My Advice To Graduates

With this being the time of year for college and high school graduations, I’ve been paying more attention lately to the plans of those receiving diplomas. I’ve also been reflecting quite a bit on the decisions I made over the course of my educational journey, and while I would not by any means consider myself someone qualified to dole out career advice, I believe I made enough wrong turns along the way to be able to pass along a few tips about how to not fall into some of the pitfalls I have over the years.

I was always one of the “smart kids” in school. I made good grades, enrolled in all the honors and advanced classes in high school, graduateeven took the SAT in middle school. I graduated college with a 3.5 GPA, and that was even with my failing one class and not retaking it (For the record, it was an earth science class, and I could take it a thousand more times and still never pass it.). I received honors and awards and got my name in the newspaper a few times for different accomplishments. As a student, I was a success.

And, for the most part, none of it meant a damn thing.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying I didn’t learn anything useful in school. For instance, had it not been for the encouragement and efforts of some great teachers, I would have never realized I had a (debatable) talent for writing. I never had any vision or passion, though, for what I wanted to do with what I was learning. Even worse, I somehow believed that doing well in school would save me from the more mundane jobs and tasks I didn’t want to deal with learning. I didn’t learn things because I didn’t want to. I was a good student, and that would get me where I wanted to go … even if I didn’t know where that was.

So I never learned how to change my own oil or repair a broken transmission or hang sheetrock or build a bookshelf or bring in a crop or shoot a deer. Are you going to be required to do any of these things in your lifetime? I can’t tell you for sure. I can say, though, that everything I just mentioned (with the exception of shooting the deer) is a service people will always need someone to do. I used to make fun of the kids in vocational school. Now I wish I knew how to do at least half of the things they do. Never consider any job beneath you, no matter how smart you think you are.

Manual labor is not for everyone, though, just as college isn’t for every high school graduate. We live in a society now that preaches everyone must go to to college, whether they have any clue what they want to do there and no matter how much debt they incur on their way to obtaining a degree. I am sad to say this is not a recent development. A great many of us have diplomas hanging on our walls that don’t have much to do with where we wound up. If you find a calling in life that doesn’t require a degree, go for it.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Well, unfortunately, it’s not. You’ll be faced with all kinds of decisions. What do you need to learn? How much time, energy, and money will it cost? How will it affect those around you? Should you move and make a new start or make a go of it where you are? Fear and uncertainty will be waiting around every corner to derail you, and, unfortunately, you won’t always get the best advice. Education will be a tool, but it can’t make a decision for you. Be brave, and don’t take the freedom you have right now for granted. It won’t always be so easy to take chances.

Keep in mind, of course, these words are coming from someone who flubbed up in one way or another nearly all of the things he was just talking about, so I’m not claiming to be some kind of expert or guru. I just don’t want you to travel some of the roads I have. And, if you do happen to wind up on one of them, I hope you’ll be able to navigate them better than I did. That reminds me of my final bit of advice: Give yourself room to screw up. Because you’re going to – a lot. Instead of endlessly beating yourself up, though, keep going forward or backward or sideways or whichever way you have to go to move on.

Take all that for what it’s worth, graduates. I’m guessing a lot of you already know more than I do anyway. Just remember me when you get really successful. Okay?

Just Write Something

This is the kind of post I hate writing. You know the one – the “Oh, crap, I haven’t written anything in a while, so I guess I had better lazy writercome up with something so people don’t forget who I am” post. Funny, I never notice really successful bloggers having to write things like this. I, on the other hand, seem to have to do it every few weeks or so, which leads me to one very obvious conclusion…

I’m not doing this right.

It’s usually at about this point I would start going on about the difficulties of writing or the busyness of life or the struggle to figure out the purpose of having a blog in the first place. I don’t think I’m going to do that this time. Fact is, I’ve realized (with the help of others) that I’m sort of lazy sometimes. Or I’m deathly afraid of failure. Or maybe a combination of the two.

