I don’t remember a word from my graduation.

I don’t even remember who spoke at it, much less what they said.

That’s partly because I was exhausted (our art school staged our portfolio review and our graduation on the same day), but also because people rarely say anything memorable during a commencement speech. It’s just a day of platitudes and stock emotions, a ceremony, a rite of passage… a blur, really, that happens more or less the same way in every school in every city, every year.

So, apologies to whomever spoke at my graduation. Maybe you did say some of the things I’m about to say here, and I just wasn’t paying attention because I was sleep-deprived and starving. I could go back and watch the tape, but like most things in life, I don’t have time to relive them.

And to all my friends graduating this year — and to everyone who’s still negotiating the curriculum of life — here’s what I wish I had known when I was 22 and staring at the blank page of my own impending future.

Who you are now is who you’ll always be.

You may think that age and experience change people. Sometimes they do. But, broadly speaking, who you are at the age of 23 is who you’ll be at 73.

Yes, experience and circumstance will provide you with opportunities to change your attitude, but by and large, your attitude has already been shaped by the first two decades of your life. And if you could travel back in time to meet your next boss when he was 23, you’d see all the same personality traits and tendencies on display then that you do now.

So don’t expect people to change. They’ll do it if they want to, not because you want them to.

The only meaning your life has is the meaning you give it.

My apologies to all the straight-A students in the room, but this is where the easy part ends.

Now that you’ve graduated, no one can ever again tell you what you need to do to succeed. There is no syllabus for reality. It’s up to you to decide where you want to go next, and why. It’s up to you to decide if your life is worth living.

This can be hard to understand, especially for straight-A students who’ve always excelled because they followed the directions and aced all the tests. In life, everything is a test, and the only person who can tell you whether or not you’re passing or failing is you.

Don’t get lost counting things that don’t matter.

Materialism and tradition are false benchmarks we use to tell if we’re succeeding, because we’re desperate for ways to measure our progress. Are you married yet? How nice is your car?

It doesn’t matter.

What matters is how you feel about yourself.

Eventually, you will die. We don’t know if there is an afterlife, but we do know that there is this life. And when you take the time to reflect on who you’ve been, what you’ll remember are not the things you had, but how your choices made you feel.

Be comfortable alone, but don’t be a loner.

Being alone gives you time to reflect, consider, plan, and appreciate.

Being with others gives you memories, experiences, and purpose.

Do both.

You can’t break anything.

Let’s be blunt: unless you kill or rape someone and get jailed for the rest of your life, there is literally nothing you could possibly do that can’t be fixed, atoned for, and improved upon throughout the rest of your life.

Go bankrupt? You’ll be more responsible next time. Get divorced? You can find someone new.

Whatever seems like it’s the end of the world isn’t, so get busy having experiences. Eventually, you’ll figure out which ones provide you with a better return on your investment of time, resources, effort, and emotion, but the only way you’ll figure that out is by comparing and contrasting the ones that do with the ones that don’t.

The less you need, the more exciting your life will be.

Things trap us and hold us in place. The more you can’t live without, the more difficult it is to take action. Possessions and titles hold us back. In the end, you’ll want a life filled with experiences, not things.

Find your passion and your purpose.

Not to get too primal on you, but here’s the basic thing about life: when you’re fighting for your survival, you only have two choices — live, or die. If you’ve just graduated, you understand this dichotomy as “pass, or fail.” And now your next goal is to find a job that pays you enough money to keep you alive.

Everything after that is a bonus.

But once you amass enough resources that you no longer have to worry about imminent extinction, you’ll have the freedom to decide what else you want to do. This can be a double-edged sword.

For some people, it can lead to a life of exploration and discovery. But for others, a lack of a clear goal can lead to materialism, or dogma, or other institutionalized ways of measuring our alleged success. Or it can lead to a life of ennui and boredom, in which we no longer understand what our purpose is because we’ve seemingly attained what we need and we can’t figure out what else we should be doing with all this leftover time, money, and influence.

In those cases, look at what excites you, and what makes you angry.

What you’re excited about is what you want to learn more about, because the exploration of that passion makes you happy.

What you’re angry about is probably some kind of injustice — child abuse, animal abuse, disease, oppression, or any other violation of the social contract. It infuriates you because it offends your karmic sense of equilibrium in the world.

If you’re excited about something, explore it.

If you’re angry about something, fix it.

If you have a passion that makes you happy and a purpose that drives you to action, you’ll never be bored, and you’ll always be able to make choices in life because you’ll have twin compasses of pleasure and purpose to measure those choices against.


Never worry about whether or not you made the right choice.

Instead, ask yourself two things:

  • Did I make things better?
  • What did I learn that I didn’t know before I made this choice?

The degree to which any choice was the “right” choice is irrelevant, because right and wrong are subjective in all cases. You really just want to make sure you’re not making life worse for yourself or other people; everything else is just various shades of learning.

Love is what happens when someone else makes you want to be better.

We have a mythical concept of love as an external miracle that happens between two people, and which must be protected and sustained lest it be lost.

That’s bullshit.

The truth is, love is a chemical reaction that happens in your brain when you meet someone else who amazes and delights you and makes you want to be as good as you believe they are. The pleasure is love; the fear of losing them — of losing that feeling — is what fuels us to make the other person happy, so they keep exuding that same sense of wonder, which makes us happy in exchange.

