Ranking very near the top of the list of the best graduation speeches I ever encountered was Conan O’Brien’s 2011 address at Dartmouth College, with former President George H.W. Bush sitting on the stage behind him, there to receive an honorary degree.

O’Brien began by saying, “I must point out that behind me sits a highly admired president of the United States and decorated war hero, while I, a cable television talk show host, has been chosen to stand here and impart wisdom. I pray I never witness a more damning example of what is wrong with America today.”

And he gets better — both funnier and wiser — as he goes on. It’s available on YouTube, so if you went there to watch it, you would be spending your time in a worthwhile way.

However, if you wanted to do so after reading this, I would be grateful. I’m not as amusing as O’Brien is, nor do I have as much wisdom to impart, but I do have a few brief things to say that may be of interest to those moving on in life, either to higher levels of education or to the search for a meaningful and rewarding career.

So, here’s my 2013 graduation address:

You’ve gathered here to celebrate a milestone in life, but in and of itself, this ceremony is meaningless — at least at present.

What significance it will come to have in retrospect, as you look back on it from the future, is the same meaning a competitive diver puts into walking to the edge of the platform and springing into space.

Or, as if you were carpenters considering a pile of lumber, nails and shingles that you will use to build a house in which you will spend the rest of your lives.

That is to say, your life is what you make of it from this point on. When your doting parents tell you that they are proud of your accomplishments, what they mean is that they are proud of your potential, because right now you have no achievements that matter.

If hearing that irritates you, control your ire for a moment and consider where you are. You sit in a place where you can only go forward, not back, and it is only what you do tomorrow, and in the days, months and years to come, that will count.

What you have now is a transcript that only records your past accomplishments in the hothouse environment of academia. Along with that piece of paper, you have another one called a diploma or a degree, accompanied by some skills, a smattering of talents — and, most importantly, a mind and a will to use it.

You may, if you are fortunate, have a job offer or two, or a letter of acceptance to another institution of learning. If the latter, it just means you aren’t at the end of the diving platform yet, you are only partway up the ladder to it.

Whenever you arrive there, be it today or some similar day in the future, you face only two options: Do well or do poorly.

If you are careless in building the house in which you will live for the rest of your life, you can construct something so shoddy that others will wonder how anyone could live in such a hovel.

Or, you can build a mansion. It’s up to you, but the contract is already written and signed: Construction starts today.

I do not mean you will do it alone. If you need help, you can find it. But only God gives it unselfishly. The best way to get help from other people is to be the kind of person who gives to them first.

We are told that those who give are the ones who receive, and that is a truth with many levels of meaning. Part of what you build — and you have already started on this –is your character.

Second, a job is a job, and when you need one, it is a crime to turn down a decent offer just because it isn’t precisely what you want. But it is also a crime to become so mired in inertia that you do not seek out a career that you find personally rewarding as well as financially adequate.

And yes, some of you will encounter smoother roads than others. You will think that is unfair, but it is not. It is life.

Yet, history is replete with accounts of people of lesser skills and capabilities making successes of themselves, while others who are far more highly favored become dismal failures.

Welcome to life. It doesn’t give a damn about what you’ve done. It only cares about what you do from now on out.

M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a freelance writer and speaker. email [email protected]

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