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Advice to graduates begins long before the ceremony

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Around this time every year we hear bits and pieces of advice that are shared with our graduating students. Some are sage and some are just fluff. 

And some will actually stick.

The recent advice passed on to graduates by First Lady Michelle Obama to “Remember that you are blessed. Remember that in exchange for those blessings, you must give something back,” was inspiring. And Bill Cosby’s advice to Temple graduates in 1998 to “... set goals ... set simple goals like pay off your student loan ... like get up in the morning when the bell rings,” was both humorous and cogent. 

Last week I was struck by the significance of the advice I picked up along the way since my own graduation decades ago when I heard of the passing of long-time UCLA basketball coach John Wooden. He was simply the greatest basketball coach of all time and for good reason. He didn’t just coach basketball — he coached life.

Wooden’s teaching elements centered more around the 15 elements in his Pyramid of Success and 12 lessons in leadership than it did X’s and O’s on a chalkboard. For example, his pyramid was based on the five traits of industriousness, friendship, loyalty, cooperation and enthusiasm. He taught students that it was all about team play and the responsibility individuals had in making the team better, that the most valuable individual rewards came from that dedication to a larger group effort.

He also taught his students that success in basketball was wholly secondary to the greater success to be achieved in life. It was more important to be a good person, an honorable person, a responsible person, a selfless person, than it was to win a sporting championship.

And even when his team did win championships, he reminded them that the journey was not over, advising them to carry themselves as champions. 

I never met or heard John Wooden speak, but bits and pieces of his teaching and advice influenced me just the same as if he’d placed his hand on my shoulder and told me himself. Perhaps it was because I was a sponge who was drawn to embrace such philosophy. Or perhaps it was my own high school teachers and coaches who embraced that philosophy and taught me second-hand some of those important lessons. 

I know for certain I learned important guiding principles in my life from my family, my church and even the Boy Scouts. 

Regardless of where those pieces of wisdom came from, some of them stuck and continue to influence me today. The truth is I couldn’t tell you who or what the speaker at my high school graduation said, but I do remember so many of the virtues taught to me along the way to that ceremony. 

Life teaches you so many, too. 

Working summers on the farm taught me so much. It’s why I’m so eternally grateful for my sister Judy and her husband John Rice for allowing me the opportunity to try, fail, learn and succeed under their patient wings. It wasn’t exactly summer camp, but I did get three square meals a day, a room to myself and 50 cents an hour from dawn to dusk.

While working on the farm, I quickly learned that brash, boastful people were not well respected. As a matter of fact, I learned to keep my mouth shut and listen. I also learned that my brother, John, was an honest, respected individual who carried barrels full of humility on his back every day. He was trusted, knowledgeable and other people actively sought his help and advice. I quickly realized that my own actions reflected on him and that realization helped shape my attitude and approach to how I carried myself. 

In short, I worked hard in order to honor and uphold John’s reputation, especially for the trust and confidence he placed in me. I still made mistakes or bad choices along the way and fully tested John’s patience, but the lessons he taught me reenforced those taught by teachers and coaches and community leaders. 

Advice at graduation seems largely secondary to that which we receive getting there. It’s the advice that got us there that means the most, though we should never stop seeking sage wisdom.

Of all the advice we receive, whether it’s solicited or not, some of those little tidbits resonate to us and cling to the fiber of our self-determination. Some of my favorites, of which some attributes have escaped me, include: 

• Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value — Albert Einstein.

• It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts — Coach John Wooden, God rest his soul.

• Learn to see further than the end of your nose — I believe my grandfather may have said that to me when I was too young to understand it. 

• Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

• Your word is your bond.

• I’d hate to be so slow as to haul the last bale of hay out of that stack — Bill Rice, John’s father, God rest his soul. 

• Don’t you dare do that — mom.

I like the trend in some schools and most churches that implore students to get outside of themselves, to stop thinking about themselves and to focus on what talents and abilities they have that can benefit others. It’s the smallest darn things that teach such big lessons. Young people who honestly aspire to helping others are leaps and bounds ahead of their peers. 

It’s impressive to see the high GPAs of honor students, but I’m equally impressed by those who take a couple hours out of their week to visit older folks they don’t even know in a rest home or clean out a cage in an animal shelter. The time they spend sharing conversation with an old person who has nobody or petting a rejected dog who rarely feels the comfort of a gentle stroke across its neck turns into a life-shaping experience that money and books and popularity can’t buy.

If I had the ear of the graduating student or even those of a freshman, I would advise them to work hard, earn respect, be respectful, practice humility and embrace the lifestyle of serving a greater community than just one — it’s not all about you. 

But also take along the advice that has been slapping you in the face each and every day of your young life. It’s called reality and it should have taught you some valuable lessons by now. 

You should know by now that being efficient is different that taking shortcuts. 

You should know by now that just because your father or your mother was an alcoholic doesn’t mean you will be or that it’s okay to give in to excesses that will tempt your throughout your life. 

You are your own person who chooses your own path. Don’t make excuses for bad decisions. Learn to deal with your weaknesses, not succumb to them. 

You should know by now that people will judge you by how you present yourself, how you work and how you credit others. Speak well, dress well, be respectful of everyone, work hard and be humble. 

You should know by now that raising your voice or your hand should be an instant sign that you are wrong. Step back, calm down and reassess yourself. 

You should know by now that doing what’s right isn’t always easy but has larger rewards than your own satisfaction. 

You should know by now that honesty is the best policy. 

You should know by now that nothing worth having comes easy. 

You should know by now that giving 60 percent is much more rewarding than receiving 60 percent. 

And the best piece of advice I ever heard was the simplest — go out and make your parents proud of you. 

In other words, make your mother cry for all the good reasons.

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