Every spring, new graduates sit through commencement addresses full of advice to seize the day, dream big and make the world a better place.
Charles Wheelan says he's sick of those speeches. When he spoke at his alma mater, Dartmouth College, he delivered what he called an "anti-commencement" speech, with straightforward advice that he wishes someone had told him at graduation. He lists 10 of those pieces of advice in an essay that ran in the Wall Street Journal, including "Some of your worst days lie ahead" and "Don't try to be great."
Wheelan joins NPR's Jennifer Ludden to talk about the 10 things your commencement speaker won't tell you.
On his first piece of advice: Your time in fraternity basements was well spent.
"It's meant to be more broad than just fraternity basements. It's playing Frisbee; it's playing with friends, hanging out where you're not doing work that you could be doing, because ... we have research now on what makes people happy, what gives us a sense of well-being. And the thing that comes up all the time is our connection with other human beings.
"And that's really what I'm talking about. And I think at commencement, it's a good time to look around at the people around you — your classmates, your family. And one metric of success might be, how many of these people am I still close to in 15 or 20 years? ...
"I took 35 classes in college. Many of them were terrific, but some of them I can't remember at all, let alone specific assignments. But the people, of course, are the things that shape your life."
On his second piece of advice: Some of your worst days lie ahead.
"The traditional commencement advice is to come in and say, look, it's all going to be rosy, and you're going to change the world, and here's the path that will take you there. And I think everybody knows in the back of their minds — and certainly anybody over the age of 25 knows for sure — that there are going to be some rough patches.
"So the story I told was the story of my roommate, and he is a terrific guy, very bright, but he desperately wanted to be a Wall Street banker. He interviewed all senior year, didn't get a job. ... We graduated. He didn't get a job all summer. By the following fall, he was living with his mother in San Francisco — still no job. And I happened to travel through. I was headed west on a trip around the world. And he had one job offer at that point.
"And that was as assistant food and beverage manager at a hotel on the island of Saipan. ... I said, you know, take it, see what happens. I wasn't the only one.
"What turned out to happen is that he went to Saipan — which is an island, by the way, that's 2 miles by 5 in the middle of the Pacific. He met his wife, who was from New Zealand, happened to be there. And then he got into the hospitality industry, went on to become CEO of Rosewood Hotels. So I think when students hear that, hey, just because I don't happen to have the best job at the moment, it's reassuring in an odd kind of way."
On his final guidance to graduates: Don't try to be great.
"It comes from some advice that was actually given to me by a talk show host in Chicago. It's a live TV show. And about 30 seconds before air time, when you're nervous and worried about falling off your stool with everything else, he leans over to the guest and he says, don't try to be great. And the reason it was so effective is that it makes you far less nervous. At that point, you don't have to worry about being the best guest ever. You can say, look, I'll be solid. That was what he says, just be solid, because at that point, it's in your control. You know the material. You don't have to be wonderful. ...
"You might end up being great, but so many of those things are beyond your control. And if, from day one, you're putting pressure on yourself to be in the NBA or win a Pulitzer Prize, it might actually lead you to make some decisions that are too risk averse or not to do some things that will lead in better directions in the long run."
JENNIFER LUDDEN, HOST:
Now that it's May, college seniors are gearing up for finals, and commencement speakers are polishing their words of wisdom. You can bet they'll be filled with some tried and true advice about finding your way, following your passion and changing the world. Well, Charles Wheelan is sick of all that. When he was asked to give the class day speech last year at his alma mater, Dartmouth College, he cut to the chase with some real talk about what lies ahead.
Much of his advice is drawn from the social science research he's done into happiness and well-being. That speech turned into a book called "10 1/2 Things No Commencement Speaker Has Ever Said." And that was adapted into an essay that appeared last week in The Wall Street Journal. Charles Wheelan joins us in a moment. What do you wish they told you at your graduation? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can join the conversation at our website, go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
And Charles Wheelan joins us now from member station WBEZ in Chicago. He's a senior lecturer at the Harris School of Public Policy Studies there at the University of Chicago. Welcome to the program.
DR. CHARLES WHEELAN: Good to be with you.
LUDDEN: So let's start with number one on your list: Your time in fraternity basements was well spent. Parents might go, really, I'll say.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
WHEELAN: Right. And when I used that in the speech last year, the president of Dartmouth College was sitting right behind me. And when you begin a speech that way, he gets visibly nervous.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
WHEELAN: But I think the statement is evidently defensible. And, of course, it's meant to be more broad than just fraternity basements. It's playing Frisbee; it's playing with friends, hanging out where you're not doing work that you could be doing, because, as you alluded to in your introduction, we have research now on what makes people happy, what gives us a sense of well-being. And the thing that comes up all the time is our connection with other human beings.
