Greensboro's African American Community Newspaper since 1967

Lessons for young graduates


This is the joyous time of year when families, friends, and teachers are cheering on graduates of all ages who have worked so hard and made them all so proud. I hope many of today’s high school and university graduates will wander off the beaten career path and help redefine success in our culture, asking not “How much can I get?” but “How much can I do without and share?” Asking not “How can I find myself?” but “How can I lose myself in service to others and leave our nation and world better than I found it?”

During this season, I’d like to share some of the lessons for life I offered my own children and many of the extraordinary young graduates I’ve had the privilege of meeting over the years. The pace of change in the world young people are inheriting continues to accelerate exponentially, but I still believe there are some enduring values and advice older people can share, and agree with Archibald MacLeish that “there is only one thing more powerful than learning from experience and that is not learning from experience.” I feel strongly that it is the responsibility of every adult—parent, teacher, preacher and professional—to make sure that young people hear what we have learned from the lessons of life that helped us survive and succeed, for them to hear from us what we think matters, and for them to know that they are never alone as they go to meet the future.

Here are a few of those lessons:

  • There is no free lunch. Don’t feel entitled to anything you don’t sweat and struggle for. Take the initiative in creating your own opportunity, and don’t wait around for other people to discover you or do you a favor. Don’t assume a door is closed; push on it. Don’t assume if it was closed yesterday, it’s closed today. And don’t ever stop learning and improving your mind.
  • Set thoughtful goals and work quietly and systematically toward them. Resist quick fixes, simplistic answers and easy gains. They often disappear just as quickly as they come.
  • Assign yourself. My daddy used to ask us whether the teacher gave us any homework. If we said no, he’d say, “Well, assign yourself.” Don’t wait around for your boss or your friends or spouse to direct you to do what you are able to figure out and do for yourself. Don’t do just as little as you can to get by. If you see a need, don’t ask, “Why doesn’t somebody do something?” Ask, “Why don’t I do something?” Hard work, initiative, and persistence are still the non-magic carpets to success for most of us. And a critical reminder in an election year and every year: Don’t be a political bystander and grumbler. Vote. Democracy is not a spectator sport.
  • Never work just for money. Money alone won’t save your soul or build a decent family or help you sleep at night. Don’t confuse wealth or fame with character. Don’t tolerate or condone moral corruption, whether it’s found in high or low places, whatever its color or class. And don’t confuse morality with legality. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once noted that everything Hitler did in Nazi Germany was legal. Don’t give anyone the proxy for your conscience.
  • Don’t be afraid of taking risks or of being criticized. If you don’t want to be criticized, don’t say anything, do anything, or be anything. Don’t be afraid of failing. It’s the way you learn to do things right. It doesn’t matter how many times you fall down. All that matters is how many times you get up.
  • Always listen for the genuine within yourself. “Small,” Einstein said, “is the number of them that see with their own eyes and feel with their own hearts.” Try to be one of them. “There is,” the great Black theologian Howard Thurman said, “something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. It is the only true guide you will ever have. And if you cannot hear it, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.” There are so many noises and competing demands in our lives that many of us never find out who we are. Learn to be quiet enough to hear the sound of the genuine within yourself so that you can hear it in other people.
  • And a final lesson: Never think life is not worth living or that you cannot make a difference. Never give up—no matter how hard it gets, and it will get very hard sometimes. An old proverb says that when you get to your wit’s end, that’s where God lives. Harriet Beecher Stowe said when you get into a “tight place and everything goes against you, till it seems as though you could not hang on a minute longer, never give up then, for that is just the place and the time that the tide will turn.” The tide will turn—if you dream it, if you believe in it, if you have faith in it, struggle for it, and never give up.

Marian Wright Edelman is founder and president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund. For more information, go to