Advice for Graduates and Everyone Else, As Told By Nick Offerman
Graduation. A hectic and joyous occasion, mixed with a hopefully well-deserved dose of relief, a bit of fear, overwhelming student loans, and of course a hundred-zillion conversations with inquiring minds asking the same exact question: “in, what are you going to do with your life?” Depending on your ego-state-of-mind, your answer — internally — is probably one of the two: “I have no idea. Help MEEE!” (the egoless), or “I have it all figured out,” (the egotistical). Each of us is bound to feel one way or the other at some point in our lives, including Nick Offerman, actor and producer best know for playing a “goofy jackass” (his words) on Parks and Recreation.
Just two weeks ago, with admiration and awe, I watched my younger sister walk across a stage to be hooded for her Doctorate of Musical Arts (DMA) at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champagne (UIUC), where Offerman is an alumnus. He was also there.
To know someone who has pursued a passion with unfaltering grit, for what seems like a hundred years, to receive a degree that in no way promises a life’s return in financial security (talking about my sister here, not Offerman, although he also majored in the arts) — no matter how many hours she annoyed her older sister with what used to be the most painfully shrill flute playing the human ear has ever endured — is a testament to life itself: Our learning is never done, the journey will at times be painful (even ear-piercing) and our passion could one day lead to a robust career (talking about Offerman here, not my sister, although I’m sure I’ll say this about her soon).
Graduation, while exciting and the end of one goal, is really just the beginning of many others. Offerman will back me up on this, as you will soon read.
My sister’s hooding wasn’t the only reason (it was like 97% of the reason) for me to sit in the sweltering sun on a bleacher for 3 hours in UIUC’s football stadium. Offerman was the keynote speaker at the commencement ceremony. True to form, the wisdom he laid out with purpose, as if finely crafting a piece of wood furniture, was powerfully engaging and truthful. It probably would have been 100 times more powerful had his unmistakable mustache been quivering in its rightful place upon his upper lip, but he informed us that it had a previous engagement.
We forgive you, Nick.
Before him sat 13,000 graduates and thousands of proud family members, and in our case, my soon-to-be brother-in-law holding a camera with a lens the size of a large ear of Urbana yellow corn (mustn’t miss a single moment).
We listened intently to Offerman’s opening remarks, “When I graduated, I remember living under the assumption that I had things pretty well all figured out, as though life had stuck a fork in me and pronounced me done. I was pretty cocky about it for 17 minutes or so until cold hard reality set in.”
He continued to dish out a bountiful and satisfying rhythm of advice, as if he had personally cooked up all the eggs and bacon Urbana-Champaign had to offer, and in not so true Ron Swanson fashion, was happily and humorously sharing it with the crowd, nurturing each one of us with hopefully new or at least renewed inspiration and understanding of what it means to be a decent human being. A timely talk, if there ever was one.
Knowing full well this would be a speech I didn’t soon want to forget, I jotted down a few key takeaways from his commencement address. While hastily making these notes, as I sweated through my dress, I also stumbly recorded about 12 minutes of his speech, choosing to watch with my own eyes for the remainder of time because I assumed that at least one other person in the crowd was recording it. And I felt like a goober sitting there, pointing my phone at a big screen. Never assume. (WARNING: It’s really shaky, like I’m ashamed how shaky).
Thankfully, the university published the audio recording in full, which you can listen to here. But if you desire to see Offerman in all his cap and gown glory, take a gander at the video below.
Grab a plate, pile it high and savor his uncomplicated, essential life advice, suitable for all ages of people who give a damn.
1. “Maintain the attitude of a student.”
There is always learning to be had, but to really take it all in, it’s important to listen more and talk less. It’s a steep charge, especially for someone like myself, who has so much to say that words actually shoot out of my mouth incoherently and I end up cutting myself off mid-sentence because I can’t say what’s running through my mind fast enough. Listening intently is just plain hard for people like me, but I’m working on it. In fact, I went as far as to become certified in purposeful listening. Certification is by no means required, so instead try Offerman’s approach: “Assume the person you’re speaking with knows something you don’t.” And be ready to learn, even if you don’t agree with them.
This attitude will cultivate an environment that leads to a deeper understanding, clearer answers, better-fitting solutions and a fuller sense of self and others (unlike the numbskulls in Congress. Okay, that’s the only political plug I’ll make), which will in turn lead to a compassionate approach to anything and everything. To assume our learning is done is to assume we’ve given all that we have and there’s nothing left to be got. A pretty bleak and close-minded way to live.
