Here we are roaring up to June and it’s looking unlikely that anyone is going to ask me to give a commencement address. But just in case…

Whatever it is that you want to do, don’t do it to show them, whoever they are, because by the time you do it, they, whoever they are, your parents, your relatives, the neighbors, and anybody else who said, You’re a feather, you’ll never amount to anything, what planet are you from?, all of them are going to be sick or dead or dotty or just trying to get through the day, and nothing is going to be about you and whatever you did. If you are lucky enough to be able to do whatever it is you want to do, do it for yourself and the joy and worthiness of doing it, because even if they, whoever they are, aren’t sick or dead or dotty, they will not care a fig, you’ll hardly even have a chance to get your news in, at the very most, they will only say they aren’t surprised one bit, not one bit, didn’t they always say from the beginning that you were going to do great things, and you’re going to say, “Whaaa?” Satisfaction and respect and fulfillment and purpose and meaning are not out there. Do whatever you do, for your best self who can appreciate it more than anyone else ever could, and if you do it, you’ll have done it against all odds, so fill with pride, you hero you.

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GABRIELLE BURTON is the author of the novels Impatient with Desire: the Lost Journal of Tamsen Donner, and Heartbreak Hotel. Also the memoir, Searching for Tamsen Donner, and the nonfiction book on the Women's Movement, I'm Running Away From Home But I'm Not Allowed To Cross The Street. It took a while but she did get across the street. More info than you could ever want to know is at www.gabrielleburton.com.

7 responses to “To Graduates and Dropouts Everywhere”

  1. Kath says:

    Always a bit of wisdom at the right time, Gabrielle. Thank you. But could it be that the struggle for achievement (whatever achievement is) is as worthy as achievement itself? Can failure be honorable? Must everyone be a hero? I ask these questions seriously, as I have tasted both success and failure, and feel, at the deepest levels, both have a price, and are not so very different from each other.
    From an old dream journal of mine, kept at the suggestion of a therapist: “In the dream about a dream about catching a large fish–a dream I understood, even while dreaming, was significant beyond words–I felt an elation (almost an arrogance) that I had WON, that I’d caught and conquered, after great struggle, the biggest fish in the (subconscious) ocean; that I knew this warrior fish in the dream intimately and respected it. Equated its fierce battle for life and freedom, and its eventual defeat and suffering, with my own humiliation and pain.” The dream was long and complex. I scribbled pages and pages on waking. It had something to do with my children. Part of this fevered text reads “Neither of my kids understands, neither cares about the fight I waged to keep them.” They had/have their own pains. “The strong, fierce fish escaped, plunging away to freedom, leaving half of its mouth hanging from the fisherwoman’s hook….I would have set it free after scrutiny. If it hadn’t struggled so hard, it wouldn’t have had its mouth ripped out. I feel sad. ” Neither wins, both lose something important.” I go on (how I go on, dear) to eventually express that there are smarter fish that would rather swim away with great scars, and only half a mouth than be caught. One wonders if one is the fisherwoman or the fish…or both. you see why I don’t keep dream journals anymore.
    Love, Kath

    • gabrielle says:

      Wow, what a dream, Kath! I can’t say that I really understand it, but what seems so interesting about it to me is that you respected the fish.
      As for achievement, I know a professor who thinks achievement is our cultural disease. Look at all the people who have no problem whatsoever cheating to achieve a goal, not even having a tiny understanding of how much they’ve cheapened the goal.
      Ultimately, yes, I think the struggle for achievement–our aspirations, the process–is as worthy as the achievement itself. Perhaps more meaningful. Because once you’ve achieved your goal, there’s nowhere else to go except on to a different goal. And if you haven’t enjoyed the struggle and the process, you’re just in an endless rat race.
      This is a very complicated subject.

  2. geraldine grossman says:

    I love this. Am printing this out right now in BIG letters. I will put it on my desk and read it everyday.

    Thanks, Gabrielle, I really appreciate your writing this. I am that competitive Syracuse graduate, summa cum-laude, successful business woman, admired coach, great wife, understanding and patient step mother, caring aunt, faithful sister, unwavering friend, and on some days still thinks s that she’s just not good enough!

    Gabrielle’s “commencement speech” will resonate for a long time to come!

    Geri Grossman, Founder and President
    My Executive Coach

  3. gabrielle says:

    Thanks for writing, Geri. You sound great to me!

  4. gabrielle says:

    Thanks for writing, Geri. You sound like YOU should be giving the commencement speech!

  5. BRAVO! Is this one sentence? I’ll have to go back and look. Excellent advice!

    • gabrielle says:

      It’s actually four sentences, Jessica, but I had to go back and count. I thought of it as one or two–rushed advice–but ended up breaking it for clarity. Thanks for writing.

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