At any rate, I don’t dedicate myself to writing like I should.

Feels good to get that out of the way. Now, time to start thinking about the next post…

Writing: Is It Work?

Theodore Roosevelt has made life very tough for me.

Obviously, since I am “only” 37 years old and he passed away in 1919, I have not been affected in any direct way by the 26th President of the United States of America. It might be more accurate to say the ghost of Teddy Roosevelt has haunted me for quite some time now. Roosevelt was a “man’s man” if ever there was one. He was a boxer, a historian, a cowboy, a military leader, a jungle explorer, and probably would have been the first man to walk on the moon if the space program had been around in the early 1900s. Thomas R. Marshall, who served as Woodrow Wilson’s vice president, famously remarked, “Death had to take Roosevelt sleeping, for if he had been awake, there would have been a fight.”

I know several men who have studied Roosevelt quite extensively. They revere him for his American spirit and the way he lived his life, and rightly so. Roosevelt possessed a type of masculinity which not only allowed him to accomplish great things, but also to inspire greatness in others. He never seemed to tire of work, whether it came in the form of athletics, academics, or politics.

As inspiring a figure as Roosevelt is, however, he can be just as daunting as well, particularly if your name and the words “man’s man” have never shared space in the same sentence before. While Roosevelt’s life seemed to consist of constant motion and activity, mine often seems to be marked by long periods of stagnation. Whereas Roosevelt always seemed to have a plan of action, I seem to spend vast amounts of time wandering around trying to figure out what to do. The words “Roosevelt” and “results” seem to go together like the words “Sheridan” and “um, well…”

The are few times in life when I really feel “in the groove”, but a large majority of those times have come when I am doing exactly what I’m doing right now – writing. As much as I enjoy writing posts for this blog, however, the fact remains that I receive no compensation for doing this. Granted, I have managed to exert a little influence here and there, but I cannot say what I have done here has had much of an impact on my life or the lives of others. That is why I often think about taking that most insane of leaps – going from merely writing for recreation to writing for a living.

To clarify, I have made money from writing, as a newspaper reporter and freelance writer. What I’m talking about is working outside of the realm of an employer, more in the area of books or columns or a revenue-generating blog or Web site or something like that. To be honest, I have no idea what I’m thinking of doing. What I do know is it will involve work. The only problem is it doesn’t necessarily feel that way.

See, work is what real men do. They build houses. They serve as law enforcement or emergency personnel. They program computers or design software. They’re engineers. They’re farmers. They’re not writers. In fact, some of those professions I just mentioned also possess some darn good writers who could probably just as easily earn their living from doing that. Point is, those people are doing something. Writing, to me, doesn’t feel like doing anything. It’s sitting. It’s thinking. It’s typing. At the end of many days there is very little to show for your efforts. No houses are standing, no crops have been farmed, no services have been rendered.

I realize writing and writers are necessary. The world has, literally, been changed by words people have written. It’s just hard for me to reconcile writing with bare-knuckled, sweat-inducing work. It just doesn’t feel like enough, and that is what often leads me to inactivity. “It’s not worth it,” I say to myself. “You should be finding something more tangible to spend your time doing.” Next thing I know, the day’s over and no words have been written. And they really should have been.

It seems like there are a billion wannabe authors out there. Is there anything left to say? Surely there must be. Is what I have to say unique enough to bear listening to? Ordinarily, that would be the million dollar question, and it does have some relevance here. My overall question, though, lies in the title of this post itself. Is writing really work? Is it something worth dedicating oneself to above all other pursuits or should it serve as an extension of more practical efforts?

I have a feeling there is no easy answer to this question. Pulitzer Prize winning author Junot Diaz once described to “O: The Oprah Magazine” the five-year struggle that went into writing the novel “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” and the process was not a happy one. Family relationships were strained, money was lost, sanity was questioned. As a father of four, it’s not worth that much to me. It is worth enough to me to work, though. I just have to figure out what that means for someone whose main gift seems to be the ability to put words on a page.

