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Commencement Speech Real Talk

Jeff O'Neal

CEO and co-founder

Jeff O'Neal is the executive editor of Book Riot and Panels. He also co-hosts The Book Riot Podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @thejeffoneal.

It’s the time of year for academic send-offs, graduation gifts, and general future-gazing. Understandably, college and universities like to send their graduates out on a high note, so the tenor of commencement speeches is hopeful and inspiring. Thing is, post-graduation life is considerably more complicated than “be the change you want to see in the world” and “you can do anything you put your mind to.”

Here are a few things I’d like to to tell my own students on the occasion of their graduation. Maybe a little more muted than most administrations would like, but it’s advice I myself would have liked to have heard at 22 (and am trying to remind myself of at 34).


At this moment, you are more open-minded than you will ever be again. As you get older, your interests might deepen, but the range will almost certainly narrow. Fight this as hard as you can.

Over the next decade, you will probably be able to count on one hand the number of times you will sit in a room with people that are not your friends and talk about ideas. Find ways to have conversations with people who don’t think like you do.

Most of you will try to hold on to your youth for the next 10-20 years. The longer you try, the more painful and hindering it will be. Nothing ages you faster than trying to be something you are not.

You will never feel like you know what you are doing, so don’t wait for it.

Outside of your small circle of family and close friends, no one cares what you wear, what you do, what you read, or what you watch. This can be both liberating and terrifying. Choose liberating.

The more you enjoyed your time here, the more the memory of it will sting.

You were taught principally by people who have no idea how business works, though most of you will spend your professional lives outside of academia.

The difficulties ahead of you will make what you have faced to this point seem trivial.

It is easy to make decisions about your life without even knowing you are making them. You will regret the decisions you did not make a hell of a lot more than the decisions you knew you were making.

You don’t deserve anything. Your passion, effort, and creativity may not pay off. But you still have to try.

The things you care strongly about now might mean nothing to you in five years. And that’s OK. You haven’t failed or given up. You will just care about different things.

The pursuit and maintenance of health insurance will govern far more of your life than art.

Do not think that because you dated a lot in college you have any idea what it means to be in a healthy relationship. Most of this education is still in front of you.

What you will turn out to be will probably not bear much resemblance to what you thought you would be. Try not to mourn this overmuch.

If you pay attention and exert enormous effort, you might be able to mitigate some of your flaws, but this will be an on-going effort.

There are exponentially more possibilities than you can imagine.

Your favorite song right now is likely to be your favorite song for the rest of your life.

Favorite songs will matter to you less and less.

If there is an art to living, it is knowing when to be hard on yourself and when to go easy on yourself. This is more difficult than it seems.

The small patch of understanding and meaning you can create for yourself will be the anchor of your happiness. Grow and guard it.