And that's really what I'm talking about. And I think at commencement, it's a good time to look around at the people around you - your classmates, your family. And one metric of success might be how many of these people am I still close to in 15 or 20 years.
LUDDEN: So looking back in 15 years, that 3.9 GPA just doesn't do it?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
WHEELAN: No. I took 35 classes in college. Many of them were terrific, but some of them I can't remember at all, let alone specific assignments. But the people, of course, are the things that shape your life.
LUDDEN: The next lesson on your list sounds a bit ominous, and about the last thing that people are likely to tell a new graduate: Some of your worst days lie ahead.
WHEELAN: Well, this turned out to be actually one of the most popular points in the speech because everybody is concerned about where they're going. And the traditional commencement advice is to come in and say, look, it's all going to be rosy, and you're going to change the world, and here's the path that will take you there. And I think everybody knows in the back of their minds - and certainly anybody over the age of 25 knows for sure - that there are going to be some rough patches.
So the story I told was the story of my roommate, and he is a terrific guy, very bright, but he desperately wanted to be a Wall Street banker. He interviewed all senior year, didn't get a job. All senior spring didn't get a job. We graduated, he didn't get a job all summer. By the following fall, he was living with his mother in San Francisco - still no job. And I happened to travel through. I was headed west on a trip around the world. And he had one job offer at that point.
And that was as assistant food and beverage manager at a hotel on the island of Saipan.
LUDDEN: Oh, God.
WHEELAN: Remember, this is a guy who thought he was going to be a Wall Street titan, and I said, you know, take it, see what happens. I wasn't the only one. What turned out to happen is that he went to Saipan, which is an island, by the way, that's two miles by five in the middle of the Pacific. He met his wife, who was from New Zealand, happened to be there. And then he got into the hospitality industry, went on to become CEO of Rosewood Hotels. So I think when students hear that, hey, just because I don't happen to have the best job at the moment, it's reassuring in an odd kind of way.
LUDDEN: That would be what my mother says, everything happens for a reason.
WHEELAN: Even on Saipan.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LUDDEN: Yeah. All right. Let's take a call. Patrick is in Holyoke, Massachusetts. Hi, there.
PATRICK #1: Hi.
LUDDEN: Go right ahead.
#1: Yeah. I think one thing that I remember being told was that that I should shoot for the stars, and that I should try to get a job at the best newspaper. I wanted to be a journalist. And it was a friend of mine that told me not to shoot for the stars, and he told me to start in the city where I live. And he said, go to the Holyoke Sun, which is a weekly newspaper and apply there and see if they'll hire you. And I took his advice, and I've been a journalist for like 10 years now. I'm actually a school teacher full time, and I work part time as a journalist. And I write for the daily newspaper up here now. I just write - not a column, but I write feature stories about the city, Holyoke, and the surrounding area.
And I think just having - sort of staying local and staying sort of grounded and not - that idea of shooting for the stars, and thinking that you have to be so beyond what you are and just knowing my limits and knowing that it's OK to have limits and not to be the best.
LUDDEN: Patrick, thanks so much for sharing.
LUDDEN: And, Charles, you have a version of this called: don't try to be great.
WHEELAN: It's actually the last point in both the essay and the book. It comes from some advice that was actually given to me by a talk show host in Chicago. It's a live TV show. And about 30 seconds before air time, when you're nervous and worried about falling off your stool with everything else, he leans over to the guest and he says, don't try to be great. And the reason it was so effective is that it makes you far less nervous. At that point, you don't have to worry about being the best guest ever. You can say, look, I'll be solid. That was what he says, just be solid, because at that point, it's in your control. You know the material. You don't have to be wonderful.
And I think your caller nailed it on the head, which is you might end up being great, but so many of those things are beyond your control. And if, from day one, you're putting pressure on yourself to be in the NBA or win a Pulitzer Prize, it might actually lead you to make some decisions that are too risk averse or not to do some things that will lead in better directions in the long run.
LUDDEN: Hmm. That's nice advice. And how does that segue with your happiness? That is, there a mental way we can make ourselves happier by just lowering our expectations?
WHEELAN: It's actually - it wasn't about expectations and more about finding the journey. I think most of the research suggests that find something that you're passionate about, that on a day-to-day basis, you believe has purpose. So it's more about this finding purpose in life and worrying less about where the path leads and more about being on a path that you're pleased with day after day that you find worthwhile.
