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SPOTLIGHT
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Taking stock and looking ahead

Published on -5/24/2013, 10:02 AM

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It is that time of year again.

Some years ago, I was invited to speak at the graduation ceremonies of a liberal arts college. Later, many in the audience told me they expected a very political speech. Some of them were relieved; others were disappointed. I don't do politics at graduation.

Graduation is about life.

My high school graduation was OK. I gave a speech. My family was there, intact, probably as happy as they ever were.

We went out for Chinese food afterward.

College was not so great. I'd been raped 36 hours before. My father didn't come because I didn't have a ticket for his wife. He said he was sick, but I knew the truth. We had bagels at my sister's afterward. My father bought me a gift that he kept in the trunk of his car, but then someone stole his car, and the gift was gone.

I didn't go to my law school graduation. My father died a few months before. I was already working and didn't have the money for a plane ticket. Besides, the whole idea of it seemed too sad.

Graduation can be very hard.

Here is what I know.

It's easy to forget how lucky you are. I should have had more fun at my high school graduation. I should have had a truly wonderful time. I remember feeling sorry for myself that I was not going to my first (or second or third or fourth) choice college, all of which rejected me. As it turned out, it was fine. As it turned out, it was the last time I remember my family happy together. Why didn't I enjoy it more?

It's easy to think everyone around you knows just where they're going. Maybe they think they do, but they're probably wrong. If someone had asked me back when I graduated from law school (by mail) what I would not be, I quickly would have told them two things: I won't be an academic ("Those who can do, do; those who can't, teach."), and I certainly will never be a partner in a big law firm.

And guess what? I'm an academic and a partner in a big law firm.

It's easy to think you're the only one whose father didn't come, who isn't heading for a fancy dinner, who doesn't have a job and a life all lined up.

You aren't. If everyone around you looks happier than you, it may be that they're just acting. Or maybe they're counting their blessings. Or maybe you should.

In the months before I finished law school, when I was struggling to finish what I started, when I was living on my "bursar's card" because I literally didn't have a dime, I found a wonderful psychiatrist who told me to read a book called "Adaptation to Life." It was a serious study by some long-ago college cohort to determine who found happiness and success in life. And the conclusion (and the reason the wise doctor recommended it) was that what mattered most was not the hand you were dealt, but how you played it, and that "adapting" to life was more important than anything else.

When I speak at graduations, that is what I say. Do your best. Adapt. Life is about change; living well means adapting to change. Your first job will not be your last. Your first love may not last. You will win some and lose some. You will fall down and get kicked. You will be treated unfairly. It happens to everyone. It's what happens next that matters. "Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts." -- Winston Churchill.

Life requires courage, when you're young and when you're old.

Congratulations.

Susan Estrich is a columnist, commentator and law and political science professor at USC.

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