James – the tassel was worth the hassle!

Earlier this week I was wearing my ‘proud Dad’ smile, and tears welling up in my eye (don’t be silly, it’s just the aircon) as my son James graduated, surviving the torrid three years of full-time university study at Lancaster University. It didn’t seem five minutes since I was taking James for his first haircut.

Amidst the transition from graduands to graduates, I reflected that the graduation ceremony is an event where the vice-chancellor tells hundreds of students dressed in identical caps and gowns that individuality is the key to success. Wearing square-shaped mortarboards pulled down to fit snugly on their heads, my hope is that from time to time these folks will let their minds be bold, and wear sombreros.

Graduation is a joyous time full of celebration, accolades and recognition, warm reflection tinged with sadness about the passage of time now ending, and great anticipation about life beyond the student bar, flat and hey, even the library. By all means, enjoy graduation you worked hard to reach this point, but don’t get too caught up in the pomp and circumstance – real life is about to hit you in the face – or was that just the pesky tassel on the mortarboard?

I think Steve Jobs called it right when he said if you live each day as if it was your last, some day you’ll most certainly be right. This made a lasting impression on me, and since then I have looked in the mirror every morning, even when not shaving, and asked myself: If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today? And whenever the answer has been no, I want to be in a Clash tribute band – I knew I needed to change something.

I think that’s good personal introspection for new graduates too.Of course being a new graduate you feel like a right clever-clogs but in real life never try to be the smartest person in the room. And if you are, I suggest you invite smarter people, or find a different room.

I will hazard a prediction. When you are 80 years old, and in a quiet moment of reflection narrating for only yourself the most personal version of your life story, the telling that will be most compact and meaningful will be the series of choices you have made. In the end, we are our choices, so don’t follow where the path may lead.  Go, instead, where there is no path and leave a trail. The way I’ve observed most undergraduate students live their three years at university they do leave a trail, mainly of wet towels.

Do you need a plan from here on life’s starting grid? Not for me, don’t bother to have a plan, throw that out.  It seems to me that it’s all about opportunity and making your own luck. You study the most successful people, and they work hard and they take advantage of opportunities that come that they don’t know are going to happen to them. You cannot plan innovation, you cannot plan invention. Be curious, live with an open mind, don’t settle for the status quo. All you can do is try very hard to be in the right place at the right time, and be ready to grasp the opportunities presented.

Just as graduation releases you from one world it also catapults you into another. Moving from the security of university life to the insecurity of real life is, I recall, daunting.  Clearly, life isn’t all about your job, but it’s the first step on the ladder to realising your potential. From standing on the shoulders of giants, and a paradoxical lifestyle of intellectual stimulation and alcoholic degradation, what thoughts can you share with a new graduate to guide their first steps, because as Dr. Seuss said You have brains in your head, you have feet in your shoes, you can steer yourself in any direction you choose; you’re on your own, and you know what you know, and you are the guy who’ll decide where to go.

1. Chose your attitude Regardless of appearances, no one escapes life without enduring tough moments and cul-de-sacs. The truth is, life is messy and unpredictable. The difference between those who overcome challenges and those who succumb to them is largely one of attitude.

2. Believe in yourself Don’t let someone else define your agenda, you decide what is possible or impossible for you. Dare to believe you can be best, and make it happen. Embrace challenges and setbacks as not just refining moments, but also as defining moments. Don’t throw in the towel to defeats, learn from them, use them as springboards

3. Life beyond Xbox Relationships are the biggest asset you have. Your world will be greatly impacted by those whom you choose to include and exclude from your life. Life is about people – not things, the funny thing is, if you do right by people things will never be an issue. Time to embrace face-to-face, and get out into the daylight!

4. Be Unique Our world today is full of ‘me 2’, replicas and imitations, craft a life of originality, novelty and innovation. Conformity to the norm will merely sentence you to mediocrity, who wants to be average, surely that’s just a blank face in the crowd of irrelevance – be the voice that other folks want to listen to.

5. Audacity, with humility Remember the picks in the playground for the football team? Remember being picked for the First XV rugby team? Life is all about progression from good to great, wanting to be with other people, and other people wanting to be with you. Push yourself to be there, at the top table, but never be afraid to wash the pots too.

6. Life is too short to go unnoticed What many folks fail to appreciate is that in order to find an opportunity, you actually have to look for it. Leaning back, or leaning forwards, which do you think is the best stance to take? The first thing you need to do is to get over yourself, and then make others sit up and take notice. Catch their eye, don’t catch a cold stood waiting.

7. Reach beyond your expectations – a Shackleton quote. Success means different things to different people, and that’s okay, but it’s not other’s definitions you should be concerned with, but your own expectations. As you continue your journey of personal and professional growth, it’s my hope your sights will shift from the modest pursuit of success to the passionate pursuit of significance.

8. Graduation isn’t the end of learning, just the start. Learning, and a hunger for learning, defines the person, and is a lifelong endeavour of discovery, improvement and fulfilment. James knows nothing of the Shipping Forecast on Radio 4 (check out my next blog), yet has a head full of History. The minute you stop learning is the minute you cede your future and check out on the race to realise your potential.

9. Be happy Happiness is just a state of mind, temporary and fleeting at best, but it’s a good place to be. Thinking back to Dr Seuss again, Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope. Don’t take life too seriously, be happy.

10. Live at your Personal Best Second best is a plague, and I’d suggest you avoid it as such. In this Olympic year, look into the minds of Beamon, Owens, Lewis, Fosbury, Redgrave and Liddell. Push yourself at every moment, seize the day. Today’s laurels are tomorrow’s compost.

As Mark Twain said, Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did.  So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbour.  Catch the trade winds in your sails.  Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.

And as for that mortarboard, the tassel was worth the hassle!