Wisdom, wisecracks and worldly advice for this year’s graduating class—and, perhaps, all of us.
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Photo by Ashley Sears
Right about now the Class of 2009 may be freaking out, and you can’t really blame ’em. Just days before this weekend’s commencement ceremonies at the University of Montana, the U.S. Department of Labor announced that national unemployment reached 8.9 percent in April, its highest point since 1983. Even worse, the same report predicted that number would rise to at least 10 percent in the coming months and that some economists don’t see the job market returning to normal until 2013. That’s a little daunting, because even the biggest procrastinator doesn’t want to kill four years backpacking in Europe.
But fear not, new grads. Short of offering you a job or paying off your student loans, we’re here to help. Specifically, we asked an assortment of locals—some famous, some not so famous—to offer up their best advice—some serious, some not so serious—as you set off to the real world. We hope you find a pearl of wisdom or three that helps you on your way.
John Engen The city’s 50th mayor was born in Missoula in 1964 and attended Willard Elementary School, Hellgate High School and UM, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism.
Here’s the advice: No matter who you are, you are not obliged to set the world on fire. You don’t have to worry about what it is you’ll be doing for the rest of your life. That stuff happens, and it isn’t always pretty. Just keep learning, watching, living, enjoying.
Life is not fair, but you can be fair. Think for yourself, because there are plenty of folks around who’d be happy to do it for you.
Make jokes, be occasionally irreverent. Don’t stand on ceremony. Once in awhile, stand up for someone who’s weaker, whom no one else will defend. Be noble.
Don’t worry about things you can’t control, you’ll get ulcers. Don’t believe everything you read or hear or see about Elvis. Or anyone or anything else.
Don’t be violent.
Don’t complain too much. Take responsibility for your mistakes. Be humble, and be decent.
The Rock Star Huey Lewis Huey Lewis and the News recorded Sports in 1983, one of the highest selling pop albums ever. The frontman currently owns a house in the Bitterroot.
Three words: Don’t grow up.
The Anchor Jill Valley The KPAX news anchor and assistant news director has been named Montana’s Broadcaster of the Year four times and is Missoula’s reigning Best TV Personality, as voted by the Indy’s readers.
I suppose I should have listened to my professors who told me broadcasting won’t make me rich. I still have the stub from my first paycheck from WOWL-TV in Florence, Ala., where I made $800 a month. A big night for me back then involved watching TV with bad reception in front of my kerosene heater while sharing a bottle of awful wine with friends. I had the time of my life.
Five months later, I drove my half-dead car while towing an overloaded trailer and blowing oil across the highways of the South. I was on my way to the promised land of Missoula and my $900-a-month reporting job.
I have several bits of advice for graduates. First, embrace your poverty. I still have a difficult time paying full price for anything. My early broadcasting days honed my bargain hunting skills to shameless levels. In this economy, however, I am no longer considered cheap. I’m thrifty and wise.
Stay out of other people’s fights at work, volunteer to do extra work, work on the holidays for your co-workers with spouses and children and keep a five-year plan in mind so you’re always moving forward professionally. Make new friends and be generous. Read often and find an outlet unrelated to your professional life. If you have to move away, embrace your new town and get to know it. You don’t have to live there forever. You can handle anything for a year. Don’t be so connected to your old life that you don’t see the wonderful new things in front of you and remember you’re not in a race with anyone. Most of my friends have always earned at least twice as much as me. At least I can say I have the more exciting job.
You have to earn respect. Remember that when you’re posting pictures on Facebook. If there’s even a flutter of a chance you’ll want to run for office someday, keep it clean.
It’s okay to eat chili for breakfast, by the way.
And most importantly, keep a stash of toilet paper hidden in your apartment at all times. Living alone has its challenges that often reveal themselves at the worst times. Good luck and don’t forget to twitter.
The Coach Robin Selvig Selvig has won more than 700 games in his 31-year career as head coach of the Lady Griz. He ranks ninth on the NCAA’s Division I all-time win list.
