Tom West, West Words

Tom West

Hello, graduates. Thank you for allowing me to speak to you today upon your commencement. I realize you didn’t invite me, but I elbowed my way to the front of the stage anyway.

That fact brings up the first message I’d like to share with you today. Life is not for the faint of heart. It begins with that little voice in your brain that tells you what you are able to do and what you cannot.

Hopefully, your parents, teachers and other adults who care about you have helped you make some good choices up to now. They will continue to be there for you, but going forward, most of the decisions you make will be yours. Often, they will be made by that little voice that only you can hear. Listen closely, but don’t sell yourself short. You are capable of more than you believe.

Second, to succeed at life, you must accept responsibility for your choices. To blame others for your bad decisions is a sure path to more failures down the road.

That said, no bad decision or even a series of bad decisions need define your life. Success is also about resiliency. The world is full of successful people who struggled to find their way, jumping into waters way over their heads, but eventually making it to a shore where they could rewrite their own story.

Graduation day is obviously a milestone in your life. For most, it is a mixture of happiness over the achievement and apprehension for what comes next. This summer is a good time for you to take at least a few moments for reflection on who you are, and who you want to become.

Some grads already know what they want to do with their lives, but many of you have not thought about it. What’s most important to you? What are your values? Family? Career? Money? Fame? Achievement? Salvation? Serving others? Think hard about what your favorite classes were in school. Ask yourself what opportunities will present themselves if you parlay your classroom interests into a career. How does that career balance against your values? Ask yourself why you came to that decision. Remember, you don’t want a job or a role in life that you dread.

Third, follow your path, not the crowd’s. It’s easier to say than to do. People who invest in the stock market often say, “Buy low, sell high.” That means, when nobody else is buying, you should; and when nobody else is selling, you should. When everybody agrees, “That’s a great idea,” think twice before going along.

Fourth, the world is a competitive place. The world now has 7 billion people, more than at any time in history. Some are your friends, a few don’t like you and billions don’t know you. But, like it or not, you are all competing to find your way in the world. If you want to go home after work and play video games, watch TV or otherwise chill out, that’s your choice. But know that among those 7 billion, there are many others who are working on improving their knowledge or health, or expanding their network of friends and acquaintances.

Fifth, if your job is eliminated by technology, don’t let it be a surprise. This is a time of great change. As hectic as your life may be, you need to be preparing for what you will do if that day arrives.

Sixth, you would have to be in your 80s today to remember a time before mankind had figured out a way to destroy all of civilization. Today, the Internet has connected the world in unprecedented ways. While our base of knowledge grows exponentially, giving us the potential to unlock more of nature’s secrets, the downside is that absolutely nothing is for certain. Only one person of evil intent could destroy it all.

That fact has not kept the world from making ever greater progress to improve human comfort and expand the species. Even though the possibility exists, we cannot live as though Armageddon will occur. To succeed at life, maintain a faith that hard work and perseverance will make your lives better, that you can give meaning to your lives by giving of yourselves in love and not succumbing to hate for those with whom you may differ in superficial ways or to seek revenge for a perceived offense.

And last, we live in a time when more people seem to struggle with finding meaning in their lives. Too many people turn inward and, out of despair known only to them, end their own lives. Others turn to mood-altering chemicals in the false hope that their lives will improve. And a few combine their despair with anger and engage in mass murder.

So, if you remember only one thing from what I’ve had to say today, remember this: Humans are social beings. We do best when we turn outward and work together for a common enterprise. Accept that life is hard. Then go forth with determination to make the world a better place anyway, not just for yourself, but for others. That’s the best way to give meaning to the precious life that you have been given.

Thanks for listening.

Tom West, now retired, is the former general manager of this paper. Reach him at

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