Erika Petrelli
Erika Petrelli

As spring gives way to summer and academics give way to pools and bike rides, I’ve been thinking about commencement speeches.  Students across the country are hearing them right about now, whether graduating from high school or college, at the precipice of “life” beginning.    Because that’s what commencement means, right?  To begin.    I started to think about the commencement speech I’d like my son and daughter to hear, or the advice that I would give them, when they reach such a precipice.   And as a I thought about that, a few things occurred to me:   1. Man, all my advice is very cliché and 2.  Maybe it’s not cliché, maybe it’s just really good advice that we apparently need to hear over and over and over again and 3. Why do we wait until pivotal moments like graduation to give these speeches?  This “commencing,” this is stuff we need to hear when we’re commencing turning six (as my daughter did yesterday) and when we’re commencing going to camp and when we’re commencing another Tuesday and when we’re commencing a new job and basically always, because there is always something to commence.

So here's my commencement speech, for Marlowe and Dylan, yes, but probably for myself too.

My wish for you is that you understand, deep in your heart, that the most important thing is not to be the smartest or best looking or the one with the most medals or the most money.  It’s not important to always win.  Life is sometimes easy and sometimes hard and sometimes boring and sometimes extraordinary.   Live in all of it.  

Fill your days with laughter.  Love fiercely and learn that a broken heart does eventually heal.  The world is big—explore it.  See the sunrise from 35,000 feet and get your hands dirty from digging in the rich soil of the earth.  Understand that happiness will forever elude you if you search for it in other people or places, but it will be your constant companion if you allow space for it to dwell inside of you.  Taste rain and also tears. Taste Wasabi, which will bring you to tears.  Taste it in the rain, while you’re at it.  Be passionate about something and always keep that passion nearby, even if it’s just a book on your bed stand.  Dance often.  Don’t worry about perfect attendance; in your life there will be many good reasons to play hooky.  Understand that most of what makes life extraordinary is hidden inside the most ordinary moments of every day. Don’t miss them.   Find a style that suits you and stick with it, no matter what the fashion magazines say.  Be bold, even if that means risking failure.  Trust that failure leads to growth, and that often times the things we don’t get make way for the things we realize we wanted even more.  Read as much as you can.  Know that you are loved beyond measure and that every single day I say a silent prayer of gratitude that you are in my life.  Find a strong voice within you, and have the courage to speak up for what is right.  Use that voice to speak up not just for yourself but for others who have yet to find their voice or whose voice has been silenced.  Understand that there are many dark parts to this world and that darkness may cast a shadow over you someday—but there is always light, too.  Keep your eyes focused on finding that light. Even when it’s impossible to believe, I promise you that it’s there somewhere.  Know that I desperately wish I could protect you from every scrape, every heartache, every moment in life that would bring you pain… but I also understand that through those moments you will find out how strong you truly are.  In those moments you will discover YOU.  Be humble while also knowing that you are truly a gift to this world and all who are lucky enough to know you. Be wary of people who try to tell you otherwise. Talk to cabbies and store clerks and strangers sitting next to you on the plane.  Everyone you meet has something to teach you. Be kind.  Always hold space for magic and mystery, because who are we to decide what is true and what is not?  Pay attention to crossroads and intersections.  Take pictures.  Be in pictures—happily.  Don’t hide yourself; let the world see you. Say yes to opportunities and adventures.  You will regret saying no far more than you will regret saying yes.   Have a theme song. Don’t worry about the size of your wallet or your body, just worry about the size of your heart.   Let yourself be surprised.  Let yourself be wrong. 

And most of all, my biggest wish for you, is that you wake up each morning with a content heart because you’ve surrounded yourself with people that you love, doing the things that you love, in a place that you love.  May you keep joy as the north star of your compass as you navigate this easy, hard, boring, and extraordinary life.  Because even if you are blessed enough to have a very long life, life goes by in a blink.  Fill it up.  

Congratulations on this commencement, and may whatever is about to begin be simply breathtaking.      

What words will help you “commence” something today?   


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Erika Petrelli

By Erika Petrelli

Erika Petrelli is the Senior Vice President of Leadership Development (and self-declared Minister of Mischief) for The Leadership Program, a New York City-based organization. With a Masters degree in Secondary Education, Erika has been in the field of teaching and training for decades, and has been with The Leadership Program since 1999. There she has the opportunity to nurture the individual leadership spirit in both students and adults across the country, through training, coaching, keynotes, and writing. The legacy Erika strives daily to create is to be the runway upon which others take flight. If you enjoy these blogs, you should check out her interactive journal, On Wings & Whimsy: Finding the Extraordinary Within the Ordinary, now available for sale on Amazon. While her work takes her all around the country, Erika calls Indiana home.