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To the Mississippi Graduates of 2023

To the Mississippi Graduates of 2023

By: Robert St. John - June 2, 2023

Robert St. John

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

–Mary Oliver

It’s graduation season in Mississippi. I didn’t deliver a commencement address this year, but I have combined, tweaked, and added to two letters that I gave to my two children when they left for college. The result will serve as my unofficial 2023 commencement address to all Mississippi high school seniors. It’s probably good advice for us “other seniors,” as well, AARP notwithstanding.

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 two decades of 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.

Several years ago, my son and I were riding in the car. He asked, “Dad, what should I do when I grow up?” I thought for a minute and then said, “Son, whatever it is, don’t follow the money, follow your passion.”

Someone once said, “Do what you love to do for a career, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” That’s 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.

You’ll likely find your life’s purpose through your passion. Working in restaurants (my passion) led me to found the feeding charity Extra Table (my purpose).

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 40-year old me 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. 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 soon. 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.

We are not human beings having a spiritual experience, but spiritual beings having a human experience. Just know that if God were small enough for you to truly understand, God wouldn’t be big enough to take care of all the things God needs to handle in your life. Have faith. Trust God.

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. Pain in life is certain. Suffering is optional. 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.

Don’t worry too much. I’ve lived through the worst stuff that NEVER happened way more than I’ve lived through the stuff that actually DID happen. Again, trust God. If you pray, don’t worry. If you worry, don’t pray.

Eat French fries. Be nice. Be bold. Behave. Spend time with your grandparents. 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. That whole “Do unto others” thing is truly good advice. 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 had 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, give even more.

Don’t forget the laughing thing. Don’t forget the hugging thing either. Don’t forget any of it. Find your passion. Make that your career. Then go be passionate. Discover your purpose. Have fun. Help others. These days aren’t rehearsals for upcoming future events. This is your moment. This is your life. You will make mistakes. Don’t dwell on them. Learn from them and move on.

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. You’ll be doubly blessed if you can make your life passion-filled and purposeful. Have fun, be kind, and call your parents.

About the Author(s)
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Robert St. John

Robert St. John is a chef, restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler and world-class eater. He has spent four decades in the restaurant business, thirty-three of those as the owner of the Crescent City Grill, Mahogany Bar, Branch, Tabella, Ed’s Burger Joint, The Midtowner, and El Rayo Tex-Mex in Hattiesburg, as well as Highball Lanes, The Pearl, The Capri, and Enzo Osteria in the Jackson area. Robert has written eleven books including An Italian Palate, written in Europe while traveling through 72 cities in 17 countries in six months with his wife and two children. Robert has written his syndicated newspaper column for twenty years. Read more about Robert at