As You Graduate: Some Words of Advice

congrats grads

It’s that time of year!

A time when young men and women around the country complete their college educations and enter a new and exciting phase of life.

Over the next few weeks, these 20-somethings will relinquish their role as “college student,” a role that many accepted with anticipation and excitement just a few short years ago. It’s a role that many, if not most, have come to love and (hopefully) value. It’s a role that has allowed them to learn a lot about others and make lifelong friends. But most importantly, it’s a role that has allowed them to learn a ton about themselves.

This role has been a significant one—one that will likely be cherished and remembered with fondness for years to come.

But now it’s time to take on a new role: that of “college graduate.”

This new role, although exciting and filled with possibility, can also be a bit daunting. Many new graduates find themselves wondering:

“What am I going to do?”

“Who am I going to meet?”

“Where am I going to live?”

“What’s going to happen to me over the next 10 (and 20 and 30) years?”

As these wonderful people—many of whom I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know—enter this exciting, yet strange, phase of their lives, I thought it might be useful to provide them with some words of advice, some suggestions that I think might serve them well as they embark on their new journey. (In fact, as you will see, I think the suggestions below are useful for people at any stage of life.)

But rather than give you my own words of advice, I want to give you the opportunity to read some amazing words that were said just a few years ago by someone I know very well: my wife, Tracy (email her at or follow her on Twitter: @tracyzinnjmu)

Three years ago, Tracy won the outstanding teaching award for the College of Health and Behavioral Studies (CHBS) at James Madison University. As winner of the award, she was asked to give the commencement address to the graduating class of 2013. Below is a (slightly) edited version of her outstanding commencement address.

I hope you enjoy it and seriously take her wonderful advice to heart.

Congratulations, Class of 2016!

Good morning, graduates!

I love graduation! It is such an honor to be able to speak to you today.

I have the best job in the world. I get to learn with these amazing students, watch them accomplish wonderful things, and then celebrate them as we send them off.

Today, my words of advice will not include such platitudes as, “Reach for the stars!” or “Oh, the places you will go!” And they will certainly not include the phrase, “You’re special!” Instead, I want to tell you:

1. To fail;

2. That life is uncertain;

3. To fight;

4. Stop trying to be happy; and 

5. To quit

Please allow me to elaborate.

1. Fail

Embrace opportunities to make mistakes. Without the possibility of failure, we have no room to grow or to learn new things. Inherent in learning are the mistakes that come with it.

In my classes, my students and I talk a lot about “negative feedback.” There is the perception that if you aren’t perfect or if you still have room to improve, something is wrong with you. Nothing is further from the truth.

As teachers, we unfortunately feed into this idea. If a student says something wrong in class, we say, “Well, that could be right” or “Yes, I see what you mean.” Or we make some other innocuous statement, ensuring that students will never hear us say, “You’re wrong.”

Buy why is it such a big deal to be wrong? In particular, why is it so horrible to be wrong about something that you are just learning? If you were never wrong in class, you should have taken a harder class!

We need to get away from the idea that being wrong is so terrible, so aversive, that we should avoid it at all costs.

The end of college is just the beginning of your lifelong learning adventure. Don’t avoid things that are difficult or that you aren’t good at yet. If you do, life will get really boring.

And if you can’t fail, then please be average.

For most of the things we try in life, we will be spectacularly average. We’ll be really good at a few things, really terrible at a few things, and average at a bunch of things.

Try enough things so that you are average a lot of the time.

Don’t avoid doing something fun, useful, or interesting just because you aren’t at the top of the heap.

And don’t think of the idea of failing as something depressing. Embrace this idea for what it is—the freedom to explore.

Let me paraphrase the great American author John Steinbeck: Because you don’t have to be perfect at everything, you won’t be paralyzed by that burden. You can just go out there and do something good.

2. Life is Uncertain

Most things in life are not guaranteed. And contrary to how some of you may feel, you don’t have to decide your entire life’s path today. This is true whether you already have the perfect job lined up or whether you’ve already picked the perfect graduate school or whether you have no idea what you will be doing in the next few months.

In reality, no one really knows what life is going to bring next or how our interests might change as we gain new experiences.

