Wake Forest University Commencement 2013, photo by Cliff Hackel
Wake Forest University Commencement 2013, photo by Cliff Hackel

Last weekend, I was a proud aunt, beaming and clapping on the quintessential college quad at the Wake Forest University graduation in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

I love it when the strains of the Pomp and Circumstance march begin, and then afterwards when the last name has been read, and the Carillon bells ring out in jubilation.

How can you not? There is such hope and possibility in the air, so much bursting pride from parents, and relief mingled with joy and the sadness of goodbyes from the graduates.

This was my second graduation of the season. First up was a Master’s degree celebration at the University of Pennsylvania. And I still have another to go.

My guess is many of you can relate to the excitement of these happy family times. I always try to attend these not only because I value education and the discipline it takes to pass these goal posts in life, but also it’s fun and life affirming.

I believe it’s important to support these milestones and rites of passage. There are plenty of sad times we gather for funerals and other heartbreaks, that it’s essential for our souls that we take time for these enriching occasions.

And I am a sucker for the wisdom of the illustrious speakers corralled for these momentous moments.

As a consummate reporter, it’s hard for me to listen idly, so I take notes. I thought I would share some of what I heard that resonated.

The advice, I believe, is good not only to pass along to 20-somethings in your life, but to put into play in your own life right now, two decades removed, as you ponder second acts, encore careers with meaning and more.

(More: Know a New College Graduate? Great Career Tips to Pass On)

Be resilient. Lord David Puttnam, award-winning film producer and advocate for education, addressed the new graduates of University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and spoke about the importance of resilience, retaining the power of your dreams and hope in the face of hardship. Watch video here.

At the Baccalaureate Address at Wake Forest, Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo, President and CEO of Catholic Relief Services, shared the following counsel:

Celebrate other people. “There is no question we live in a highly competitive world,” she said. “There are rankings all around us. There is a sense of the winner takes all. There’s a sense of zero-sum game, that someone’s gain must be my loss, a mentality that is born of scarcity. Even when we win, we can’t enjoy it for long because all we worry about is losing again,” she said.

We ask ourselves: “Who is the person who will replace me as the winner? If we get a promotion, with that type of attitude, we have just gained a tougher group of competitors. And so we are always looking behind to see who is going to take our place,” Woo said.

And this is key, in my opinion. Woo urged the graduates to look inside and find ways to be happy for other people. “So as we go about with this type of mentality, can we really make a place for the other? Can we allow other people to take credit? Can we rejoice when something good happens to others? Or do we feel like we have just lost and become diminished because something good has happened to others?”

(More: Why You Need To Love Your Job More)

Collaborate. “There’s no work that can be done by one person. And collaboration requires a tremendous amount of team ability,” she remarked.

And of course, team building is all about bonding with others. And to illustrate how to do so, Woo remembered what she had heard at her own commencement. The speaker was Steven Fuller, who was then the vice president of HR at General Motors. Steven Fuller said: “Charisma is the ability to take people as you find them, to like them for what they are and to not despise them for what they are not.”

“In other words, the capacity to accept and celebrate other people,” Woo interpreted.

Listen to others. Woo dreaded social and business events, but learned the trick of asking questions to find a way to enjoy them. “I decided that people have very interesting lives and if I am just willing to listen to their lives, I will have a very enjoyable time,” she told the graduates.

Woo recalled that she began to ask: “Where do you come from? Why did you make a change in your career? What do you like to do in your spare time? And afterwards, the person would say, ‘That Carolyn Woo, she is really bright.’ And I just want to say. I didn’t say one word that was intelligent. I just asked a lot of questions, and in that process, I celebrated that person.”

The following day, remarks by Gwen Ifill, Moderator and Managing Editor of “Washington Week” and Senior Correspondent for the “PBS NewsHour” at the Wake Forest Commencement, stuck a chord with me as well.

Do something.  “If you haven’t already, you have to decide what you care about, and then be prepared to act,” Ifill said. ”My charge to you today is, if you see something, do something. It is not essential that you care about every thing. But you have to care about something. Sometimes it just means thinking about how you speak, not just speaking.”

Be on board with change. She urged graduates to make “a promise to find a mission for your life…to be prepared for life to knock you off course.” She also urged the graduates “to stay curious.” “You always have to have another question in your hip pocket, a follow-up question we call it in the business,” Ifill said.  “Something that will take you out of your comfort zone. So you have to be open to the possibility of a change in direction. That stays through throughout your life. And you have to consider the possibility that the first answer might sometimes be no.”

Find a mentor. Ifill wished that the graduates would one day have a mentor like she had in Tim Russert, the Washington NBC news bureau chief who passed away in 2008 just before he was to deliver the commencement at Wake Forest. She urged them to find “someone who will talk you into something you ought to do that you are too scared to try…Someone who will watch out for you once you do it, and make sure that you succeed…Someone who will then turn you loose when it’s time and talk you into doing something else if you need to…”

(More: How to Find a Mentor)

Laugh. Ifill’s kicker counsel: “Oh, and don’t forget to laugh along the way. It’s the only way any of it can come together. You can’t be happy unless you’re laughing, especially at yourself.”

Kerry Hannon

Kerry Hannon, Contributor

I cover boomer careers, retirement, aging and personal finance.

Follow me on Twitter, @KerryHannon I’m the author of Great Jobs for Everyone 50+: Finding Work That Keeps You Happy and Healthy … And Pays the Bills (John Wiley & Sons), available here www.kerryhannon.com. Check out my column at AARP. My weekly column  at PBS’s NextAvenue.org is here.

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