Tom Durkin: Choose your groove, grads |

Tom Durkin: Choose your groove, grads

“You’re going to live your life in a rut, so choose your rut carefully.” — Dr. Bill

Wait. What?! Was that your best advice to graduating high school students? Seriously?

This is the season of tediously platitudinous commencement speeches. Designed to inspire, they rarely do. Mostly, they’re just boring with a few good jokes.

Some commencement speeches, however, can be dangerous, like, “You’re going to live your life in a rut ….”

That depressing and demotivating speech made me angry and defiant. And it’s influenced much of my life.


It was 1965, and I was graduating from high school in Salina, Kansas. The only thing that stood between me and UCLA was a high school diploma — and the only way to get that diploma was to show up for the mandatory commencement ceremonies.

Actually, Dr. Bill wasn’t our commencement speaker. He graced us with his malignant wisdom in our baccalaureate. In the gym.

Our actual commencement was outside on the football field. I don’t remember our commencement speaker. I guess he didn’t say anything memorable that inspired me, or made me so angry I’m writing about it 56 years later.

Dr. Bill’s homily was an anathema to me. For most of my life, I’ve refused to be trapped in a rut. But I’ve found that living a rutless life makes for a rocky ride. And sometimes people get hurt. People I love.

Despite my aversion to ruts, I did try out a few. Some were quite nice. Others, not so much. What I learned down in the ruts is that it’s pretty much impossible to live your whole life in a rut, even if you want to.

Ruts turn into quagmires, they split apart, or progress just paves them over. Deaths, divorces, and disasters happen. Cancer, injuries, and bad craziness can wreck your rut. You can get fired, laid off, quit or watch helplessly as your job just disappears, like making buggy whips or writing for a living.

Or there’s a pandemic, and you do get trapped in your rut.


Dr. Bill not only gave bad advice, he was wrong. To promise that life would be great if you just chose the right rut was a cruel lie. Even more so today than all those years ago, your chances of living in a lifelong rut are about negative zero.

To be fair, I’ve heard some great commencement speeches — on YouTube. Maybe my two college commencement speeches were better. I don’t know. I didn’t go. I had my diplomas mailed to me.

I don’t stand on ceremony, and I can’t stand ceremony. But that’s just me. I understand that for most people, graduation is a lifetime event to be celebrated with great pomp and pageantry.

I offer my congratulations to this year’s graduating students.

Advice? Just this: Please, don’t look at your graduation as the end of your education. Look at it as just the beginning. You must continue to learn, grow and think for yourself, because the times, they are a changin’.

The times are changing faster than ever before in human history. The pandemic has shown just how fast life can go sideways.

Expect change. Social change. Technological change. Climate change.

Embrace the change. Be the change.

You may choose to fight change. Good luck with that. You might end up in an unhappy rut while the world passes you by.


I can’t blame Dr. Bill for all the mistakes I’ve made in my life, although his ill-begotten counsel informed a lot of my bad decisions.

Maybe I should be grateful. His curse to have a mediocre life motivated me to have an unconventional one.

Lately, a song by country music’s outlaw-philosopher-poet Ray Wylie Hubbard (he’ll be famous after he’s dead) has offered me an antidote to Dr. Bill’s awful advice:

“Get out of your rut and get in the groove.”

So, a last word for all you soon-to-be graduates, and anybody else facing or contemplating a major life change: Find your groove, because you deserve better than a rut.

Tom Durkin is a freelance writer, editor and photographer in Nevada County. He may be contacted at

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