A More Honest Commencement Address

Is lofty idealism always wise?

Posted Jun 05, 2019

Pixabay, Public Domain
Source: Pixabay, Public Domain

Even at a 98.6 college (where all you need to graduate is normal body temperature), the commencement speaker typically tells the students to dream big.

That’s always been disingenuous. Many of those graduates were lucky to get and hold a mundane job, for example, marketing coordinator, accountant, or construction supervisor.

“Dream big” is even more disingenuous today. Solid, well-paying careers are ever rarer thanks to automation, offshoring, and ratcheted-up requirements: technical, interpersonal and general intelligence. Many if not most graduates of Southwestern State University at Mudville will, for lack of ability and/or drive, end up in a cycle of a few-month lackluster gig followed by a few months of desultory looking, followed by another lackluster gig.

What would an honest commencement speaker say to them? Here’s one shot at it:

It can’t have been easy to make it to graduation — even with grade inflation. So, congratulations truly are in order.

But while I could fill the rest of this talk with puff-you-up talk, I believe I can serve you better with straight talk.

Yes, some of you will be able to follow standard commencement speaker exhortation: dream big!  If you work hard, you can do anything! Go forth and conquer!!

But fact is, in the world you’re inheriting, especially over your workspan, even Ivy grads aren’t assured of making a difference or even of a making a good living. Automation, offshoring, the gig economy, and the ever more demanding required abilities mean that many if not most of you won’t be able to count on making good money.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that even many rich and influential, make-a-difference people are unhappy, witness all the drug addiction and suicides among performers. Happiness lies largely from within. Both my parents were Holocaust survivors. Yet my mom, cheery by nature, remained so through her life: lots of singing, dancing, and partying. My dad, serious, a worrier (like me) was that way through his life.

So if you’re a reasonably happy person, even if you don’t make much money, you’ll probably be okay. And if you’re a sad, worry-filled person, I believe your best shot is to seek contentment through some combination of relationships, creative outlet, and recreation, plus recognizing that all work, from being a gravedigger on up, is worthy work.

As crazy as it may sound, unless you’re quite a star, you’d be wise to take whatever job drops in your lap. It’s probably as good a launchpad for your career as any, and you won’t be spending months or years searching for a perfect fit that probably doesn’t exist or isn’t realistic. You see, jobs usually don’t drop into laps at random. You’ve probably been offered that job by a friend, relative, or whomever, because they think you’ll be good at it.

As long as you treat that job as a launchpad and not a dead-end, you’ll probably be okay. Taking that gravedigger example, if, in between digging graves, you talked with the funeral director, landscape manager, and monument maker, and asked for advice and even for a better job, you might well get one. Then if you make the effort to become expert at whatever that job is — for example, buying, selling, and customizing gravestones, you could well find yourself feeling good about your career, and perhaps even doing well financially because few graduates aspire to such a career.

I recall being a student at graduation and wishing the speaker would shut up already so I could go out to eat. So I’ll just summarize: Remember that most people are wise to seek contentment not so much by following their passion or seeking big money but by making the most of what comes relatively easily to them and finding additional happiness in good relationships and a fun hobby. And with that, I really do wish you the best. Congratulations, Class of 2019.

I deliver this talk on YouTube.