The best advice my dad imparted to me was to work to be the best no matter what I decided to do, and that was whether I was working at McDonald’s or trying to be a basketball coach. That was instilled in me at an early age. My last year of college I realized that basketball was too big a part of my life to not be a part of it. So I decided to become the best coach I could be.
I wasn’t a real goal-setter or anything like that. It was just my dream and I was just fortunate enough to pursue it and make it work. With my kids, I told them to simply pursue what they wanted to be, and they have—one’s pursuing a career in business and the other is going to be a doctor. I didn’t really advise them. When they asked me for advice, all I said was, “Well, what do you want to do?” Sometimes it’s that simple.
One thing sports do is help you handle disappointment. You always have disappointments; you always lose some. I think that’s a good life lesson. What I try to instill in my players is that you don’t win every game, and that this is just a game. There are things way more important. I think any successful athlete learns how to handle disappointment. If you’re a quitter you don’t make it in sports, and you don’t make it in life. You have to get back up on the horse.
You don’t get something for nothing. You work at it. If you’re looking for the government to take care of your life, it’s probably not going to happen. You have to be someone who goes out and works for what you get. Most people who have that kind of get-up-and-go, who try to be the best at what they do, they’re the ones who are usually successful.
The Midwife Sandhano Danison Danison attended midwifery school in 1984 and is a certified midwife in Missoula. She has assisted in more than 600 births.
I feel like right now, in the bigger picture of what’s happening in the world, it’s easy to be disconnected from the earth, from life, from our emotions. We live in houses that have forced-air furnaces and air conditioning. We have our cars. We watch TV and play video games. We don’t have to be that connected to live life.
But birth is one of those places where it’s happening right now, in the moment, and you don’t have that choice to disconnect. During that precious time, birth, we’re connected emotionally within ourselves, with our families, with the earth, with the moment. For me, I feel like birth connects us and reminds us of how important that connection can be, and that it does matter.
We’re all trying to find happiness. And it’s a curious thing knowing how to find that and not get lost into empty things. How big of a house does it take to be happy? Is it toys, or a TV? Is it happiness that we can eat some sort of exotic fruit in Missoula and not even think how that got here? It doesn’t have to be a bummer, but we need to think about it. We don’t need to get so lost into status and huge houses and multiple cars and everything being brand new. That doesn’t necessarily bring happiness.
It’s hard. The answers aren’t easy, but I think we need to think about these things. When I’m at a birth I’m awed by the strength women have. And these babies are so soft and sensitive and fresh, but so bright and there and present. If we’re connected to ourselves and the things around us, we have the strength to figure this out.
The Etiquette Coach Elton Anderson Known locally as Mr. Manners, Anderson moved to Missoula in 2004 from New York City. He’s a classically trained pianist and ballet dancer who currently offers etiquette consulting.
Acknowledge that what you see is alarming and makes you afraid, but realize that you cannot have courage if you do not have fear. Do not allow the fear to stop you.
Visualize what you like. The sort of job you’re looking for or the sort of town you want to live in, whatever it is you feel you would like. Prepare yourself, present what it is you would like people to help ascertain what you’re going after. Be determined to do it. Know that you’ll have to negotiate and compromise. You may get what you want, and it may come in increments. Be flexible and willing to start somewhere. Where that place is, find within it some part of your original vision and work on that muscle. And always mind your manners.
The Congressman Pat Williams Williams served nine terms as a U.S. Representative from Montana. After his retirement, he returned to Montana and is teaching at UM.
I have two pieces of advice. First, maintain an active and healthy skepticism. Second, and more important, is to remember that a person is physically designed to look around, so do it. Know where you’ve been, where you might be going, and who is at your side.
That’d be it.
The Simpsons Guy Ron Hauge Hauge is a former Missoula resident and veteran writer/cartoonist for the hit Fox series “The Simpsons.” He currently lives in Los Angeles.
As a headstrong young man I offended people who didn’t deserve it, walked out on jobs that didn’t suit me, and imposed myself on friends when I was broke and refused to take real work. I worked harder than anyone else but only doing the things I wanted to do, and with nothing else to fall back on. Everyone should do the kind of work they enjoy or die trying was my feeling, and in the early days I missed enough meals to come pretty close. I would advise you not to do that part if you can help it.
