I started "Dear Token" to answer questions that people were afraid to ask and to give unfiltered but easy to swallow advice. Recently I was asked to give a commencement address to a group of at-risk graduates. These young men and women have endured more pain and rejection already in their lives than most of us will ever know.
To be honest, I did not write the speech for those graduates. I wrote it for myself. They inspired me to take a step back from my own problems and see that the world is bigger than my temporary drama. In celebrating them I needed to kick my own ass, to remind myself to be grateful for everything I have, and to be hungry to make the most of each day.
So, nobody asked a question this time, but here's some #Token wisdom nonetheless. You're welcome.
I graduated from high school back in the dark ages, in the year 2000.
And even though there is no Facebook memory or Snapchat story to account for that day, I can still picture it very clearly. I was bald, about 50 pounds heavier, and extremely sure that I had my whole life planned out.
I remember the valedictorian, we’ll call him Steve. He made a speech that day. It was eloquent and chock full of even more SAT words than this one. But he said something that I have not been able to shake since then. As he strolled down memory lane, recounting football victories and bonding over common interests, Steve encouraged all of us to cherish our memories of high school because “high school is the greatest time of our lives.” Many of my classmates nodded. I sat in my chair and I thought, “God I really, really hope he’s wrong.”
Spoiler alert: he was.
Don’t get me wrong, I look back at my time in high school with great appreciation for the teachers and counselors who helped me, for the growth that came through trial and error, and for every friend who stuck by me through my awkward, angsty, acne-filled phase.
And I hope when you think about your experience here you do so with that same sense of appreciation.
But I know that high school, that life, has not been easy for any of you. There are many people I'm sure who did not expect you to make it to this moment in your life. There are others who still doubt what your next move will be. And that's OK. As long as you have life, you will have doubters. But you will also have an opportunity to silence all of them.
Yes, Steve was wrong that day. High school is not the greatest time of your life. In fact, I feel sorry for anyone who is too fond of their high school experience. How sad it is to peak at 18 before you can rent a car at Hertz or run for President. How sad to stop learning, to stop growing, to stop experiencing all the many emotions life has in store. However good or bad, however hard or easy, however unexpected or relentless it has been to this point, there is so much more in store for you than this.
But I did not come here to give you a regular “it gets better speech.” Because the truth is “it” doesn’t get anything. YOU get better. You get better at handling it when it gets worse. You get better at accepting what you cannot change and changing what you need to about yourself, your environment, and the world around you. You get better at loving yourself, at forgiving yourself, and at allowing other people to love you as well.
And just to be clear, I don’t mean some fictitious, general you. I mean you, each of you sitting here today graduating from this place. You have already gotten better just by making it this far.
The greatest time of your life is not reserved for a specific age or situation. It does not come simply because you enter college or start a family or land a dream job or win the lottery. The greatest time of your life comes when you pursue your dreams regardless of how many obstacles are in your way. It comes every day that you tell yourself "yes" even when the world tells you "no." It is that moment right after you try something and fail at it and, instead of quitting, you pick yourself up, learn the lesson, and try again. It is that moment when you have a good idea that gets ignored by nine people, so you persevere until you person number 10 and 11 and 12 until eventually someone takes you seriously.
And it is that moment when you can offer this to someone else, to support your friends' dreams, to be the one who takes the time to listen to good ideas, to help pick someone up when they have fallen.
Today is a big day. You should feel proud and accomplished for what you've done. I want to give you a few other spoilers. I'm a couple years removed from my 15 year high school reunion and what has endured most are the relationships that I made with peers and teachers. Literally no one remembered anything about my GPA.
I told you at the beginning that I was pretty sure I had my life figured out by the time I was sitting where you are today. Seventeen years later and the only thing I have figured out is that I haven't really figured anything out. But I have learned to give myself permission to change my mind. And given myself permission to fail. And this has changed my life forever.
So I wish you long lasting, meaningful relationships with people you have met here, who will help you grow, who will cry with you, laugh with you, support you when you need it the most. I wish you the courage to grant yourself permission to change your mind. Whether it's a new career or relationship, whatever it may be, I wish for you the freedom to not feel trapped by past decisions. And I wish good failure on you.
I have learned that the only real way to fail is to stop trying. Every time you fall short of your goal, you have the chance to learn from that setback and turn it into a setup for future success. Here's the biggest spoiler. It is almost never the most talented or the person with the best resume or background who gets the farthest in life. No. It's the person who is refuses to quit. If you have a bad day, don't let it become a bad week. If you lose a contest, improve your approach for the next one. If someone else gets something you think you deserve, learn how to improve and be gracious in defeat.
None of these things are easy. But you have already proven that you are capable of doing what is difficult by being here today.
Continue to do difficult things. Continue to dream dreams bigger than your present circumstance.
You are graduates today. Your best days are not behind you. They are all around you. Make the most of them.
Julian Michael aka "Token" is a former guidance counselor turned comedian, writer, and radio host. Take what he says with a grain of salt, because your food is probably bland anyway. Got a question? Need advice? Write to #DearToken here!