Define Yourself

The back-to-school season is in full swing, so naturally my mind has turned to … graduation speeches?

Regular readers of this space have already figured out (and maybe even been warned) that my train of thought usually runs on tracks with a lot of switchbacks, so for me to end up thinking about graduation on/before day one of another school year may not be much of a surprise at this point.  For the uninitiated, maybe a quick route map would be helpful, so here goes.

Those speeches at graduations are commonplace, their content fairly predictable as well. Students are encouraged to go forth and do great things, admonished not to believe they know everything, reminded of their journey, etc, etc. They’re also being told all of this in the midst of a major milestone in their lives, perhaps the biggest milestone of their lives to date, so forgive me if I question how much of it really sticks. It’s understandable, they’re caught up in the moment and all.

That started me thinking about whether, maybe, instead of graduation speeches we should actually be giving speeches to incoming freshmen. High school or college, matters not really, what I wish they would both hear and embrace is pretty much the same. And it would go something like this …


As you embark upon this journey, you are no doubt filled with questions.  Concerns.  Even fears.
I will not attempt to allay all of those, nothing I could possibly say in the time allotted to me could possibly cover all the things that have run through your mind in recent days.   I will, however, suggest that you take heart in your chances of survival.  After all, I stand here before you as evidence that the next four (or more) years are indeed a temporary condition.

Instead, I’d like to use this time to offer you something that might help you keep those fears and challenges in some perspective, for as overwhelming as they may seem both now and in the years to come, none of them are the defining moment of your life.

You will undoubtedly have that suggested to you repeatedly as you take this journey.  This “big thing” or this “most important” thing or some other “critical vital crucial” thing will be presented to you as the most end-all and be-all situation of your life.   But it isn’t true.   Those are mostly motivational tactics designed to get you to reach your potential.  Dirty trick on the part of those older & supposedly wiser perhaps, but they’re mostly well-intentioned so don’t get too mad over it.

Even more assuredly, you will be told over the next few years that you are  … too fat, too skinny, too ugly, too pretty, too rich, too poor, too smart, too dumb, too fast, too slow … mostly too “something” and not nearly enough of “something else”.   And as soon as you correct one of those “toos”, another will appear to take its place.   Like night follows day — or vice versa — there will always be something wrong with you.  You may laugh nervously about that now but, well, you’ll see.

It’s those things, those labels, that are quite possibly your biggest obstacles on the track ahead.  Not that they are applied to you — that’s going to happen because that just seems to be the nature of people — but rather how you respond to those labels.  Whether you allow yourself to become weighted with that millstone, burdened with that albatross.    You see, people are bound to try to shackle you with those chains … but they cannot force you to carry them.

You have the ability to make those things, effectively, weightless.  Or at least nearly so.   Accept them and the combined weight can, and usually will, slow you down.  Refuse them — in your own heart & mind — and they cost only the time it takes you to remind yourself that those “toos” are not who you are.

That brings me to my own challenge for you:  define yourself.

In the years ahead, you may very well discover that you are “too” something and “not enough” something else.   Happens to everybody, just part of it.   The important thing here, what I want you to realize and both take heart in AND take to heart is … YOU can define what you are “too” and what you aren’t “enough”.

Those “toos” and “nots” are what will make up the sum total of the person you become.  The person you are.  The person you will see in the mirror every day for the rest of your life.  And the proper amounts of those things are determined by what you aspire to be, by WHO you aspire to be.

Now don’t take my words to some unrealistic extreme.  I’m not suggesting that nothing matters except your own head.   There are both qualities and performances required for virtually everything that lies ahead.  If you’re 4’2, being a dominant center in the NBA isn’t in your future.  If you fail every single math test this year, you are not going to be named math student of the year.And unfortunately we do not live in a world that runs as a meritocracy, not only will you not get what you do not earn, you frequently will not get things that you DO earn.  And yet, none of those things DEFINES you.

The rock star, the doctor, the preacher, the model … those are things people DO.  They are not who those people ARE.   They are “good guys” or “asshats”.  They are “dear friends” or they are “complete bitches”.   The person you are – how you are defined – is about how you live your life relative to your own values and standards, it isn’t about what you do from 9 to 5.  Those things are not what stare back at you in the mirror each night and each morning.  They may provide a better looking mirror, but what looks back at you is the same person no matter where the mirror is hanging.

So, as the year begins, I challenge you: define yourself.  If need be, REdefine yourself.  But don’t passively sit back and allow everyone else to define you.  Don’t give away that much power, it will be abused.  Guard that power, nurture it, use it to reach your goals.  Define yourself.


Yeah, that’s about what I’d tell ’em.


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