When I was 22, the possibility of becoming a teacher was not on my radar. I never thought I would get married. I never thought I would have children. Now, “mom,” “wife,” and “teacher” are primary aspects of how I define myself. In fact, many of you know my kids better than you know me.

The point is, you just don’t know.

Don’t close yourself off to possibilities that your future self might fall in love with.

When students are talking with me about their future plans, there is this sense that if they just make the right decision (about graduate school or a career), life will turn out perfect. If they pick wrong one, though, life will be ruined.

But here’s the reality: “One does not simply plan the perfect life.” Even the very best planners have to deal with uncertainty.

You will have to “sit in the grey” at times and accept that uncertainty is simply a part of life.

But this is a good thing. We are fortunate that there are always choices to make. I ask myself the same question today that many of you are probably asking yourselves: “What do I want to do with the rest of my life?”

The answer to this question evolves as you grow older and as you change your interests and focus. But the question will always remain.

The reality is that there are many paths to a wonderful and fulfilling life, all of which are lined with missteps and mistakes, triumphs and joys.

3. Fight

Stay feisty and fight. One of the beautiful things about being around college students is the passion they have for so many causes and life in general. One perk of my job is that I get to be around people with fresh ideas and fresh passions, optimistic advocates who want to make a difference.

But sometimes it’s pretty difficult to stay feisty, to keep fighting for a cause that we believe in. We see things on Twitter and Facebook daily that make us want to get involved, but then a grumpy cat meme shows up, and we forget what we were fired up about.

One day, though, you will take up a banner and fight for something you believe in.

There is a real challenge in staying appreciative for what you have and the opportunities that you were given, while at the same time maintaining the desire to make a difference in the world.

Too much of the former, and you can become complacent. Too much of the latter, and you can become bitter about how much needs to change.

 4. Stop Trying to Be Happy

Hang with me on this one, okay?

We often talk about making decisions that will make us happy, but that’s easier said than done. We often confuse what will eventually make us happy with what makes us happy right now or what is fun right now.

But here’s what we do know: We know that people are more satisfied with their lives when:

They are challenged.

They are doing something they believe has purpose and value.

They focus on the needs of others, rather than themselves.

We might be happier in the moment when we choose something easy and fun, but it doesn’t really make us satisfied with our lives. (And if you don’t believe me, just think of that class you took because you looked it up on “Rate My Professors” and saw it was easy…)

You might not (and you probably won’t) have that perfect job right out of college. If it’s not perfect, that’s okay. Don’t stop looking. Keep pursuing challenge, purpose, and a way to help others.

5. Quit

Quit doing things you don’t find interesting or valuable just because it’s something you are “supposed” to do.

Quit waiting for someone else to tell you what you need to know or what you need to do or what you should be doing. Hopefully, during your time in college, you didn’t just learn facts. Hopefully, you learned how to learn and how to think on your own.

Quit comparing yourself to others.

Don’t decide what you should do with your life based on someone else’s “perfect” or someone else’s definition of success.

Remember that, if we are lucky, “This race is long and, in the end, it’s only with yourself.” (Mary Schmich).

I have learned so much from all of you. And not just about SnapChat and the meaning of “biddie,” although I still don’t really understand that one. You remind me to have fresh eyes when I’m looking at problems; you remind me to remember what it’s like to learn something for the first time.

I hope you keep that curiosity and pass it on to others. I hope you relax and find joy in whatever you choose to do.

And let me offer you one more piece of advice. You love your school, right? And this time in your lives has been special, right?

Don’t let your love for your time here at JMU and the specialness of your experiences blind you to all the joys that are yet to come.

There are wonderful things yet to experience, and you will always have a home right here at James Madison University.



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2 thoughts on “As You Graduate: Some Words of Advice”

  1. I’m glad I got to read this one. I actually failed my first class last semester, and it was Tracy’s I/O Psyc class. I hadn’t gotten a chance (or the courage) to talk to her about it, but I learned so much from that failure and now have straight A’s (unless finals kill me) for my final semester at JMU. Thank you for continuing to email your blog posts, the ones I do read always end up inspiring me. (No surprise there.)

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