Like, OMG, That Guy Is So Right!

A few years ago, I was introduced to a publication called World Magazine. The best way I know to describe what it’s like is to say it’s Newsweek written from a Christian perspective. If you enjoy reading news magazines but you don’t like all the bias and general mean-spiritedness contained in them, I’d highly recommend World, although, unfortunately, I am receiving nothing from the magazine for offering this generous endorsement. As Donald Miller remarked in his book Blue Like Jazz, “Writers don’t make any money at all. But, then again, we don’t work either.”

The folks at World are all avid readers, and every year they publish an issue devoted almost entirely to what they consider to be the best books of the past year. Sadly, my years as an English major and an addiction to reading articles on the Internet which seems to have totally sapped my attention span have lessened my enthusiasm for reading actual books over the years. Still, I enjoy World‘s book issue each year, even if I haven’t read practically any of the books they’re mentioning.

Even though comedians have been writing and publishing books for years (A copy of Bill Cosby’s Fatherhood sits proudly on my bookshelf at home.), there were enough significant entries from funny men (and women) this year to warrant a special section in this year’s issue. Of course, the article began by focusing on Tina Fey’s Bossypants, because, as we all know, every comedic mentioning these days must begin by pointing out how Tina Fey is a woman and became the first female to ever become head writer on Saturday Night Live and now writes, stars in, and is hilarious in 30 Rock and is a woman and has children and is also a woman. (Seriously, Fey can be funny, but can we all please stop acting like she’s the only woman who’s ever been funny and managed to make a living from it?)

The article then went on to mention books by Goat Boy Jim Breuer (which actually sounded kind of interesting), Michael Showalter, and Demetri Martin, pointing out the positives and negatives about each one. What really caught my eye, though, was a pull-out quote from The Bible of Unspeakable Truths, a book authored by Greg Gutfeld, who hosts Fox News Channel’s Red Eye program. It seems Mr. Gutfeld is not a fan of blogs.

“Blogs used to be called Diaries,” he wrote, “and they were written by twelve-year-old girls.”

At the particular point and time I read this statement, I was working on two different entries for this very blog site. I haven’t revisited them since, because, as much as I would like to convince myself otherwise, what Gutfeld wrote is essentially correct. Granted, there are blogs out there dealing with news, entertainment, health, and all sorts of useful, “real world” information that can be of particular use to their readers. Then there are blogs like this one, which are basically set up to help a writer keep in practice and allow him or her to sound off on whatever they happen to be thinking about or feeling that day.

Or, in other words, it’s like diary.

I have definitely written some things here that I would never take back for the world. The post about my dad helped me to deal with a lot of feelings I had following his death. My aunt actually made copies of the post about my grandfather and passed them out at the funeral home. I’ve had several nice, encouraging comments about other posts. Sometimes, though, I’ve just totally missed the mark, mainly because I didn’t have any real direction. I was feeling down about our recent radio station fundraiser, so I wrote the last post about “sucking.” I watched a basketball game, so I wrote about that. Movies, books, politics … whatever happened to float through my little corner of the universe that day.

A lot like a diary. A lot like something a twelve-year-old would do.

I’m still trying to figure out what to do with this revelation. I have more of a passion to write right now than I have in a long, long time, but I don’t want to just keep flinging stuff at the wall to see if it sticks. It’s easy to carp about the stuff I’m thinking about, but that won’t ever amount to much more than letting my friends take a peek at my “diary.” And I’m a little too old and gray to keep thinking like a twelve-year-old.

So, while that doesn’t mean I plan on shutting down the whole blog and retreating to write the great American novel, it might mean changes. What changes those might be, I don’t know. I’m open to suggestions at this point.

Oh, and I apologize if I offended any twelve-year-old or fellow bloggers with this post. You can address your complaints to Mr. Gutfeld.