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To the Graduating Class of 2014

Aaron Hillegass

Like most people over 40, I have lots of opinions about how people should live their lives. Recognizing that no one wants this unsolicited advice, I work hard to keep these opinions to myself. However, today Tasha (who curates our blog) asked me to write some advice to the young people who are graduating this spring. Thus, I’m about to blurt out some advice that I sincerely hope will be useful to you; I apologize in advance for being a preachy loud-mouth.

Make yourself useful

On your deathbed, you should be able say, “During my brief stay on the planet, I made things a little better.” You don’t need to be Mother Teresa—just pick a career that requires useful skills and hard work instead of fast talking and luck.

On the practical side, it is important to remember that booms and busts are real. Today’s overpaid strategy consultant is tomorrow’s barista, but there is always work for a good plumber.

Leave your sense of entitlement at the door

This one is specifically for engineers. You are probably used to being the smartest person in the room. When you join a team of experienced engineers, you will need to adjust your attitude. Listen carefully to what a more senior engineer says, especially if he or she is critiquing your work. Try to get a little more adept at your job every day.

Don’t try to buy your identity

A car is just a way to get your body from one place to another. Thus, a great car is one that nearly always gets you there. Great shoes keep you from getting blisters and hookworms. And no one needs a watch now that we all carry phones in our pockets.

People who spend more than they can comfortably afford on cars, watches and shoes are suckers. They have been suckered by brilliant marketing departments who work around the clock to convince us that we can purchase dignity, joy and contentment.

When you take on debt, you give away some of your freedom. Anyone who forfeits their freedom trying to buy dignity ends up with neither.

Do or do not

In their 20s, most people expend a lot of energy on worry. The decisions you are making seem irrevocable and scary. Maybe you think that making the wrong decision will be catastrophic.

However, as someone who has made numerous bad decisions, I can tell you that the universe is a little more forgiving than you think. Stop worrying; if you make yourself useful, this world will make a pretty good place for you.

Don’t spend too much of your energy on guilt, either. If you make a decision that hurts someone, ask for their forgiveness and do what you can to make it right. Forgive yourself and try to do better in the future.

Don’t be self-conscious. You are who you are. If others can’t appreciate it, fuck ‘em. Honestly, if you realized how infrequently acquaintances thought about you, you wouldn’t even bother trying to guess what those thoughts were. Walk tall.

It was Yoda who said, “Do or do not. There is no try.” For recent graduates, it is slightly altered: There is no upside to wallowing in worry, guilt and self-consciousness, so just do or do not.

Integrity is important

There are very few things I’ve done in my life that I would be ashamed to share on this blog. I’ve done my best to have a consistent moral code and to live by it. At times, this code has kept me from taking actions that would have made things more fun or convenient or profitable.

But overall, living with integrity has made my life much easier. My family, my friends, my employees, and my customers trust me to do the right thing. And that trust makes everything I do easier and more effective.

The internet will amplify your reputation. If you consistently act with integrity and kindness, the internet will make everything you do easier. When you act small, the internet will make sure that everyone knows about it.

Believe in abundance

Why do people become greedy and fearful? That’s a terrible way to live, right? Most of the greedy, fearful acts I have witnessed have been committed by people who felt that they had to do whatever was necessary to get what they needed; that kindness and integrity were luxuries that they could not afford.

You will live a much happier life if you believe this one thing: There is enough for everyone to get what they need.

Is it true? I have no proof, but I choose to believe that it is. And I think this little bit of faith has made a huge difference in the quality of my life.

Never stop learning

When choosing a career or even a job, look for opportunities for long-term learning. Learning is what makes work interesting, and in the long term, interesting work will be more important to you than money or prestige.

(Quick plug: We are hiring at Big Nerd Ranch, and learning is treasured here.)

Take care of your body

Drink in moderation. Get enough sleep. Exercise regularly. Floss. This sort of care is the most important investment you can make; a healthy body will bring you joy every day, and you probably have many, many days in front of you.

Don’t be afraid to live

This one is the most important. Most of the regrets old people have are about things they didn’t do. So take chances. Get your heart broken. Bet on the underdog. Be the first person on the dance floor. Invite someone famous out for lunch. Make a scene in a crowded, quiet place. Flirt with old people. Go skinny dipping. Disappoint your parents. Fall in love with someone inconvenient. Hug people who expect handshakes. Life is an amazing gift; show your gratitude by really living.

And so, Class of 2014, congratulations on your graduation. I hope life brings you many challenges and delights. I hope you reach the end with many great stories and a few good friends.

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