I have thought about this year’s high school graduating class many time since the pandemic began closing schools. I regret that they are missing out on rites of passage like prom, graduation, and those last few weeks on campus where everything is wrapped up and nothing seems to matter. Many have plans to attend colleges that may not open for physical classes in the fall, robbing them of that first brush with freedom and adulthood.
The reality facing the Class of 2020 really set in for me when I received a graduation card for my cousin’s son in the mail last week. As I marveled at how grown up he looks in his handsome photo, I began a dialogue in my head between myself and the Class of 2020.
The dawn of your adulthood arrives at a pivotal, life defining moment. Your grandparents remember exactly what they were doing when they heard President John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas, Texas. Your parents remember where they were on September 11, 2001 when terrorists flew airplanes in to the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. And you will have vivid memories of your last day on campus as a high school senior before the coronavirus shut down schools across the country. For better or worse your life will consist of the time before the coronavirus and the time after it.
While the world seems uncertain at the moment, you should feel confident in your future. Humans have faced and overcome many challenges, from World Wars and natural disasters to droughts, famines, and financial crises. We are a resilient species, and we will rise to this occasion as well. New opportunities await those who are flexible and adapt to new environments. That is my message to you – be open to change, to new ideas, and to meeting and working with people who are different from you.
If I could give one piece of advice to my 18-year-old self, I would tell her to choose optimism over pessimism. I would also let her know that she, like most young adults, will act like a complete idiot until she’s about 25 years old. An optimistic mindset will set up you for success. People enjoy being around optimistic people, and they like to hire them as well. Everyone will face challenges in life. Bad things will happen to all of you. Family members will die, romantic relationships will end, jobs will be lost, and illness or injury may plague you. But it is how you choose to react to adversity that defines you. You don’t always have a choice about what happens to you, but you can choose how you will react to it.
One of the hardest lessons I had to learn as a young adult was that good grades do not ensure professional success. In fact, the skills and talents that lead to success are not taught in school. Your ability to empathize with others will take you further than a 4.0 GPA in pre-med. It will make you a better doctor as well. In a world that seems to become more hyper-competitive each year, I find that my most valuable trait is grit. Grit is the ability to scrape by until an opportunity arises and a door opens. Some of you may walk through gilded open doors leading to illustrious careers. But I would argue that those who stumble and claw their way to success enjoy a more fulfilling life.
The highs of life don’t feel as high if we don’t also spend time experiencing the lows.
Another skill that will serve you well is tact, the ability to gracefully maneuver delicate social and professional situations. Tact is the most esoteric of skills, and it is impossible to learn from a book. Instead, you must learn it by observing those who possess it and later by practicing it. Humans are social animals, and we live inside our own self-centered minds. Your ability to motivate positive change while preserving the dignity of your opponents will take you far. But this is not an excuse of obtuse communication or double-speak. The ability to communicate clearly will also serve you well.
The way we live and function as a society will be changed by the coronavirus pandemic. You may not find yourself working in a traditional office or flocking to urban centers for career opportunities. Professions that once required constant travel may function over video conference from home. 2020 may be the year that conducting business over the internet truly began. Doctors will meet with patients via video when possible, eliminating the ritual of waiting rooms. Even the future of professional sports is in flux. Might e-sports replace them?
Your youth is an advantage in times of great change. Use it. It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks, but be gentle with your elders. They are in awe of you while they may simultaneously shake their heads at you. Young adulthood is a time to discover yourself. But before you embark on that journey, take some time to determine which core values define you. Let those values be your guiding light in all the decisions you make – whether that’s which party to attend on Friday night or which job offer to accept. You’re supposed to make mistakes, just be sure to learn from them.
You deserved a graduation ceremony in a packed auditorium, but instead you had a drive-by car parade. You should have taken a class photo together, but instead you reserved a time to take a photo in front of the school sign wearing your cap and gown, alone. This lesson that life is unfair will benefit you one day We call Americans who fought in World War II The Greatest Generation. You may have a chance to outdo them on a different battlefield. The Class of 2020, born and raised in the 21st Century, has an opportunity before it. Seize it. But don’t forget to spend some headspace in the real world, away from your screens, when we can all get together again in person. Godspeed. Good luck.