It’s graduation season. Granted, this year’s high school seniors have experienced an extremely weird junior and senior year. But the conclusion of this once-in-100-years craziness is nearing an end. It seems that in this part of the world we are, once again, hosting graduation ceremonies with caps, gowns, cords  and commencement addresses. The world might have been a little better off for the lack of the latter, as I am sure no one ever remembers what was said during their graduation ceremony’s commencement address.

When my two children went off to college, I wrote each of them letters and tucked the letters into the desk drawers of their dorm rooms just before leaving and saying my final goodbyes. I have combined and tweaked each of those letters to serve as this year’s unofficial 2021 commencement address to all Mississippi high school seniors.

Dear graduates, there are two, seemingly unconventional, routes to success in your upcoming professional and personal life – through passion and fun. The decision regarding your professional life should be the easiest decision you’ll ever make. Your career should be about one thing – passion.

It took the first 20 years of my life to find my passion. But once I did, my career path was set. The minute I started working in restaurants I fell in love with the industry, instantly. I knew that was what I was “supposed” to do. I love restaurants. I eat, sleep and breathe restaurants. Restaurants are my hobby.

Someone once said, “Do what you love to do for a career and you’ll never work a day in your life.” That is passion. It’s true. I do my hobby and I get paid for it. That is what I want for you.

Success follows passion, every time.

The second piece of advice is about fun. Go out and have fun. Seriously, it’s as simple as that. But it’s got to be the right kind of fun, and it’s got to come from the right kind of places.

Having fun is where it gets a little trickier. It took me a much longer time to figure out how to be a success in my personal life, and how to find the true source of fun – it’s not at a frat party or at someone’s apartment at three in the morning. Granted, those things might be fun in a fleeting sort of way, but you’re never going to achieve a fuller life at a frat party.

After I graduated high school, I looked for fun in a lot of the wrong places, and I searched for fun for a long time. It was around the time that my children were born that the 40-year old me I figured out what life is all about – faith, family, friends, food and fun. Those things, in that order, are what lead to a full, fruitful, joy-filled and productive life.

Graduates, befriend the underdog. Laugh a lot. Make others laugh a lot. Visit a nursing home (when it safe to do so again). Make them laugh a lot. Hug your parents long and hard. Hug them so long that they’re the ones who let go first. The next time you see your favorite teacher and give him or her a big hug. Thank them. If you don’t appreciate them today, I promise you that you will in the near future. Hug the teacher you liked least, too. They’re likely in need of a hug. They worked just as hard, you just don’t appreciate that, yet.

Take care of your teeth. Walk a lot. Drink milk. Don’t hate. Stay in touch with your friends. Make new friends. Share a meal with your friends. Travel.

Don’t ever compare your insides to other people’s outsides, and always stay humble. When your head begins to swell, your mind stops growing.

At the first sign of trouble, go to God first. The will of God will never take you where the grace of God won’t protect you (though your second call should be to a parent). They say, “Nothing will happen today that you and God can’t handle.” They are right.

You will face challenges and setbacks over the next several years. Remember that despair is only a visiting moment, hope is always around the corner. I have learned that the difference between intention and decision is that intention is followed by more intentions. Decision is followed by action. Always take action.

Never confuse pleasure with happiness. Trust me, there’s a difference. Ladies, always know that “no” is a complete sentence.

Eat French fries. Be nice. Be bold. Behave. Spend time with your grandparents (when it’s safe to do so). Love your neighbor. Love your neighbor’s neighbor. Love your neighbor’s grandparents. Make mistakes. Then don’t sweat the mistakes you make. Go out and make more mistakes, you’ll get it right eventually. Forgive others for their mistakes. Floss every day. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Don’t be so hard on others. Just make it a general rule not to be hard.

Volunteer where you feel led. Don’t just “give back.” To “give back” you have to have received something first. Just “give,” then give some more. Give of your time, give of your resources and give your love. When you think you’ve given enough, then give even more.

Know to your core that the best things in life aren’t things, and until you give up the idea of happiness being somewhere else, you’ll never find it.

Give of yourself and give of your time. The only thing we take from this world when we leave is what we gave away. Now is a great time to start giving. Your life will truly begin when you stop expecting the world to give you something and you start trying to figure out what you can give to the world.

Share your happiness. Count your blessings. And when all else fails, follow directions.

Know that life is short, but it’s the longest thing we’ll ever do. So have fun, be kind, and call your parents.

ROBERT ST. JOHN is a restaurateur, chef and author. Find him at robertstjohn.com.

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