I moved to New York in 1980 with $180 in savings and lived in a small slummy apartment over a Chinese restaurant while I tried to make it. I had some talent and luck and I would advise any young person today to have a bunch of each. But you shouldn’t rely on the luck thing as much as I did.
Do take every opportunity that comes along though, when you’re lucky enough for that to happen. Any criminal can tell you that motive and opportunity have to get together in order to get the job done. It’s the one thing legitimate careers and street crime have in common, if you don’t count Wall Street.
I guess the hidden advice in this is that you don’t want to be too confident and too comfortable right away, though a little of each is necessary. Humble can be a better place to start. My friend Sandy worked with a young writer who came into a show and really decorated up his office the first couple weeks, after which time he was let go. My friend remembers looking out his window into the studio parking lot and seeing this fresh-faced young guy lugging a mounted deer head out to the trunk of his car and trying to fit it in. He said it was the saddest thing he’d ever seen. So if nothing else, don’t be the deer-head guy your first job.
The Comedian Chris Fairbanks Fairbanks grew up in Missoula before launching a successful career as a stand-up comic and illustrator. When we called him, he’d just been accosted in his Los Angeles home by the ex-boyfriend of the girl he’d been dating for two days. No kidding. He was shaken up, but still ready to dole out some real world advice.
I have a degree and I’ll never use it, and I knew when I was getting it I’d probably never use it. I did, however, think that having a degree would impress someone or eventually get me more money, but when you’re an artist, no one cares about that. I’ve never once showed my framed diploma with a Monte Dolack picture to anyone, and I don’t think I ever will.
I guess there’s a point every year where I’m completely out of money, debating whether or not to borrow money from my dad who already paid for my college. You know, that’s the real world stuff. Now that I live in L.A., I find that most of the people who live here are already rich so that’s why they can comfortably hang out and do comedy for free without having a real job. That part has been the rude awakening.
Also, there are kids out here that are 18 and play guitar and do songs about different sounding farts and they have half-hour specials on Comedy Central simply based on their youth. The younger you are, the more impressed people are, even if talent-wise you’re a little green. That’s another rude awakening.
But I’m enjoying the work and I don’t want to quit. I think that everyone would be disappointed in me if I quit, which keeps me going.
Sorry. I think that’s all I have. I got a little traumatized this morning when a man entered my bedroom while my pants were down…Ah, well, it’s happened a handful of times–just usually not that early in the morning. I at least usually have shoes on. But I didn’t have shoes on and I thought, “He’s going to stomp on my toes. He’s going to break my mirror and cut my feet.” It’s really vulnerable to not have shoes. That’s something to think about.
The Evolutionary Astrologer Deb Clow Clow, owner of Love Dog Design in Missoula, cast a chart for the “birth” of this class graduating into the next phase of their lives.
Be kind. Be brave. Work hard.
And no matter what, keep your sense of humor securely intact.
On the surface, this advice seems so simple and yet, you have been born into Interesting Times. And interesting times require interesting and very courageous acts of imagination.
As each of you enters more fully into the wide wild world, you will feel a tremendous, healthy desire to be seen and heard for exactly who you are. The trick to working with that desire is for you to know, at the deepest level of your being, who you are. If that sounds like a simple-minded and redundant statement, it is. But the intricate disguises created by the maze of our minds and of the voices we’ve buried there from our families and our culture, so often leave us confused about the essence of who we truly are.
Each of you is an extraordinary facet of the One Loving Heart of the Universe. And as such, each of you is carried in each moment by the light of all that is. But the unique expression of your singular character is extraordinarily important to the outcome of the human drama in which you find yourselves today. And tomorrow. Even into eternity.
In addition to the individual nature each of you is carrying forward, you are a part of your larger generational wave, and this communal body has embedded within it a code of “service” and tenaciousness and vision which will, ultimately, transform our collective understanding of how to go about the business of living our lives.
You will encourage in each other a desire to serve the greater good. You will remind us, in an infinite number of ways, how to create a world where there is justice for all. You are capable of burying the insane barriers that have separated humans from each other for all of time.
