I was not a Valedictorian. I decided to take AP English and ended up with B's. They were the only B's I got, but they were enough to keep me from being at the top. I was close though, and was one of the Salutatorians (our school was kind of funny - we had 11 Valedictorians and 2 Salutatorians). I never got to give a graduation speech, but having seen my niece just graduate, I felt inspired to write a little and capture some words of wisdom to pass along to future generations. Here is a speech I could have given to my 1993 class at my high school, but didn't get the chance to do so.
Congratulations class of 1993! The rest of our lives are about to begin. I wish I could say that when we meet again in ten or twenty years that you will all be famously successful and exactly where you had hoped to be when you graduated. We all know, however, that not everything works out the way we expect. Some of us will become doctors, lawyers, actors, or even famous athletes, while others will be stay-at-home moms or the guy who delivers the mail or even teachers here at the school we are all graduating from today.
This does not mean that you will not find success down the road. You will. We all will. We will also find defeat. Loss. Winning. Loneliness. Fulfilment. Life isnt a fairy tale where people simpky live happily ever after. There are challenges ahead, and we must all work hard to rise to those challenges so that we can get through them and get to the rewards that lay on the other side.
One of those challenges will be leaving everything that you have ever known and starting out fresh in a new environment. This may sound scary, but it also exciting. In fact, most of us already believe we are up to the challenge and are eager to get started. Be patient, we will be there before you know it. In a few months your life will start flying past you so fast you'll wish you could slow it all down again.
We will find the world a different place than we expected, however. We will learn that we were protected and nutured as we grew up, and a lot of will be taking bigger steps and risks than we have ever done on our before. We are going to fall. We are going to make mistakes. We will fall in love and then have our hearts broken. Some of us may come back home to get some hugs from our families while we lick our wounds.
The key point to remember is that all of this is actually nothing new. We have been doing this our entire lives. We didnt learn to walk in a day - it took weeks and months of practice, and we fell down a lot along the way. We didnt learn to talk in a day - it took years to get all the nuances right so that we could effectively communicate, and we definitely said things the wrong way as we learned. This is literally what growing up means. You will have to learn new things in order to function in the world, and sometimes that growth will be painful.
When you make mistakes out there, and you will make mistakes, try to figure out the lesson that you should be learning. The lesson won't be to never do that thing again, but rather that the approach we took didnt work and we need to make an adjustment. Sometimes the adjustment will be small, and sometimes the adjustment will be large. The thing we must never do is give up.
We see famous and successful people around us, and often we will think that these people must either be lucky or really skilled at what they do to make them famous and successful. There is luck, and there is skill, but the most critical thing these people have is determination. We see and hear about their achievements, but we dont often see or hear about their failures. Without determination, these people wouldn't have gotten to where they are today.
A lot of those people have failed more often than they succeeded. They fail to win the deal or fail to land a contract or lose a customer to someone else or forget to show up on time or any of a thousand other mistakes that can happen every day. The reason they are successful overall, however, is that they dont see a failure as the end. They see every challenge as a potential opportunity, and some they will achieve and others they won't. When they don't, they simply move on to the next one.
When Thomas Edison worked on the lightbulb, he had to try thousands of different filaments before he found the one that worked. NASA launched dozens of rockets before they got one to achieve orbit. Scientists test hundreds of theories before they find the one that correctly explains how things work. Science is literally an act of trial and error in order to expand the scope of our knowlege. If we gave up at the first hint of failure, we would have never discovered any of the things that we take for granted like fire, electricity, computers, or space travel. We will fail many times, but we only need to succeed once in order to move science forward.
Defining your goal can be the real hard part. Set too lofty a goal, and you will fail a lot; set too shallow a goal and the success will feel less fulfilling. You will need to adjust your goals almost as much as you adjust the methods to achieve them. Just don't give up. When you fail, don't see it as the end, but rather as guidance in how to adapt and try again.
Some of you may not even know what direction you want your life to go, and it may seem hard to even decide on what your goals should be. My advice to you is to try lots of different things. Some things will be hard and unplesant, and others will be easy and fun. Somewhere in the middle you will find something that is both challenging and fulfilling, and when you do, you will be able to set goals that will give your life real meaning.
Don't compare your goals or achievements with others. Life is not a race, and it isn't the people who get to the finish the fastest who get the most out of life. It is the people that take the time to explore all that life has to offer. Try new foods. Travel. Go up to people you don't know, introduce yourself, and try to make some new friends. Take the path less traveled. Don't assume you have to do something just because everyone else is.
Lastly, when you do achieve success, don't forget to pass along the things that you have learned. You are about to start a journey that will be full of lessons, and some of us are still learning, and we could all use advice along the way. One day you may find yourself up on a stage in front of hundreds of graduating students who are about to start the same journey, and you will be tasked with giving them some advice to make that journey a more meaningful one. Take notes.
Congratulations to all of you and good luck as you begin the next stage of your journey!