Last year when I stood here—not exactly here, since I’m now standing in my bedroom—I told the graduating class of 2019 that they were entering the best job market in 50 years. Since then, the job market has done a 180, and now, you, the class of 2020, are entering the exact opposite: the worst job market in 50 years.
Yes, these are scary, uncertain, unsettling times. Yes, it’s far from fair you’re unable to finish your final year of school with your friends, unable to publicly celebrate the great accomplishment of graduation. But these are also times that present certain opportunities. Opportunities that no graduating class in history has ever been given. Opportunities that no graduating class in the future will ever be given.
Let me ask you a question: Do you like lists? Rankings? Here at Vault, we specialized in lists and rankings. And when we list and rank the best commencement speeches of all time, a certain few always place among the top. One is the speech given by former Apple CEO Steve Jobs at Stanford University in 2005—two years before Apple released its first iPhone.
Allow me to quote from Jobs’ speech here:
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
After these words, Jobs went on to tell about how he was diagnosed with cancer, beat cancer (that time), and then said:
“Death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent.”
And that, I think, is a good way to look at this time. This time is a change agent. You’ve been given the opportunity, with death all around you, with much of the country sheltering in place, to pause, think, choose, change. You now have the opportunity to pause to reflect on how you got here, think about where you want to go, choose which direction to take, and change directions if you feel like somewhere along the way you took a wrong turn.
You now have the opportunity to do these things because you have the time to do these things. Time you might not have had otherwise.
The truth is many of you have been charging hard since Jobs gave his speech back in 2005—since kindergarten, or maybe the first grade. I know that many of you have been working tirelessly for that long. I commend you for it. And now, if you’re not already, is a chance for you to follow your heart, get onto a path of courage, a path that allows you to get out of the trap of thinking you have something to lose.
Maybe you’re already on a path like that. Great. But maybe you’re not. Maybe you’re on a path that you think you should be on, not one you want to be on, one that doesn’t feel quite right. Maybe you’ve been pushed in certain directions, and you’ve never really had the time to pause, think, choose, change.
Now you have the time. Now you have the time to ask yourself whether expectations placed upon you—maybe even by you yourself—are those you truly want to live up to. Now you have the time to ask yourself if you've let fear of embarrassment or failure get in the way of what you truly want.
Keep in mind that this time will never happen again. Not like this it won’t. This time is unique. This time is a once-in-a-century occurrence. And you are the graduating class of this time. This year, 2020, will go down in history as the year the entire world paused. And also, hopefully, as the year the entire world thought, chose, changed. You, the graduating class of 2020, are the ones who will lead us into this change, into this new post-Covid-19 world. You are the chosen class.
Also keep in mind that nothing’s going back to the way it was. If anyone tells you they can’t wait to get back to “normal,” they’re living under an illusion. There’s no back. There’s only forward. Testing, admitting, recruiting, interviewing, internships, jobs, offices, work, workplaces ... everything is changing. Systems were failing. Education, economic, health care, political. So-called leaders in charge were failing. Changes needed to be made. The time we’re now in is only speeding up these changes.
Even the commencement speech is changing. This year, every speech, just like nearly everything else in the world, has gone virtual. And already, several virtual commencement speeches have been delivered that demand a listen. One by a former president of the United States. One by perhaps the most influential woman on the planet. And one I’d like to quote from here.
That speech was given by Dr. Craig Spencer. Dr. Spencer became somewhat well known a handful of years ago while fighting the Ebola virus in West Africa—and contracted the virus himself. Ebola has a death rate of 80 percent, but Spencer survived. Now, he’s again on the front lines, this time helping to fight Covid-19. You’ll be hard pressed to find a more courageous professional working today, in any profession.
Like Jobs, Dr. Spencer looked death in the face, and is better for it.
As for Spencer’s speech, it builds to one final message. Allow me to quote that message here:
“No matter what your plans are after graduation, whether starting a job or pursuing further training, I ask you to commit to community. Both locally. And globally. To always think about how you can make an impact. And to always extend a hand to those who need it most. In doing so you will discover that the path to your best self lies in service to others.”
Let me repeat that last phrase.
The path to your best self lies in service to others.
It’s important. Commit it to memory. Remember it.
Also, remember to thank essential workers, move, wash your hands, wear a mask, wear pants, proofread your resume, write cover letters, practice interviewing, don't be afraid to take a job that's not your dream job on your way to your dream job, and, most important, help your fellow citizens. They’re walking toward the same destination you are. The destination from which no one has ever escaped. So, while you’re walking toward that destination, make the most of the way there. Serve each other. Look for your best self and help your fellow citizens look for their best selves. You can’t hold each other’s hands right now, but you can still help each other out.
I wish all of you good fortune, good luck, and good health. Thank you and congratulations, Class of 2020.
Now, go ahead, throw your caps in the air!
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