Each of you is perfectly attuned to the journey you are navigating.
And so, be kind. Be brave. Work hard at re-creating worn-out paradigms. Pay close attention to the unusual, the illogical, the unconventional intuitive hits, which will, ultimately, carry you safely into the rest of your days.
Remember to laugh and dance and breathe deeply.
You have come to do noble work.
May you feel and manifest the infinite blessings awaiting you.
The Showman Severt Philleo For four straight years in the late 1990s, Philleo won the Indy’s Best of Missoula award for Best Actor and Best Actress. He recently returned to Missoula to perform Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde.
I basically quit school. I said, “I’ve been educated, I’ve been here four years, I’m going to go to Hollywood to be in a movie with Meryl Streep. I was shocked when my agent said, “Okay, put on 10 pounds of muscle, get dermabrasion and I can get you headaches and dog food.” He meant commercials.
You end up realizing that there are only so many CEO positions. George Clooney’s got one and Meryl Streep has the other. You can count the top people on your fingers and the rest is the reality of where you figure into it. That is the real world. That’s it. But don’t be discouraged by that.
Oftentimes I think many of my experiences at the University of Montana were much more real than the “real world.” I remember one instance in our acting class when Randy Bolton required that we walk up Squaw Peak and spend the night and basically go on a vision quest. And we were like, “Is he high? We’re actors, we’re not outdoorsmen.” But it ended up being one of the most elevating and enlightening experiences I think I’ve ever had. There we were with backpacks on, you know, clacking sticks together to frighten bears away. That is still vivid in my memory.
You should learn to apply those experiences. Often times when people graduate they fall into a rut. The hopefulness and the joy of learning can dissipate—you just end up being stuck in the grind of the real world and I think when that starts to happen it means you need to take another class. Seek other knowledge. Take a macramé class like a normal person!
For years I resented the fact that I had to work at the Crystal. I thought that it negated my theater work because it was my day job, and I got really bitter. And then I realized that while theater for the community is more important to me by far than renting videos, I also had to realize that in that daily interaction of my retail jobs—at Bloomingdale’s, at Macy’s, at the Crystal—that there is so much opportunity for learning and connecting with people. Look at everyone you encounter through the day as a professor. Always realize each person has something to teach you. Sometimes it’s not necessarily a good lesson. You know, “This person is teaching me what it is to be an asshole. Oh, I get it now!” But just keep your awareness about you.
Once you get your piece of paper, your degree, that doesn’t mean you get to stop learning. Also, too, the point of a university education is to make a mark in the world; state your manifesto and be heard and understood. Be an inspiration to people. The time that I spent in Missoula, which really was the time I was the least monetarily successful, was the time when I was the most successful at my craft.
The PoetSinger Jack Gladstone Gladstone is a lecturer and “PoetSinger” from the Blackfeet Indian Nation of Montana. Gov. Brian Schweitzer once called him “Montana’s Blackfeet Troubadour.”
In June of ’82 I graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in communications, a Rose Bowl ring and an eclectic blend of confidence and insecurity. I had no job, little money, but was lucky to be coupled with a tribally driven identity with Montana. In the passage of 27 12-month cycles since then, I have been taught, when teachable, three suggestions on how to live and live well. This, I can share with you.
First, awaken to Iihtsipaitapiiyo’pa (Blackfeet), “the one through whom we live.” Call this Mystery what you will, but I am comforted that all world religious traditions recognize there is something greater both within and beyond self. Dogmas vary. Mine is a hybrid dogma inspired by my grandpa Red Crow’s suggestion to consider “all lodges” but take only the “good things” into your heart. An old Irish godmother put it more bluntly stating, “Righteousness is a good thing, but grandson, self-righteousness is a pain in the ass.”
Consider knowing absolutely that you don’t know absolutely. This leaves open the path to humility and teachability. Awaken to recognize you are a part of something both within and beyond self. This is the source of the wind, of the tide and of the starlight.
