Advice for graduates: Understand it's but a step toward your greater purpose
This article was adapted from a commencement speech given by Tim Tinnesz to Gaston Day School in 2021.
After all the years of graduations that I’ve participated in, I only recently learned that the root word in graduation has its origins in Latin – gradus — which means “step.” That Latin word for “step” can actually be found in lots of places – a steep grade on a mountain road, the word gradually (step by step), a graduated cylinder (with the “steps” marked on the side) in science class – even the word degree comes from that “gradus” Latin root, too. That’s why you get a degree at a graduation, but we also measure temperatures in degrees, too, literally “steps” from 0.
Graduation is clearly a really important step, but it’s not your last step. That’s why we also call graduations commencements: beginnings. Graduations, commencements are special moments when we often spend extra time thinking, talking about and celebrating our steps – both the ones behind us and the ones still ahead.
But there’s a danger in all of this. If we’re not careful, then we teachers, principals, commencement speakers, family members, etc., will spend so much time at your graduations reflecting on important steps that we forget to tell you about how the steps are supposed to connect together to create a much bigger and far more important journey.
The truth is that nobody can honestly tell you what each step will be when you step away from the stage on graduation day.
It’s likely that some of your future steps are going to hold great joy, and laughter, and celebration. (We wish many of those steps for you.)
Other steps will be terrifying – shaky, teetering steps on the edge a cliff.
Some steps will hold surprises – good and bad.
Sometimes you’ll land the step perfectly, but other times you’re going to fall flat on your face. You will bleed, and it will hurt.
To successfully navigate all of those steps – to keep putting one foot in front of the other, no matter what – you must know the purpose of your journey.
That purpose is called your vocation.
We sometimes mistakenly think “vocation” is just another word for “job” – like a teacher, doctor or lawyer. Except that’s wrong, because “vocation” has a Latin root, too. It’s the same root as “voice” and “vocal.” Your vocation is actually your calling – it answers the question: What is the journey that you, personally, are called to take?
Or, if it was a fill-in-the-blank test, your vocation completes this sentence: I exist in order to ________.
You see, as difficult as any steps in your journey may be, if you’ve got a vocation, if you have a higher calling and a purpose, and if you remember that no journey is ever defined by any single step, no matter how wonderful, or terrifying, or terrible, then you will never lose hope.
Hope – combined with all of the knowledge, perseverance, and problem-solving skills instilled in you by all of the teachers, mentors, friends, and family that have been with you on all of those previous steps on the journey – well, that can get you through anything.
I exist in order to _____.
It’s tempting to think maybe you’re supposed to fill in that blank with a “being” statement. We might’ve set you up for that when we keep saying, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” “What do you want your major to be?” or, “I don’t care what happens, I just want you to be happy.”
You might understandably start to think: I exist in order to be a doctor. To be a lawyer. To be a teacher. To be married. To be successful.
To be happy.
The problem with any one of those statements – the problem with being – is that it only ever involves your status at just a brief point in time. And a brief point in time deals with a step, not the journey.
Your major, your college, your job, even your temporary emotional state (and every emotional state is temporary, trust me) – these are just “being” moments, just steps. Your vocation, however, is much bigger and more important – it’s your purpose, and it’s always going to be an action verb.
For you, you may find your vocation is to heal people. The steps may involve medical school and becoming a doctor, but you might be surprised to discover your steps actually involve a music conservatory and music therapy.
Or your vocation may be to teach children. The steps may involve coming back one day to work at that same school you just graduated from or maybe they involve moving to Thailand to teach Burmese refugees. And, actually who’s to say your journey can’t have both steps at different points?
Your single-most most important task in life is to figure out how to fill in that blank: I exist in order to _____.
Whatever you do, if you want to pass this fill-in-the-blank-test, you better fill that blank in (1) with an action verb that (2) involves living a life that will positively impact others on their journeys, and (3) that makes the world better by the time your journey concludes.
Congratulations to all of our graduates! May you be strengthened by all that you carry and collect on your steps as you seek and find your vocation in the extraordinary journey that lies ahead.
Tim Tinnesz is Head of School at St. Timothy’s School, an Episcopal school serving 575 students from pre-K through eighth grade in Raleigh. Tim also currently sits on the boards of Triangle Day School in Durham and Note in the Pocket, a nonprofit serving children and families in North Carolina. A father of three, Tim previously spent many years as a middle and high school teacher and principal.