LUDDEN: All right. Let's see get Patrick on the line. He's in Boulder, Colorado. Hi, Patrick.
PATRICK #2: Hey. How's it going?
#2: I guess that my comment, really, relates to what you guys are talking about right now. I just graduated last year from Manhattan College, and we had...
#2: ...William Kennedy as our commencement speaker. And he told - he's an author and I was an English major and he told us the best ideas will never make us any money. And in the last year, I've been writing for blogs and just, you know, trying to pick up any writing I can get, and I've gotten a lot of attention. But like you said, I - my - the most creative ideas haven't gotten me any money, but they've gotten me attention, so.
LUDDEN: Oh. That's a little harsh.
#2: It was harsh, but it actually was - it was awakening, enlightening.
LUDDEN: All right. Well, Patrick, thanks so much.
#2: Thank you.
LUDDEN: Charles Wheelan?
WHEELAN: I think some of the great ideas, well, if they're really good, they might make you some money down the road, but I think it's also true that when you look at people who've done extraordinary things, they're rarely setting out to do them for the money in the beginning. And as one of the points in the book, it's just a mini point, is read obituaries. And the rationale is obituaries are just like biographies, only they're shorter, and they give you some sense of how Steve Jobs ends up where he is and other folks like that. And what you find is, often, it's about the idea or the innovation or the technology and even where it works out really well, the first love was about creating something of great value.
LUDDEN: All right. We've got some emails. Rudolph(ph) in Kansas City, Missouri, writes: Don't get your hopes up is the advice I wish I would have heard. And Shannon(ph) in St. Louis, Missouri - here's some advice: Your parents' house has free beer and maybe even walk-out basement. Don't be afraid to move back home. In fact, do it. Matt is on the line, Portland, Oregon. Hi there, Matt.
MATT: Hi. How are you?
MATT: Well, let's see, it's been so long since I graduated, I'm not sure I remember anything that was said in my graduation commencement speech. But something that I do wish I had heard was that not everyone is going to treat you as you want to be treated. So I'm talking about difficult co-workers. Some things you can't control in life and one of them is that people don't always have your back, even people you - you have to work with. I think I know I've had some bad experiences in the past, and I'm not going to go into those details, but it certainly is out there, that you're going to work with people not all whom you get along with.
LUDDEN: And it's not something people really warn you about, is it?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MATT: No. And it's - and you can't control it.
LUDDEN: All right, Matt. Thank you so much. We have someone else calling in about the workplace, Jill in Boise, Idaho.
JILL: I wish someone had told me to choose a career that suited my temperament. For example, I don't like sitting still very much for long periods of time. I'd rather be on my feet. And you can be the smartest person in the world and the best at your job, but if it makes you miserable every day, it's really never going to work out. And happiness is the goal, I think, your guest has said here. So I would - if I had to do it again, I would - my - I'm middle aged. My BA is in art management, and I eventually ended up in political management and - which suits the major, but I'm on my feet and working all the time, you know? So it suits me better.
LUDDEN: Great. Jill, thanks so much.
LUDDEN: Charles Wheelan, do you talk about what kind of career people should forge and what they should bear in mind when they do?
WHEELAN: Well, you know, that was actually implicit in the story I told earlier about my roommate John who ended up on this island of Saipan. So the takeaway was not that he was in a small island of the Pacific. The takeaway, which is developed in the book, is that he was much better suited for the hospitality industry than he was for Wall Street. Basically, the reason he wasn't getting a job on Wall Street was, he just didn't have the right temperament. He was perfectly smart, but he was much more urbane and polished. And so when he fell into the hospitality industry, really, he had landed where he belonged. So it reinforces exactly what your previous caller said.
LUDDEN: Another thing on your list: don't make the world worse.
WHEELAN: Yeah. I really lowered the bar on this one.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
WHEELAN: I work with a lot of policy students and, of course, you know, every commencement speech is you're going to cure cancer, or you're going to solve malaria and so on. And I sat back and said, look. Really smart people with fancy degrees are doing awful things, so just don't do that. And the example I used in both the book and the speech was an iconic moment, certainly, from when I was growing up. Many of your listeners will remember when the seven tobacco executives went before Congress, all took the oath and swore that cigarettes are not addictive. And the reason I use that example is, now, history has cleared away any ambiguity. We know exactly what was going on there, which is that's simply not true. And on a whim I had my research assistant go back and check out where these folks went to school. And lo and behold, they were not high school dropouts. There were three Harvard degrees among that group.
