When I was in sixth grade, I had one goal: to be on Broadway. By eighth grade, I wanted to be a teacher. The following years brought fantasies of being a baker, journalist, environmental crusader, crayon color-namer, taste tester, photographer and rock band drummer.
I trudged off to college with a vague idea of being all those things. Now, as I’m about to graduate, I’m left with one nagging question: What do I do with my life?
I’m not the only one asking. From day one, we millennials have been told we can do anything, be anyone – as if we know what we want to do and be.
This month, masses of soon-to-be college graduates will sit through commencement speeches with the same message comedian Ellen DeGeneres gave at Tulane University in New Orleans in 2009: “Follow your passion, stay true to yourself.”
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Or what Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin told Saint Vincent College in Pennsylvania in 2008: “You must continue to dream the wild dream that you dreamed when you were young.”
“Dream” and “passion” are empty words at this point. They’re meant to be printed on pillows and posters, not bandied about at graduation ceremonies.
Dreams are finicky things, after all. They fleet. They fly. They rarely stick around for long. We flirt with dreams; we don’t marry them. And yet commencement speakers – often the “1 percent” of dream achievers – tell college students year after year that dreams do, in fact, come true.
The idea is so common that a nationwide study conducted over 17 years by Arizona State University researchers Jenifer Partch and Richard Kinnier found “never give up” and “be true to yourself” were two of the most-used college commencement speech themes.
Which, to be honest, isn’t terrible advice. But you have to take a commencement speech for what it really is: a last-ditch effort to give students well-grounded advice.
What’s the real best advice for students?
Don’t limit yourself.
For those born with the dream-chasing gene, it won’t be a commencement speech that persuades them to go after it. For every other lost college kid, though, this idea of a dream – some guiding life goal – carries too much baggage.
So speakers, spend your precious amount of time spreading another message. Don’t tell us what we want to hear; tell us what we need to hear. Remind us that it’s OK to be lost, and that we don’t have to define ourselves by our careers. Say it’s possible to lead a meaningful, fulfilling life while working a job you only sort of like. Hobbies exist for a reason. A life lived for family, friends and Sunday afternoons is one well-lived.
To some, this sounds like a cop-out – a scared almost-college grad’s self-pacifying cry for help. A passion-free future doesn’t negate the importance of hard work and determination, though. Instead, it puts an emphasis on reinvention and flexibility. Life is a lot less scary if you’re not stuck to one version of yourself.
Then, at the end of the day, you didn’t fail. You just changed course.
Elizabeth Greiwe is the Chicago Tribune’s Editorial Board coordinator.