Second, clean your lodge. Make time for a big lodge cleaning. Reflection. Personal. Honest. (Maybe historical.) Recognize and neutralize toxic liabilities that are clouding the sunlight to your heart, mind, body and soul. A mentor may be helpful. Psychologist Dr. Jung’s words are worth pondering: “One does not become enlightened by imagining forms of light, rather by making the darkness conscious.” Gently incorporate your concept of the “Mystery” into this activity.
Finally, nurture homeland and community. I suggest, if you haven’t already done so, you expand your concept of “homeland” to include the whole planet and its ecological systems. I further recommend broadening the definition of “community” to include all species that are woven from the earth’s fabric.
Why? Since all beings in creation are born from a common Mystery, we can logically assume there is a kinship present among all of creation. We are all related. From the morally considerate position of protecting our relatives, human and non-human, and insuring the viability of life on earth, we have many works to continue. Failure isn’t an option. Grizzly Mother will sacrifice her life for the health and survival of her cubs. Take with you, now, the Spirit of the Great Bear. Her path is yours.
The Movie Star J.K. Simmons Simmons graduated from UM in 1978 and has appeared in more than 80 different television shows and films. He’s perhaps best known for his roles as J. Jonah Jameson in Spider-Man, the dad in Juno and for his current role in TNT’s “The Closer.”
Don’t go into show business. Just kidding.
I think my advice now might be, if it’s at all feasible economically, see the world. Get out there. Travel. Go see the East Coast, go to Europe, go to Canada. Travel and meet people and experience life. If you’re not in a situation where you need to buckle down, if you don’t have a wife and kid that need to be supported, then enjoy this time and enjoy your youth and your freedom. Even though you’re currently living in one of the most beautiful parts of the world, there’s a lot more out there to experience.
I remember a quote that I heard once that was simply, “We are more alike than different.” Some people tend to see differences and some people tend to see unifying factors, and I’ve always believed that we are more alike than different. So if you go to North Africa and see a completely different world than what you’re seeing in area code 4-0-6, yes, it is a completely different world, but at the core of it we’re all part of the same species and we are more alike than different. It’s interesting to see the differences and celebrate the differences. When you’re sitting in a beer garden in Germany trying to understand a language that you don’t speak, ultimately people are very much the same and want the same things.
Especially in the economic climate and the world climate that we’re currently living in, I would encourage the graduating class to be open to other careers than the one you feel you’re specifically trained for. An awful lot of people that I know who are very happy in their lives are doing something they never dreamed they’d be doing when they were 22 years old. Be open to all the possibilities that are out there, both career wise and life wise.
The Transient John the Guitarist Set up on the corner of Higgins and Pine, John plays reggae and blues on an Old Hickory acoustic guitar. He doesn’t pay taxes. He does have family on the Blackfeet Reservation. He says the money he makes on the corner will go exclusively toward coffee (he says he doesn’t drink alcohol) and future travel to Oregon.
It seems like when I’ve got lots of possessions like new cars or a nice big house, I’m very unhappy. Seems like when I’m down to nothing but a backpack, a sleeping bag and a guitar, I’m happy. Most people don’t look at it that way because we’re conditioned. Even I was conditioned in school, all “Be successful, have the two cars, the biggest house on the block, impress your friends.” For some reason I didn’t choose that road.
The Writer Annick Smith In her early 20s, Smith was a mother of two struggling to get through college. Since settling in Missoula, she has had twin boys, co-produced the film A River Runs Through It, and helped create the Montana anthology The Last Best Place.
The way has been long and rough. But one thing I believe is worth thinking about for kids graduating today is there are lots of things in the world. They should give themselves the opportunity to try out various selves, not be pushed into a straight career path unless they’re sure that’s what they want. Variety of jobs, of interests, of obsessions really enriches your life. I would suggest do not take one path, take many paths and you will get to a more interesting end goal.
I think there’s lots of pressure on kids to decide at 18 that “I’m going to be a doctor,” or “I’m going to be a carpenter,” or “I’m going to be a nurse.” And maybe that’s what they should be, but I think they need to leave their eyes and ears and hearts open to other things that come along that interest them, because if they don’t try them now it’s going to be much harder later.
If you want to get rich this is not good advice. But it may be good advice if you want to be fulfilled and have a rich life.
