Living Without Regret

Like many women my age, I am 28 years old. ~~ Mary Schmich

Mary Schmich is a lot smarter than me.  She was born in Savannah, Georgia and went to high school in Phoenix, Arizona.  She would go on to get her B.A. from California’s Pomona College.  Then, after three years working in college admissions, and more than a year in France, she attended journalism school at Stanford.  She worked as a newspaper reporter afterwards and in 1985 went to the Chicago Tribune.  Later she became their national correspondent in Atlanta.

In 1992 she started writing a column for the Tribune but after a year took time off to attend Harvard on a Nieman Fellowship for journalists.  Like I said, Mary’s a lot smarter than me.  From 1985 until January of this year she authored a comic strip Brenda Starr.  She’s also a ragtime piano player.  Multi-talented I’d say.

Schmich who is still writing her columns for the Tribune wrote her most famous in 1997.  She started with a simple admonition and continued with advice for living without regret.  In time that advice would be spread around the Internet and, as often happens, has been falsely identified as a commencement address given at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by author Kurt Vonnegut.  The author was once quoted by the New York Times as saying, I would have been proud had the words been mine.

In 1998 the column became a book.  A year later her words became a song, Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen), which became a number one hit in several countries.

I’ve had this column in my file since February of 1998 and I share it with you, my friends today.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I did and still do:

####

Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young

Mary Schmich
June 1, 1997

Inside every adult lurks a graduation speaker dying to get out, some world-weary pundit eager to pontificate on life to young people who’d rather be Rollerblading. Most of us, alas, will never be invited to sow our words of wisdom among an audience of caps and gowns, but there’s no reason we can’t entertain ourselves by composing a Guide to Life for Graduates.

I encourage anyone over 26 to try this and thank you for indulging my attempt. Ladies and gentlemen of the class of ’97:

Wear sunscreen.

If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it. The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience. I will dispense this advice now.

Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth. Oh, never mind. You will not understand the power and beauty of your youth until they’ve faded. But trust me, in 20 years, you’ll look back at photos of yourself and recall in a way you can’t grasp now how much possibility lay before you and how fabulous you really looked. You are not as fat as you imagine.

Don’t worry about the future. Or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4 p.m. on some idle Tuesday.

Do one thing every day that scares you.

Sing.

Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts. Don’t put up with people who are reckless with yours.

Floss.

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.

Remember compliments you receive. Forget the insults. If you succeed in doing this, tell me how.

Keep your old love letters. Throw away your old bank statements.

Stretch.

Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what you want to do with your life. The most interesting people I know didn’t know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives. Some of the most interesting 40-year-olds I know still don’t.

Get plenty of calcium. Be kind to your knees. You’ll miss them when they’re gone.

Maybe you’ll marry, maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll have children, maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll divorce at 40, maybe you’ll dance the funky chicken on your 75th wedding anniversary. Whatever you do, don’t congratulate yourself too much, or berate yourself either. Your choices are half chance. So are everybody else’s.

Enjoy your body. Use it every way you can. Don’t be afraid of it or of what other people think of it. It’s the greatest instrument you’ll ever own.

Dance, even if you have nowhere to do it but your living room.

Read the directions, even if you don’t follow them.

Do not read beauty magazines. They will only make you feel ugly.

Get to know your parents. You never know when they’ll be gone for good. Be nice to your siblings. They’re your best link to your past and the people most likely to stick with you in the future.

Understand that friends come and go, but with a precious few you should hold on. Work hard to bridge the gaps in geography and lifestyle, because the older you get, the more you need the people who knew you when you were young.

Live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard. Live in Northern California once, but leave before it makes you soft. Travel.

Accept certain inalienable truths: Prices will rise. Politicians will philander. You, too, will get old. And when you do, you’ll fantasize that when you were young, prices were reasonable, politicians were noble and children respected their elders.

Respect your elders.

Don’t expect anyone else to support you. Maybe you have a trust fund. Maybe you’ll have a wealthy spouse. But you never know when either one might run out.

Don’t mess too much with your hair or by the time you’re 40 it will look 85.

Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it. Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.

But trust me on the sunscreen.

Related Posts:

A Letter to the Younger Me

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6 comments on “Living Without Regret

  1. I enjoyed reading the advice from Mary Schmich. She had so many great points.

    No matter how much you try to advise the young, it still sounds like “blah, blah, blah” until it comes true in one’s own life. But as a Mother, I have definitely given lots of advice. Hopefully someday it will come in handy for my grown child.

    As for the phrase “Living Without Regret”, I believe that cannot be done since as we age, (hopefully) we grow in wisdom and that wisdom points out to us just where we could have done better in our past.

    That’s life!

    • Rick Gleason says:

      Right you are Stephanie.

      It’s in her actual title how much respect she expected from her “guide”. Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young. Then of course she points out in her final paragraph, Be careful whose advice you buy… Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.

      And yes, there are always regrets.

      Thanks for your comment.

  2. Angie Reed says:

    I had read that before…in some magazine, a while ago..but I smile every time I read it..and we should all probably read it at least once a week.

  3. That piece and the words of advice from the college professor who was dying (and did pass away) of pancreatic cancer … are two of the best pieces ever penned in the advice genre!

    Thanks for putting this up here as it’s a great piece, for sure!

    • Rick Gleason says:

      Thank you Jeni. I’ve seen professor Randy Pausch’s speech he gave to the students at Carnegie Mellon University where he was a computer science professor. He gave that “Last Lecture”, titled Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams, in September of 2007 and died the following July. His lecture was expanded into a book which became a New York Times bestseller.

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