Go the Distance and Wear Sunscreen

It’s the time of year when schools all over are sending new graduates into the world. Even though it has been centuries years since I graduated from college, this time of year always calls to mind some of my favorite advice for graduates. Most people first heard this as the Baz Luhrman production “Everybody’s Free (to Wear Sunscreen).” There’s an urban legend that the lyrics were based on a commencement speech by Kurt Vonnegut. Don’t believe it. (Vonnegut himself responded to that myth: “I don’t know what the point is except how gullible people are on the Internet.”) The real author was Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich, in a 1997 column titled “Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young.”

The column is an effective laundry list of advice, including the importance of wearing sunscreen. One section in particular has always resonated with me.

Don’t waste your time on jealousy. Sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind. The race is long and, in the end, it’s only with yourself.

The race is long… Be persistent in your efforts and and set your own standards by which to judge your progress. We’ll talk about the jealousy part another day, but persistence is what I’m especially interested in today. There is research to support the long-term rewards of not giving up; for example, not giving up was found to be a factor influencing the retention rate of nursing students. From a creativity standpoint, from a Fast Company article, “a single moment of insight is the result of thinking that happens before it – often…due to reorganizing or restructuring the elements of a situation or problem.” In other words, thinking about your painting or novel today may not lead to a eureka moment, but thinking about it every day over a period of time probably will.

Urban bicycle race
The race is long and, in the end, it’s only with yourself.

A few suggestions to help you keep going:

When you think you’re done, work a little longer. Researchers at the Kellogg School demonstrated that people who persisted through “stuck” moments in brainstorming sessions came up with additional ideas.

Keep up with the work. If you have deadlines, your own or others’ (for example, if you’re doing freelance work), it might be tempting to put all the work off until the last minute. Don’t. Again, from the nursing retention study mentioned above, there is evidence that keeping up with a workload helps with time management and wards off discouragement when the workload becomes intimidating.

Show up, even on days when inspiration doesn’t. I’ve pondered projects for days (and nights) before coming up with what I thought was the right approach. Keeping your brain stimulated with your creative work, by journaling, brainstorming, or just plain doodling, will give you time to consider all possibilities.

Finally, there is always the satisfaction of knowing you’ve gone the distance. That was Rocky’s goal in the classic 1976 film:
The author next to the Rocky statue in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

…if I can go that distance, you see, and that bell rings and I’m still standin’, I’m gonna know for the first time in my life, see, that I weren’t just another bum from the neighborhood.

Rocky’s goal wasn’t a conventional victory. It was to do more than he had done before. His race was with himself. So whether you’re a new graduate or not, mentally prepare yourself for a long race and don’t let others decide if you’ve succeeded. If you need some inspiration along the way, listen to a little music by composer Bill Conti and imagine yourself running up the steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I’ve been there and I know you can do it.

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