Opinion: Congratulations to class of 2011

It’s graduation season, and across Minnesota, students are taking big steps forward. Amidst all the congratulations and well wishes, they’re hearing a lot of advice on how to succeed in the world.
Here’s the thing I tell younger folks about success: It doesn’t always come the way you think it will. In fact, “success” doesn’t always even end up meaning the same thing you thought it would when you started out.
Maybe your path ends up somewhere far away from the things you’ve studied. Maybe your path won’t even exist until you invent it. Or maybe you’ll find a job you like and raise a family, coach Little League and take vacations.
There are no wrong answers. But, for the most part, you don’t start out with the answers. Or even the questions. You figure them out as you go.
Don’t get me wrong, I like to tell them. Some of you will walk out into the world with a plan and execute it flawlessly. You’ll think you know exactly what you want to do with your life and exactly how you’re going to get there. And you’ll be right. You’ll never doubt yourself. You’ll never struggle. You’ll never have to make hard decisions. Good for the two of you.
But most of you will struggle. You will change your mind. You will change directions. You will be anxious. You will hear people say, “You’re making a mistake.” You will wonder if they’re right. Sometimes they will be right.
But if you work hard at developing the tools you acquired in school and in life, you will find use for them in anything that sparks your interest. They are the currency that allows you to follow your passions to unexpected places.
I am a senator today because I trusted my passion for the things I thought I could do for Minnesotans in the Senate over the expectations other people had for me, even over the expectations I had for myself. My parents made me and my brother study math and science so we could be scientists in the Sputnik era. I became a stand-up comedian (and my brother became a photojournalist — our poor parents!). Then I became a TV writer. Then I quit that and wrote books of political satire.
Now I’m dealing with energy policy and education policy and the deficit and all sorts of other issues as a U.S. senator for Minnesota. And the tools I developed in studying math and science, the tools that made it possible for me to write jokes and analyze political rhetoric and produce television shows — those tools turned out to be useful in this job, too.
I think my story is pretty good evidence that it’s impossible to predict in advance exactly where your interests will lead you, what opportunities may arise, or what choices you’ll get to make down the road.
You can’t control these things. But you can develop the tools that will serve you well no matter what choices you make. You can learn to follow your passions and disregard your own, or other people’s, expectations. You can learn to be resourceful, to be stubborn in the face of adversity, to fight through self-doubt. And if you do these things, you’ll be ready to achieve whatever you decide matters to you, whether it’s what you expected or not. — Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn.
(Editor’s note: This column was adapted in part from Sen. Franken’s May 13, 2011, commencement speech to the graduating class at the University of Minnesota’s College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences.)

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