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Don't Do What I Did

Authored By: 
Maren Holmen, Director of The Tutoring School

The following excerpts are from a speech delivered at the 2017 Beekman graduation and awards ceremony:

Who hasn’t heard these phrases before:

  • “Don’t make the same mistakes I did.”
  • “I learned how to do this the hard way—learn from my pain.”
  • “Don’t reinvent the wheel—just do it like I told you.”

If students ever ask me about my college application process, the first thing I tell them is, “Don’t do what I did.”  In a manner that would give me heart palpitations if I tried it today, I didn’t even look at college catalogs (or their application deadlines) until winter vacation my senior year.  It was while I was sitting in my grandmother’s house snacking on hot apple cider and homemade monster cookies that I discovered that many colleges expected specialized standardized test scores that I didn’t have by deadlines that were coming in a matter of days.  I applied to two schools and was lucky to get into my first choice.  But it was precisely that—lucky.  Would I recommend this as the optimal college application process to students now?  Absolutely not—underclassmen, learn from my experience!

The last time I addressed a room full of seniors and their parents was when I graduated from high school—a long, LOOONG time ago.  My father tried to tell me that winging my graduation speech in front of hundreds of classmates, underclassmen, parents, relatives, teachers, and community members would not go well, and that I should write out my remarks ahead of time.  I, with the infinite hubris of teenagers everywhere, thought that I would be fine with some phrases scrawled on a three-by-five index card five minutes before we marched out.   While I didn’t freeze and completely embarrass myself in front of almost everyone I knew, I didn’t say anything memorable and I certainly didn’t remember to say everything I would’ve liked to say.  You seniors who are coming up to speak after me—this is why we ask you to write out your speech ahead of time.  Don’t do what I did—learn from my mistakes!

All of the well-meaning adults in your life (whether it’s a teacher, a parent, or your great-uncle on your mother’s side), when you’ve heard them say, “Learn from my mistakes,” we aren’t saying: “Don’t try anything new because you’ll fail” or “I know better than you.”  Our message is: “Don’t repeat old mistakes; make new mistakes.”  It is the role of every one of you to keep humanity moving forward by failing spectacularly in a new way and then learning from your new mistakes.  Every one of your teachers, if we gave them a minute to think about it, would be able to give you examples of famous people whose mistakes are what propelled them forward.  It is what you learn from the mistake and how you move forward from it that eventually brings you success.  We teach you history and science and math and literature so that you will consistently see examples of people whose mistakes (for better or for worse) are what got us to where we are today.  We’re depending on you not to repeat our mistakes—been there, done that.  We need you to make mistakes we haven’t made, trying things we’ve never tried, and thus discovering things we’ve never discovered.

Now this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do your research and know what has worked for others in the past.  For instance, while writing this speech, I looked at a number of commencement speeches to see what other advice would be good to share with you:

Wear sunscreen.”  This is the opening line of a piece that was written by Mary Schmich that had been traveling around the early internet with the story that it had been Kurt Vonnegut’s graduation speech at a college where he’d never spoken.  (Fake news, check your sources!)  It was made into a song that was pretty popular while I was in college; you should check it out.

“It is impossible to live without failing, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”  Author J.K. Rowling shared this advice with a group of Harvard graduates.  You may know that, before she became the author of one of the most popular book series on the planet, she was a single parent without a job who had every reason to live her life cautiously.  She didn’t, and we all got Harry Potter out of the deal.

“My favorite animal is the turtle.  The reason is that, in order for the turtle to move, it has to stick its neck out.  There are going to be times in life when you’re going to have to stick your neck out.  There will be challenges and, instead of hiding in a shell, you have to go out and meet them.”  Dr. Ruth Westheimer shared this tidbit while addressing graduates in 2004, more than 6 decades after she and 300 other German orthodox Jewish children were sent out of Germany to Switzerland to escape the Nazis.  She knows of what she speaks.

“You look good.  You look beautiful, handsome, smart and ready to take on the world. …To each and every one of you receiving a diploma today, I say a congratulations.  This is your day.  Enjoy it.  Take a long deep breath, and take it all in.  But tomorrow you must be prepared to roll up your sleeves because the world is waiting for talented men and women to lead it to a better place.”  U.S. Representative John Lewis, a recipient of the Medal of Freedom and activist on the front lines of the Civil Rights movement, charged this year’s graduates from my alma mater, Bard College, with these instructions.  Whether it was walking next to Dr. Martin Luther King in his home state of Alabama or serving his Georgia district in the House of Representatives, Congressman Lewis continues to roll up his sleeves.  He’s 77.  You guys can do it, too.

“And now go, and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes.  Break rules.  Leave the world more interesting for your being here.”  As much as I enjoy the works of fantasy author Neil Gaiman, who wrote “Coraline” and “American Gods”, I promise that I found this quote of his after I wrote most of my speech.  Because, in life, as in school, if you’re going to use ideas from someone, you should always cite your sources!

In keeping with my theme of learning from the past—I’ve learned by going to a number of graduation ceremonies that the best speeches are short, sweet, and to the point.  So congratulations on all that you’ve accomplished and enjoy the rest of your evening!

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