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Dear Graduates: Don’t Follow Your Dreams (A Commencement Speech For the Mediocre)

The brutal truth is that most people can't pay the bills by "living their passion." So what can we do instead?

Photo Credit: Sean Locke / Shutterstock


A little over a year ago, I was a waiter. For nine years, I toiled in a number of bars and restaurants from Boston to Las Vegas and a lot of places in between. I’d earned my degree (in a manner of speaking) from Emerson College in creative writing, but by the time I graduated, I was already making more money waiting tables than I could ever hope to earn as an entry-level drone at a publishing house, or marketing firm, or somewhere else I’d surely hate. I didn’t particularly love working in restaurants, mind you, but I did like the people, and I really liked the money, and I was happy to have a lot of time to myself to pursue the subjects that interested me: politics, graphic novels, art, board games with good friends, wine and women.

I had a lot of interests.

But I also had absolutely no idea what I wanted to “do” with my life, in the sense of earning a living while pursuing a career that I might not completely hate. Restaurants were an easy default to fall back on, with the added benefit of building a résumé, references and the experience in the industry that people look for when hiring someone for a job.

Years passed, and I worked at one restaurant after the next. At one point I took up painting, and for a while, I thought maybe I’d found a meaningful, serious passion that I could pursue outside my life as a waiter. It didn’t last. For the most part, I was very happy but completely unfulfilled. I craved something bigger, even if I hadn’t the faintest clue what that “thing” might be. In short, I lived the life that many of you will surely experience in the coming years, despite the fact that most commencement speakers don’t want to address this difficult, unfortunate reality.

See, commencement speakers are the outliers — the most successful, interesting people that colleges can find — and their experiences are the most inspirational but also the least realistic. Even worse, they tend to be far too willing to dish out the craziest, worst advice, simply because it somehow worked for them. “Follow your dreams” and “live your passions” are insanely unhelpful tips when the bills need paying or the rent is almost due. Invariably, commencement speakers tend to be the lucky few, the ones who followed their dreams and still managed to land on their feet: Most of us won’t become Steve Jobs or Neil Gaiman, regardless of how hard we try or how much passion we might hold. It’s far more likely to get stuck working as a waiter or bartender, or on some other dead-end career path. Most people will have to choose between “doing what they love,” and pursuing the more mundane promise of a stable paycheck and a promising career path. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with making the latter choice; in fact, I’d usually recommend it.

But for all of those young graduates who look out today and see a limitless horizon of excitement and opportunity, I hate to be the one to say it, but you probably won’t get there. And I’ve often wondered if, perhaps, those of us who ended up waiting tables or working the dead-end office jobs would be better suited to offering real advice to new graduates, advice tailored toward the majority, those who won’t attain the loftiest heights of their dreams — but still must find meaning and value in our imperfect world. And for those people, the rest of us, my advice is quite simple: Stay curious and keep learning.

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