2. “It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work. And when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey.” – Wendall Barry
Offerman recited this from a poet he dearly admires, Wendall Barry.
The above describes a scary but exciting place to be. I should know. I’m there right now. Worry and anxiety only add to the slow-moving realizations that what we really want and are meant to do with our life is probably staring us straight in the face. Yikes. Pockets of society tend to cast a bleak cloud of “wasted time” over wandering people, as if we’re all Eeyores, just moping around doing nothing, hovering under our own personal rain clouds. Truthfully, those who don’t wander, who press forward without contemplation, may wander forever, aimlessly.
For those of us who feel or will at some point feel this way, it could be we’re stumped because we believe the path we want to take will be faced with disapproval, or we will fail, or in actuality we really have no idea where the heck to begin. And that’s okay. Congratulations, graduates. If you find yourself at the doorstep of the Unknown, you’re well on your way to entering one of the most trying and gratifying parts of your life, and it will be by no means the last time. The key is to not get overwhelmed. Start small. Ask for advice. Read. Journal. From the ashes of what feels like our greatest pitfalls could emerge the most brilliantly, brightly colored phoenix. But first, we have to do the real work and summon the courage to take the next step.
3. “If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not living. And if this is true, the only fails worth a damn, are the ones that are the most epic.”
Offerman goes onto to relate this to sanding a piece of furniture, a time-consuming, love-affair-of-a-task, for which he is well versed. No matter how many times we take the sandpaper to the wood, it won’t be perfect. In fact, if we keep sanding we could sand away the beauty of the piece or entirely round off a corner until it’s practically flat. No one wants a flat corner on a square table. What kind of hooey-balooey is that? At some point, just like a research paper, we have to let it go and turn it in.
Failing is a big no-no, especially in the United States. Thick with stigmas. Here we have a man as American as Apple Pie, who grew up in the Midwest, is an accomplished bacon eater, gifted wood worker and wears the friendliest of fabrics, plaid (or is that Ron Swanson?), telling us to go forth and make mistakes. Make the move. Switch careers. Purchase the plane ticket. Ask that girl out. So what if she rejects you? At least now you know. There are probably a dozen things in this post that I will wish I changed by the time it’s published, but that’s the way of the world. Fear gets a lot of undo credit. It’s damn time we gave Failure the credit it deserves.
4. “What makes me stand up and say ‘Howdy,’ is when I see somebody get up off of his or her ass and help another person, because the greatest and much more readily available treasure we can and should pay one another is respect.”
Now every time I see a person doing something good, I’m going to hear the voice of Nick Offerman say, “Howdy.” And it will make me giggle. Sharing the lessons his parents ingrained in him, Offerman lays it out: work hard, tell the truth and treat others with good manners. He continues with, “I have never seen anybody who is a mean or discriminatory or superior receive anything but unhappiness as a result of their behavior.” Dagnabbit, that’s spot-on.
It may feel like the sheer number of disrespectful words polluting our air today, causing collisions, death and war, far outweigh the use of kind, generous and respectful words. Well, if that’s how it feels, then there’s one sure way to counteract it: hand out respect as if it’s free. Oh wait, it is!
5. “The answer is, as it has always been, love. Figure out how best to love and be loved. This is what it comes down to.”
That just about sums it up. However, the proper application of this four-letter word appears to be lost on too many, at least that’s what the media, politicians, and overly pessimistic people would have us all believe. Hate breeds more hate and only serves to feed power-hungry mongrels who are only dedicated to making themselves feel and appear better than everyone else.
There is only one thing that casts a shadow on hate, causing it to wither away like a frost-bitten ear of corn, freezing to death as the Urbana-Champaign snow settles in for the winter, and that’s love. We know what it looks like and hopefully we know how it feels. Swaddle it with care and hand it over in the most simplest forms, genuinely and thoughtfully, and it will come back in mounds, like the warm sun, enriching the soil where we’ve each deliberately planted our seeds.
6. “Surround yourself with teachers. If you’re lucky, you’ll be surrounded by teachers for the rest of your life.”
Not just in the academic sense, but everywhere. This goes back to #1, 2, 3 — heck it goes back to all of them. If we all sought out teachers with the same gusto Ron Swanson applied towards preventing government-funded programs in Pawnee, each of us would be armed from head to toe with the knowledge and tools needed to lead passionate and compassion-filled lives. Hell, in just 30 minutes Offerman freely handed out at least six teachings, and now I’m handing them off to you.
“Your life’s work is just beginning,” says Offerman. Now go forth and seek out teachers, and in turn you may become a teacher yourself, in the academic sense or otherwise.
And always remember to keep meandering,
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