Best Advice to Graduates: Keep All Your Options Open

Once again, in the blossoming spring of the year, thousands of undergraduate seniors will be sent forth into an unknown future to assume the onus of perpetuating a precarious human existence. They will be assembled in the hallowed halls, playing fields or sports arenas of all manner of institutions of higher learning, to hear a wide variety of dubious commencement speakers chosen for a wide variety of dubious reasons.

Chosen at my college to introduce the candidates for the cherished diplomas, it became my obligation to sit through a wide variety of declamations ostensibly delivered to inform and/or motivate the captive audience. Rarely was such a goal achieved by the speaker or realized by the recipients, who would sit clothed in black robes baking under a blazing sun or sweltering in an oven-like auditorium or field house.

More often than not, this abused audience would be subjected to little more than an autobiographical sketch of the accomplishments or notoriety that (again, ostensibly) caused the administration to invite this particular guest. I say ostensibly because (once again, more often than not) reciprocation would be expected for the obligatory honorary degree by said institution in the form of a philanthropic donation. Such is the protocol for institutions of higher education.

Occasionally, however, the selection of a commencement speaker by the administration will meet with student opposition on the basis of some political, religious or other issue which proves embarrassing for both the administration and invited guest.

Contrary to many of my more radical views and expressions as well as my general disdain for commencement speakers, I often find myself coming down on the side of the administration in such disputes. Overriding all other of my proclivities in the matter of civics is my democratic insistence upon an absolutely free exchange of information and ideas.

Just as we have the freedom to speak or not to speak, we have the freedom to listen or not to listen. Any attempt to restrict or limit this free exchange is an attempt to deny me the information needed for rational and intelligent decision making. It is even advantageous for me to keep abreast of the irrational and irrelevant.

With the likelihood that the oppressed student will not remember what was said or even who it was who said it, he or she will venture forth into the vast unknown with nothing more than a prayerful hope that each may find him or herself, because unless or until they do, there will be little chance for meaningful happiness.

Having sat through all too many longwinded commencement speeches, I have resolved that should I ever be asked to deliver one (which is most unlikely!) it would be in the form of my simple poem which, in spite of its brevity, says all that the graduate (and you the reader) need to hear and know:


On this your day you will receive

advice from everyone you know.

There’s little of it you’ll retain,

And really there’s no reason why you should,

for what you will most likely get

is all the things that brought success to them,

as though your life should be a mirror of their own.

But who knows what your life will be,

what opportunities you’ll find,

what trials you may encounter?

To be prepared for all that comes your way,

toward that end take heed of this:

In opting twixt the head and heart,

I’d choose the heart for happiness.

And for success, you need no more than this:

Keep all your options open

for as long as well you can.

Harold G. “Hal” O’Leary of Wheeling has been prominent in the arts community for many years. He was the founder of Oglebay Institute’s Towngate Theatre. In 2008 he was inducted into the Wheeling Hall of Fame.