This is known as “the honeymoon phase,” and it always ends, because any new stimuli eventually ceases to spark the same neurological responses it first did. At that point, the question is: does how we feel about each other daily, in the functional sense, feel better than what it would feel like to experience the honeymoon phase with someone else?

Sometimes the answer is yes; sometimes no. That answer is never right or wrong. And eventually, you’ll reach the end of the honeymoon phase with someone and realize that you’ve found someone you’d rather not be without.

Relationships aren’t about “which one of you is winning.”

They’re about succeeding together. And that means all the unsexy terms like support, sacrifice, and compromise. But don’t think of a relationship as “work.” Think of a good, functioning relationship as the engine that allows each of you to accomplish together the things in your lives that you could not do if you were attempting them apart.

Equally, a relationship is about this:

People are who they are, and they don’t change for anyone but themselves.

If you’re waiting for someone to change, you’ll be disappointed. We are who we are. You’ll probably spend too much time in some relationships, hoping the other person will change while simultaneously refusing to change yourself. That doesn’t make either of you wrong, necessarily; it just means you’re being unrealistic.

Conversely, if you love someone despite their flaws — which really means, if the frustration you feel because the other person isn’t your idea of “perfect” doesn’t overshadow the buzz you get from all the ways they make you feel amazing about life itself — then you’ve found someone who can help you become the person you want to be.

And, by helping each other become our own idealized versions of ourselves, we fuel one another’s passions and purposes in ways that you can’t even conceive of during the honeymoon phase.

Don’t try to be perfect; just do your best.

Your idealized self isn’t perfect, really. It isn’t gorgeous, it isn’t flawless, it isn’t infallible.

Your idealized self is kind, and honest, and doing the best s/he can, every day.

Your idealized self is what you hope to become in the time you have. And you never know how much time you have. So do the best you can, every day. And when you fuck up, fix it. And when you hurt someone, apologize. And when you need help, ask for it. And when you love someone, let them know.

Tomorrow is not guaranteed. No one is perfect. Make the best of it. And when in doubt, find the humor in the situation. Because humor — the appreciation that something is amiss — allows us to believe that there’s still time for things to get better.

Don’t act your age; just live your character.

You are not your age. You are not your skin. You are not your job. You are not your shortcomings.

You are not your skills. You are not your successes. You are not your failures. You are not your reputation.

You are not your family, your home, or your name.

You are simply what you think and what you do. And everything you do and think either changes or reinforces who you are at any given moment.

Your character is defined by your actions and your reactions. Take actions, so you don’t have to spend your entire life reacting. You are your choices.

Sitting here and reading this blog post was your choice. Writing it was mine. What we do with it now is up to each of us.

Just like life.

Congratulations, class of whichever year you’re reading this in.

Now go do something incredible.


Ara Bedrossian · May 20, 2013 at 6:41 pm

I think you laid some golden nuggets up in there.

I like the section “The less you need, the more exciting your life will be.”

The more you do with less, and you’ll be liberated in the best way possible.
And if you love your house, car, and clothes, spend more money on them. If you live in your experiences, spend more money on them.
Self awareness goes a long way, If we find what we do isn’t what we want, that space that gets us between them needs analyzed… because that is who we are.

bridgetforney · May 20, 2013 at 9:23 am

I’m on the fence about your “people don’t change” comments. I agree people only change for themselves – not for others, but I’m only 26 and definitely NOT the same person I was at 23! Overall, great post – thanks, Justin!

C.C. Chapman · May 20, 2013 at 8:58 am

Thank you for writing this. Tons of great advice here.

Mel · May 20, 2013 at 8:46 am

And don’t forget the sunscreen, right? :)

I enjoyed this post greatly. Thanks for the reminder that life is what we make of it. Cheers!

I’m Going Back to School… Kind Of | Justin Kownacki · June 9, 2013 at 9:25 pm

[…] enjoyed my experience — mostly because I like to learn, but also because I excel when I know what the rules are and what’s required to obtain the […]

The Commencement Series: 1/5 | SHE UPPITY · May 29, 2013 at 11:39 am

[…] The Commencement Speech I Wish Someone Had Given at My Graduation (justinkownacki.com) […]

Memorable Commencement Speeches – Public Speaking At It’s Best | mayo615 · May 27, 2013 at 3:06 am

[…] The Commencement Speech I Wish Someone Had Given at My Graduation (justinkownacki.com) […]

Author John Greene Gives Amazing Commencement With Lessons We Can All Take Away From It | What's The Word? · May 25, 2013 at 12:52 pm

[…] The Commencement Speech I Wish Someone Had Given at My Graduation (justinkownacki.com) […]

My Favorite Commencement Speeches- Congratulations Class of 2013! | The Galaxy · May 25, 2013 at 11:48 am

[…] The Commencement Speech I Wish Someone Had Given at My Graduation (justinkownacki.com) […]

Blog Every Day in May, Day 15: Well-being, wonder and wisdom, or a Wise Woman’s Commencement Speech | Contemplating Love · May 21, 2013 at 3:55 pm

[…] The Commencement Speech I Wish Someone Had Given at My Graduation (justinkownacki.com) […]

Leave a Reply

Avatar placeholder

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.