The Problem Solver Charlotte Kasl Kasl serves as a licensed professional clinical counselor, certified addiction specialist, Reiki Master Healer, consultant and teacher living in the Bitterroot. Her most recent book is titled, Yes You Can! Healing from Trauma and Addiction with Love, Strength, and Power.
The best advice I ever received wasn’t advice. It was simply the love I felt from my grandmother and aunt Margaret. They were always glad to see me, talked to me in a real way. They were fun, interesting, growing people, who were always learning. Margaret had a great sense of humor and was teaching English to Asian children into her late 80s. I visited her in Missoula every summer for 18 years until she passed on. So, find people who love you, and love them back. It’s the most calming, joyful thing you can have in life and will help you feel a stability at your core.
I came from a family that valued education in the broad sense. They communicated a love of nature, hiking, learning and taking part in community events. We were taken to football games, concerts, plays, parades, church rummage sales and museums, and given a lot of room for creativity. My father taught by example to question things (although, not always him), and to see all sides of a situation. My grandmother had a lively intellect until the day she died; she had earned a degree in botany in 1896. My grandfather was an engineer. If you drive out on Clemens Avenue, by Dale’s Dairy, you’ll see an old concrete white house sitting perpendicular to the road. My grandparents and my teenage father and his brother built that house over a two year period by hauling sand and gravel to make their own concrete blocks—two college educated parents who became poor truck farmers to send their kids to school. That’s the legacy that shaped me.
The Olympian Eric Bergoust Bergoust competed in four successive Winter Olympics and won the 1998 gold medal in Nagano, Japan, in the freestyle ski jump. He lives in Missoula.
As a competitor in aerial skiing, I learned that to make changes to a specific part of my technique I had to ignore other aspects of my jump and let them fall apart in order to fix a bad habit. I could feel my teammates saying, “What’s wrong with Bergy today?” because 95 percent of each jump was ugly, but they didn’t know that I was only focusing on the other 5 percent that day. I had to be willing to look bad in order to be more productive. Looking bad or failing in front of others and being okay with it is not something you either have or you don’t have. People have different levels of it and it’s a skill that if practiced becomes an unconscious habit.
It’s helpful to practice being yourself without hearing in your mind what others may say about you. Too often people don’t feel free to be different, but if change is the only constant, doesn’t resisting change defy logic? Feeling free enough to look and act how you feel honors your freedom. Worrying about what others think can change the way you act or your decision making away from who you want to be. It’s distracting when you should be thinking of more important things, like how you’re going to save the world.
Wonder why other people do things and ponder their results. This will help you understand why you want the things you do and will remind you to take time to consider everything that comes with achieving your goals. Explore with an open mind the wide variety of productive ways to spend your next few decades. No one can say what this rapidly expanding and exponentially speeding universe has for you.
The Detainee Umberto Benedetti Benedetti worked as a cabinetmaker on an Italian luxury liner when, at the start of World War II, he and his shipmates were detained by the U.S. government and sent to Fort Missoula. He spent nearly three years at the camp before being released in 1943 and later joining the U.S. Army. He used the G.I. Bill to attend multiple colleges and universities and eventually received his master’s degree in education from UM in 1980, at age 68. Now 97, he still lives in Missoula.
I live a very good life. I can say nothing wrong. I cannot complain.
I always work very hard. I didn’t smoke. I drink a little, but not much. There was no extravagance. I didn’t go, say, overboard. That is why I still feel good. In November, I will be 98.
During the war, I was imported here and I cannot complain. That is how it is sometimes. That is life. It was not bad. I was not a prisoner. We could not go out, but it was a good life. We had the theater. We had the dances. We had many things. You can live a good life, even like this.
Experience means a lot. When I was 22, I had no experience. Now, I have experienced a lot, and your mind changes. That is a tough time, when things are changing. You need to find your job, that is a tough time. You need to choose your way, that is a tough time. I did many things and did not succeed. But you need to acquire the experience because that is life.
I go day-by-day. This is how it is. But I don’t complain. I live a full life, I try, I don’t complain. I have no regrets. Make sure you put that in there—I have no regrets. I cannot complain about anything.