Personal Finance

Graduates, make your life’s work matter

When they called my son’s name for an award, I was jolted to attention.

He’s graduating from high school, and this event was one of many for the seniors. Honestly, I had zoned out a bit. I was tired.

My husband and I turned to each other and I whispered, “Did they just call Kevin?”

My son is on the autism spectrum and, although high-functioning, he struggled in school with a number of issues. He had a lot of meltdowns. The staff, students and teachers at DeMatha Catholic High School were wonderful, graceful and encouraging in how they handled Kevin’s challenges. Still, there were times when the phone would ring and my heart would sink when I’d see that it was someone from the school.

Based solely on his high school résumé, Kevin was average. He didn’t have the long list of activities many students have because we didn’t want him to get overwhelmed. Although he was consistently on the honor roll, he wasn’t at the top of his class. He played in two bands and, while a good musician, he wasn’t great.

So when his name was announced, we were surprised. He was being recognized with an award for his work habits, character and resolve. Kevin beamed from the stage.

Following all the awards, DeMatha’s principal, Daniel McMahon, gave a speech that moved me. He talked about the difference between “résumé virtues” and “eulogy virtues,” concepts that had moved McMahon when expressed in a column last year by New York Times columnist David Brooks.

“When you build a life — not a career — what will be notable are the things that get said about how you took care of your family and your community; how you cared for and treated others — friends and not-friends alike; what you did with the gifts you were given,” McMahon said.

His words made me think of the poem Mother to Son by Langston Hughes. The mother has been through a lot. She tells her son that her life hasn’t been a “crystal stair.”

“It’s had tacks in it, and splinters, and boards torn up,” she says. But when life is hard and the climb seems daunting, don’t give up, she advises.

“So boy, don’t you turn back.

Don’t you set down on the steps

‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.

Don’t you fall now.”

The poem is about perseverance. It’s something our son will continue to need.

McMahon cautioned not to ever rest on your résumé, which gives more weight to your career than community service. My son, we hope, will continue to have the heart and spirit of one who serves.

My son is also a good money manager. (I mean, come on. Look who his mother is.)

But I’m worried about how he will manage in the working world, which can be unforgiving, especially if you’re different.

So from this mother to her son, here are three beatitudes for the workplace:

▪  Be a worker bee. Son, there will be — as there were in school — extraordinary people on your job. They are the people who get most of the attention. Certainly strive to succeed, but if you’re not a superstar, that’s OK.

Worker bees, the folks who hold their heads down and work hard with no or little complaint, are also invaluable to an organization. Don’t expect extra credit for doing your job, although it’s nice when it’s given. But you'll excel if executives know they can count on you for a job well done.

▪  Be respectful of management. Son, you will likely work for some difficult managers. I know I have. Some won’t see your value despite your hard work. Their awful treatment may have nothing to do with your performance. Some managers may even discriminate against you because of your autism, race or age.

But no matter what, as our pastor often preaches, respect the position even if you don’t respect the person.

▪  Be motivated by more than money. Son, you may occasionally be given bonuses or earn merit raises.

But there will be times that, no matter how hard you work, you won’t get extra financial rewards. That’s why you should find work that matters to your soul. Money isn’t the only measure of success.

You need money to live — to get the things you need and want — but you won’t have a fulfilling life if you just follow the dollars.

Don’t undervalue yourself, but don’t gauge your self-worth by just your net worth.

Congratulations to you, son, and to all the young men and women graduating this year. Make your life’s work matter.

Hear Michelle Singletary’s personal finance reports on www.npr.org. Readers may write to her c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St., NW, Washington DC 20081.

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