temporary diploma at Jack F. LaMarca Stadium — and I say temporary because my first name was spelled wrong and I had to grab a re-print.

And it was in that year — 2000 — that, over and over again, we listened to the graduation speech that had been popularized by Baz Luhrmann the year before.

"Ladies and gentlemen of the Class of '99," the song/monologue starts out, "Wear sunscreen. If I could offer you one tip for the future,
sunscreen would be it. The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience."

Great advice, yes, but the song goes on to lay out many other great pointers — scientifically proven or not — as it goes.

• Don't waste your time on jealousy. Sometimes you're ahead, sometimes you're behind. The race is long, and in the end, it's only with yourself.

• Stretch.

• Enjoy your body. Use it every way you can. Don't be afraid of it or of what other people think of it. It's the greatest instrument you'll ever own.

Honestly — and I'm sad to say this — I don't remember who addressed our class at its graduation ceremony.

And that doesn't mean it wasn't a splendid address. It was just a high-pressure point in my life, and I tend to lose details around high-pressure points.

The last three months of my senior year really are all a blur.

But because of how many times we'd listened to it over and over, I remember that song, that monologue and many of the points of advice it gave.

Some of those pointers were universal truths I needed to hear, and others were helpful tips that I should follow, but don't (take "stretch" as an example).

But what I didn't remember from way back when is that the song started out as a newspaper column written by Mary Schmich on June 1, 1997.

Exactly 16 years ago today, Mary wrote a column of advice for graduates that has spoken to me for 16 years and will continue to for years to come.
I can only hope that someday, something I write will have a similar effect.

"Inside every adult lurks a graduation speaker dying to get out, some world-weary pundit eager to pontificate on life to young people who'd rather be rollerblading," she said.

(Editor's note: Back in my day, rollerblading was the cool thing to do.)

"Most of us, alas, will never be invited to sow our words of wisdom among an audience of caps and gowns, but there's no reason we can't entertain ourselves by composing a Guide to Life for Graduates."

The guide that Mary wrote turned into something more than a column. It turned into life lessons.

And while I haven't always taken the advice about wearing sunscreen, some of the other pointers she gave still ring true to me today.

Members of the Class of 2013, my advice to you does not start at wearing sunscreen, but I do suggest and recommend doing so. The science really does back it up.

But here are a few pointers I came up with when thinking about what I'd say if I were the commencement speaker.

• Don't get too caught up in any one particular moment. Cherish every moment, because they're all worth cherishing. Even the bad ones.

But don't get so caught up in your cherishing that you forget the details. The beauty of life is in the details.

Don't forget that Alan Freed was your commencement speaker and try not to forget at least one thing from what he said.

Remembering one thing that everyone you run into has to teach you can be a powerful thing. But don't dwell on it too long, or you'll miss the "what's next" lesson.

• Life will throw you curveballs. It will. I'm a baseball fan, and this is a metaphor that's always been a powerful one for me, because I can't hit a curveball.

I couldn't when I was a kid, and I still can't today.

I hate curveballs, but I've learned that they are a certainty in life. And the truth of the matter is, you don't always have to hit it out of the park.

Sometimes, just learning to live with yourself and the fact that you can't hit a curveball is enough.

• Love will not be easy.

I know that some of you are in love right now. And I know that others of you are not.

Everyone's love story looks different, and that's what's great about love. But what isn't great about love is that it'll be difficult.

Prepare yourself for hard times. Don't hedge yourself from them. Just prepare yourself for them. Be ready to be hurt, and know that in the end, it'll all be OK.

Some of you will marry your high school sweetheart next week, and others will go to the grave single. But always be happy where you are and realize that love is about more than any one relationship.

• Stick to your promises.

I know it sounds simple, but you're going to make some promises in your life and then decide later that it's not worth keeping your word.

It's always worth keeping your word. If you promise to love and cherish and honor someone forever, stick to that promise, even when it gets hard.

If you promise to be a good father or mother to your child, stick to that promise.

If you promise to never pick up a cigarette again, stick to it, because there's probably a darn good reason that you made every promise you ever did. Don't let moments of insecurity ruin that.

• Value the work that you do.

As an old fart looking back on things, one of the best things I ever learned was to take value in what I do.

What you do doesn't define you, but don't be a lazy worker or a worker who just doesn't care.

I've run into too many of those types in the past, and I've noticed two things about them:

Nobody likes someone who doesn't care, and they don't like themselves.

Take pride in your work. People will respect you for doing so, and you'll respect yourself.

• "Dance, even if you have nowhere to do it but your living room."

OK, so I stole this one word-for-word from Mary's closing thought. But that's because I had it written on my list, and she said it better than I could. Dance. Sing. Play.

Do whatever it is that makes you feel like a kid again, because when you're a grown-up, which you are now, there are times when you'll think back on those days and wonder, "How was I ever as happy as I was back then?"

When you have those thoughts, remember to dance, sing, play...whatever!

These really are the best days of your life, but they don't have to stay that way.

If you keep learning and re-learning how to live, the best days are still ahead of you.

Oh, and it never hurts to wear sunscreen.

Zak Lantz is the editor of The Spirit, a member of the Class of 2000 and an aspiring commencement speaker.

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