Mikaela Aschbrenner, part-time Harpswell resident and recent college grad. (Roger Aschbrenner photo)
Graduation season, for those of us cheering from the stands, is thrilling. That moment when the person you root for walks the stage means everything. You get that tear-sprouting heart thump and you forget the traffic, crowds and tedious speeches. Flowers are blooming, birds are singing and hope is in the air.
Graduating, however, is a different story. After years of schooling and knowing exactly what comes next, graduation is the last threshold between the known, solid world and free fall. It’s like agreeing to go skydiving. It seems like a great idea! Everyone’s doing it! Adrenaline and a few drinks make everything seem possible and then you wake up with a massive hangover and realize you’re about to jump out of a plane.
I remember that jump and all the missteps I made trying to find my footing. I’m sure I still have some whopper mistakes in my future. But I’ve reached the age where I believe I’m entitled to give unsolicited advice and people will be polite and save their eye rolls until I can’t see them. As I sat in the stands at graduation, I thought about what I’d say if I gave a commencement speech, and I have some wise words for recent grads.
You can’t do or be anything you want.
I know that’s shocking and opposite of what your grandparents tell you. It’s also liberating to own your limitations and your strengths. I’d like to be an astronaut, but I get dizzy rolling over in bed and the closest I’ve come to complex math is watching “Hidden Figures.” If there’s ever a collective loss of common sense and I’m allowed in a space capsule, I’ll be the reason it explodes. You have an abundance of talent, ability and passion. Follow them.
You can do hard things.
No, I didn’t just contradict myself. If the inner workings of the human body make you squeamish, don’t become a urologist. Please don’t offer to do my taxes if numbers and details bore you. But, if you’re drawn to a career and the path to get there seems too steep, don’t focus on every step you have to take. Just think about the one, single step you’re on right now. Need a required class? Maine has incredible community colleges. Afraid of debt? There are tuition-free schools and scholarships, especially for public service work. The thing about accomplishing hard things is they won’t seem that hard once you do them. Don’t know where to start? There are people who came before you who not only walked the path you’re thinking about but paved it, added stairs and maybe even a ramp.
Talk to people.
In my experience, people are generous with their experience. Find someone doing the thing you want to do and ask them how they got there. If you’re curious and genuine, you’ll collect friends who’ll point you to opportunities. You’ll find people who know firsthand what you’re going through and speak your language. Want to have a rousing chat about data architecture, color theory, sweating pipes or when to v-notch a tail? Find your people. And remember, if someone asks for a favor that you can easily do, do it. Always.
Love more than work.
Play the harp, play golf, go to plays. Make handcrafts or brew craft beer in your garage. Look up an old friend, chop veggies for dinner with your parents, take a staycation or vacation and discover something new. Your life marches on and won’t stop to ask if you feel joy and love or if you noticed how silky your baby’s hair is or how often your dog stares at you with a ball in its mouth.
Nobody is better at being you than you.
The person giving advice is certain they’re sharing high-caliber wisdom. They don’t live in your head and can’t know the real-life pressures you face or how they affect you. Advice that might be music to one person’s ears is like loud, constant chewing to someone else. So, when someone shares their counsel and all you can hear are chomping teeth, thank them for caring. They’ll feel understood and you might be rewarded with a hearty “You’re welcome!” or “Thanks for listening!” or “I believe in you!” Then you decide which of their words you keep.
Of course, there’s more.
Wear sunscreen even when you think there isn’t enough sun to bother. If you ignore your teeth, they’ll go away, so brush, floss and go to the dentist. Write thank-you notes by hand and mail them. Wear a helmet when you should. Exercise your brain. And when it feels like your parachute isn’t opening on time, don’t panic. There are people who understand. Reach out to them and they’ll ground you.
Thanks for reading. Remember, I believe in you. You’re welcome.
Erin O’Mara lives in Harpswell and serves on the Harpswell News Board of Directors.