To the Class of 2020, From Monica and Miro

Graduations are another important ritual that we collectively have to forego this year to due to coronavirus.  If you are like me (Monica) with a son, and a niece and nephew who are graduating, here is the upside – you don’t have to sit through a speech by some celebrity or politician telling your loved one things that are patently obvious – like always wear sunscreen.  This is OUR year to be the graduation “speaker” for the graduates in our lives. So here goes.

Strive for happiness, not material possessions or fleeting success in business or your career.  At some level this is patently obvious – be happy, of course.  But what makes people happy? The answer may surprise you. Every year Gallup does a global poll on happiness and releases a report on their findings.  And what they are increasingly seeing in their surveys is that in countries with rising levels of Gross Domestic Product (basically wealth), people’s happiness does not increase correspondingly.

Indeed, recent Gallup surveys have shown that people are happier when they live in societies with less disparity in the quality of life.  One of the other major factors in quality of life turns out to be the environment – and the Gallup pollsters have broken this down to mean clean air and water (a lack of pollution) and ready access to the natural world.  This is true all over the world – in rich countries and poor ones.  And this is increasingly and overwhelmingly true.  When asked how important environmental protection is for their well-being and life satisfaction, 88% of respondents think it is important or very important.  And globally, 70% of the respondents say they are somewhat or very concerned about the consequences of climate change.  Moreover, when given a choice, a stunning 62% of respondents prioritize environmental protection over economic growth, and only half of them are satisfied with their country’s efforts to preserve the environment.

So in order to be happy individually and as a society, we need you to help us strive to achieve a cleaner and more sustainable environment. That won’t happen without the active engagement of everyone to understand climate change, to know about the pollution that impacts us – in our water, the products we use, and the food we eat, the way we get around, and what we buy more generally.  And just as importantly, we need to push for elected leaders at every level to enact policies that ensure a sustainable and clean environment and parks and protection for habitat and the animals that need it.  You have more power than you know to drive change.

If we’re being honest, I (Miro) couldn’t tell you anything about either my high school or college commencement addresses. I’m sure they included the compulsory “the world is your oyster” sentiment but beyond that, none of those words I heard stuck with me in any way. Instead here, in a nutshell, is what I wish someone had told me at both of those very long, very warm ceremonies. So here goes:

Don’t be intimidated by the people who seem like they have it figured out. The big secret is that no one expects you to know what you’re going to do for the rest of your life. In fact, the most interesting people are the ones who have had a colorful journey that led them to their chosen path. Don’t be afraid to change your mind, to throw in the towel, and follow your truth. It’s the one thing you can control.

You are the first generation that’s entering adulthood in the midst of the climate crisis — the headlines on a daily basis remind us of the dire state of our planet. You didn’t do anything to cause it, but the effects of our unsustainable ways and rapidly warming planet will likely impact the trajectory of your life and your career. But because of this, the rest of us on the planet need you.

We need you to bring to any job you pursue the awareness that our planet and its resources are not infinite. We need you to bring more kindness, justice, and sustainable thinking to your field.  Whether you want to be an artist or a lawmaker, our society and economy desperately need of more equitable values. The good news is that your generation is already aware of those values and you practice them wholeheartedly. We need that breath of fresh air in all of our institutions so that they can change for the better.

As you begin this next journey, hold tight to that vision of the world that you want to live in and demand it. Stick to what has made your generation the one that’s started marches and sit-ins around the world.  You will undoubtedly face circumstances where staying silent is the easier choice and where business as usual is viewed as the most appropriate conduct—but don’t be afraid to be the dissenting opinion. Be respectful of differing views, but speak up and question why things should not change.

Each generation faces a unique zeitgeist upon graduation. There’s no question that yours is tumultuous, uncertain, and as of today, less than ideal. You’ve had to miss out on so much of what makes these waning days of school special, but there is a brighter future on the other side of our current circumstances, and there’s a place for you to shape it into the reality you envision.   All you need to do is begin – and you will find happiness.


P.S.  Always wear sunscreen

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