And so I think the key takeaway here is, if you're really smart and bright and motivated, you can do some terrific things, but a lot of those folks go on to sell cereal to kids who don't need it and market unhealthy products. And in the case of the tobacco executives, they're not curing cancer. They're spreading it, so I'm lowering the bar saying, just take all your inherent talent and don't abuse it.
LUDDEN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. A couple of emails here. Indira(ph) in West Valley City, Utah, writes: To save, save, save money, is her advice.
And Aaron(ph) in San Francisco: What I wish I'd been told what I honestly think graduates need to hear: you're not that special. I'm mean, sure, you're special to your family and friends, she writes and - or he writes - and to your self, but to the rest of the world, you're not. Remember, everyone around you also has needs and may very well see themselves as special. Let's get a caller on the line, Joe(ph) in Charlotte, North Carolina.
JOE: Yeah. When I graduated, I wish someone have said this to me: Now realize that you know very little, and you're going to have to learn your way into anything you choose.
LUDDEN: Hmm. Because graduates do think they know a lot, right? They've just had all that - those years of study. Did you think you knew more than you did, Joe?
JOE: Well, I - when I graduated, I - within six weeks, I got a job in an addiction treatment program as a ground-level counselor. After 15 years, I was director of the place and then I had a five-year contract with the state, working in the prison system, and then, eventually, I retired. So I found out for real that I really had to learn my way into that profession.
LUDDEN: All right. Well, it sounds like you did a good job there. Joe, thank you so much.
JOE: You're welcome.
LUDDEN: Charles Wheelan, another thing you often don't hear graduation speakers talk about: death. Steve Jobs' famous commencement speech, may be an exception there, but your advice to graduates is to read obituaries. Tell us what you mean by that?
WHEELAN: Well, I think one of the great lessons is to figure out how people got where they got, particularly people whom you admire. And when you read an obituary - I like reading biographies as well, but an obituary is usually more self-contained - you realize that interesting people rarely have orderly and linear lives. And so I think it's a teachable moment when you see that, boy, this person who changed investment banking or who was a successful politician, didn't start out there when they were 23. Usually, a good obituary traces the path, often involves that passionate journey that we talked about, and I think that could be a very important lesson for people who are trying to figure out their own path.
LUDDEN: All right. Let's get one last call in here, Jim in Toledo, Ohio. Hi, Jim.
JIM: Hi. Let me preface my comment by stating first that I had an excellent, excellent undergraduate education, very excellent. I have no complaint about it, but I wish I had been told that 90 percent of your interactions with every other human are either negative or neutral. And very, very rarely you get somebody that you can really, really count on or really trust. And when you do get that person or that handful of people, never ever let them go. Never ever, ever forget it about because that's golden, that's valuable, irreplaceable.
LUDDEN: Jim, thank you so much.
LUDDEN: Charles, you do talk about the importance of friends.
WHEELAN: In some ways, he steered us right back to where we began, which is in the fraternity basement, and he's made that point very poignantly, which is that, look, it's all about these human connections. As the caller points out, not all of them turn out to be terrific, so when you've got those special bonds, don't take them for granted. And, of course, the way those bonds get reinforced is through these very important kinds of social interactions.
LUDDEN: You write and one of your points, if you cancel a, you know, drinks with a friend to do - stay at work - if you go off to see a friend and skip out early at work, you're shirking your work. But if you cancel the drinks with the friend, no one can considers that shirking your friendship, but you are.
WHEELAN: Absolutely. And I think we look at the world through the work lens first. I see that point is: don't model your life after a circus animal, which is certainly not a piece of advice that comes up in most commencement speeches, but the point is only at work do you get explicit rewards. If you work harder, you get paid more, you get more explicit praise. But then there are all these other facets of your life: your interaction with your children, your family, your friends, that are just as important, but nobody gives you a performance evaluation, and you should be cognizant of that. So you should not direct efforts only in those places where somebody is giving you immediate feedback like a circus animal or a fish.
LUDDEN: All right. We have just a few seconds left but, Charles, is there anything you specifically wish you had been told back then?
WHEELAN: I think it's the worse days lie ahead because then, I think, you're ready when they come. You work through it, and you realize you're going to come out just fine on the other end.
LUDDEN: All right. Charles Wheelan is the author of "10 and a Half Things No Commencement Speaker Has Ever Said." We've got a link to his article at our website, npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. He joined us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Thanks so much.
WHEELAN: Thank you for having me.
LUDDEN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.