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Graduates tossing caps in the air

Graduation season is now firmly behind us, with caps and gowns tucked safely away in closets. The shine of new degrees and futures filled with promise has been replaced with the uncertainty of job searching, career questioning, and concern about whether the next step is actually the right step. Plus, no more summers off.

In the midst of all these life transitions it can be easy to forget the words of wisdom shared on commencement day. Sure, these lessons from authors, politicians, and celebrities were meant to offer essential advice and inspire those entering the workforce for the first time. But they hold just as much truth for long-time changemakers pursuing their passion in the nonprofit world.

Be brave, and don’t be too cautious

“Steer your ship into the choppy seas. Look for the rough spots, the problems that seem too big, the complexities that other people are content to work around. It’s in those places that you will find your purpose. It’s there that you can make your greatest contribution. Whatever you do, don’t make the mistake of being too cautious. Don’t assume that by staying put, the ground won’t move beneath your feet. The status quo simply won’t last. So get to work on building something better.” –Tim Cook

Students at Tulane University know something about choppy waters, unpredictable weather, and ways the ground can shift without warning. So when Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, spoke to this year’s graduating class about moving bravely, it was an apt analogy.  

Changemakers are often recognized for their tendency to follow radical ideas and to see opportunities where others find only challenges.

Cook’s reminder to stay in motion despite difficulties, to continue to strive toward something bigger, better, and more just—and to avoid the risk of being cautious over curious—is a message meant to inspire not only recent grads, but also those deep in the trenches.

Make mistakes

“And now go, and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make good art.” –Neil Gaiman

Sometimes recent grads are so concerned with getting things right that they forget it’s okay to make make mistakes. Whether it’s hitting “reply all” on an email or showing up to a meeting with the wrong project notes, author Neil Gaiman reminded University of the Arts students in Philadelphia that making mistakes can be an essential part of learning. 

That lesson doesn’t just apply to recent graduates and summer interns. In fact, it’s equally important for those already established in their careers. Sometimes pushing limits, pressing for change, and breaking rules results in major mistakes and even setbacks. 

Whether it’s missed deadlines or grants, lost jobs or even possible demotions, the experience of a wrong turn can sometimes end up righting the ship. So long as ample time is given to reflection, evaluation, and recalibration, a mistake can end up being an incredible teacher (or at the very least, a good story). 

Always choose kindness

“Err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality—your soul, if you will—is as bright and shining as any that has ever been ... Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place.”

–George Saunders

In a world that can at times feel riddled with animosity and division, author and professor George Saunders reminded Syracuse University students to always choose kindness during his 2013 commencement address. 

Changemakers will likely find difficult people on the streets, in the workplace, and even in their own families. Challenging systems can test patience on the daily—which means Saunders’ call to compassion applies well beyond the halls of academia. His lesson can also be taken to the office, community, and home. 

Moving with kindness isn’t only important when engaging with colleagues, partners, and clients; you need to prioritize creating that same kind of loving space for the self, too. 

Turn fear into excitement

“Now, when it comes to changing the world, don’t be scared. Don’t freak out … You might be scared and that fear can stop you cold. But don’t let it. As we say in the theater and on television, take that fear and turn it into excitement … Take a chance. Make a difference … Turn your fear into excitement and change the world.” –Bill Nye

Bill Nye may be best known as the “Science Guy.” But when he spoke to Goucher College graduates earlier this year he found a way to connect his passion for the environment and the role of future changemakers with the idea of uncertainty and fear; two very familiar concepts to those preparing to embark on the real world.

Nye reminded students that making friends with fear is necessary to spark curiosity and step into the unknown. His advice speaks both to those entering full-time professional life for the first time and those who want to continue cultivating change further down the line. 

Whether it’s switching careers, asking for a raise, or pushing back against injustice, using fear as fuel can be key to getting ahead. And getting to know what scares us can also shine light on the issues we care most deeply about. 


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Jill Nawrocki profile image

Jill Nawrocki

Jill Nawrocki is a Licensed Social Worker and Returned Peace Corps Volunteer living in Brooklyn. She is an ultra runner, freelance writer and social justice warrior with a background in program management, direct practice, mindfulness and advocacy.

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