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WHAT GRADUATION SPEECH WOULD YOU GIVE?

I live in Boston. You can’t turn around without bumping into another higher ed institution. And the end of May and early June bring lots of lost parents, crowded restaurants and commencement speakers. Not that this would ever occur but I’ve been thinking about what I would say to a graduating class.

I wouldn’t talk about “following your passion” or other such trite garbage. And I wouldn’t tell some inspirational personal story because, frankly, I’ve been very fortunate and haven’t done big things in the world. So what would I say that is sure to be forgotten before I even ended my speech?

I asked myself: Is there something we never learn in college that would prepare us for the world of work? Is there something meaningful to say to a group of young adults with their hands on the door knob to the big wide world? Is there something to say about navigating the ups and downs of the real world that isn’t sugar coated or a total bummer?

Here’s my message: Develop a habit of self awareness and emotional/psychological growth.

Our universities don’t teach this. Our workplaces don’t discuss or foster this. Our families and personal relationships force us to reflect…and sometimes grow. It seems that self awareness and psychological growth occupy the private and isolated domains of therapy and new-age-self-help. And those two paths are laden with mixed reactions as well as outcomes.

It’s too bad that we think you have to be in therapy to be fully tuned into your thoughts, feelings and actions. In truth, there are many ways to develop and practice self awareness that don’t require shrink bills or crystals. But this dialogue isn’t happening much out in the real world and we are all the worse off for it.

Just imagine if you had learned a self knowledge discipline by the time you left college. You would know how to identify your emotions, make clear decisions about what actions you want to select, see the consequences of your behavior, fess up to your errors, try new actions, nurture constructive relationships, manage strong emotions etc. etc. Imagine bringing that consciousness into your work situation. Your abilities to collaborate or assert yourself or pull back or draw others out or make tough calls would be so accessible. You would catch yourself when you were seeking approval or making a power grab or diminishing someone else for your own gain. You might stop yourself or change course or fall into it any way but be hooked up enough to feel badly afterwards and circle back.

In the real world we won’t all follow our passions and we won’t all be lucky enough to have clear sailing and never screw up at work. Many of us will suffer through times of career lows, “taking on project work”, getting fired for cause, doing something stupid. There is no rosy picture to paint. The world of work is varied; lots of good news and bad news and a huge amount of meh. There is no “just do these 5 things consistently and the world is your oyster” list. Instead there is the challenge of living a life with all it’s ups and downs.

But if we had some good habits for being self aware and striving to keep growing we could be pretty terrific at work. We could take greater responsibility for our actions, be more aware of our impact on the people around us, react with greater dignity when we screw up, be more generous with our co-workers, set our egos aside more frequently to serve the greater good. In short we would bring a level of attentiveness to the workplace that would keep our gremlins in check.

I know I am fantasizing and getting dangerously close to organizing another “harmonic convergence” movement but a girl can dream. I know that if my commencement speaker had said to my 21 year old self “The key to a rich or likely successful work life is self awareness” I might have heard it as a bunch of mumbo jumbo. But it’s more probable that I would have shouted “Right on sistah!” just before I passed the joint down the row.

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