10 1/2 Things No Commencement Speaker Has Ever Said is the antidote to those cotton-candy platitudes that are all too familiar to anyone who’s ever worn a mortarboard, Wheelan’s 101 head-turning aphorisms―backed up by a PhD in public policy and extensive social science research―set the record straight.
1. Don’t make the world worse
I know that I am supposed to tell you to aspire to greatness. But I am going to lower the bar here for a minute. I am going to ask first and foremost that you do not use your prodigious talents to mess the world up, because too many smart people are doing that already.
It’s true that high school dropouts are more likely to steal cars or go to prison or edn up on welfare. But if you really want to cause social mayhem, it helps to have a college degree. (And the Ivy Leaguers can be the worst of all.)
You are smart and motivated and creative. Everyone will tell you that you can change the world. They are gith. I am going to remind you that ‘changing the world’ also includes things like skirting financial regulations, obscuring climate-change research, designing sub-prime mortgages that low-income families won’t understand, and selling unhealthy foods to increasingly obese children.
If you work hard and focus, you could probably be awesome at all of those dastardly deeds! Creative, even innovative–in a diabolically underhanded way. But, to paraphrase Nike, just don’t do it.
I am not asking you to cure cancer here. I am just asking you not to spread it–literally in the case of the unapologetically dishonest tobacco executive, but figuratively in the rest of your life.
2. It’s all borrowed time
I know that commencement is a happy time, but that does not preclude some deeper reflection. One of life’s realities that becomes very clear after you leave college, and sometimes even before, is that you shouldn’t take anything for granted–not this afternoon, not tomorrow, and certainly not twenty years from now.
Academics like to formalize things, so I propose to you the ‘hit by a bus’ rule. Here is the test: Would I regret doing this, spending my life this way, if I were to get hit by a bus next week, or next year?
Of course, there is an important corollary: What if I don’t get hit by a bus? Does this path lead to a life that I will be pleased with and proud of in ten or twenty years?
3. I have no idea what the future will bring
Seriously, no clue.
Some things change so fast and so significantly that it’s hard, or at least amusing, to imagine what life was like before. Other things have not changed much at all, dispiritingly, so in some cases.
At the end of the day, it is all about the choices we make. Technology and globalization and the other forces of change are like a stream running downhill. We cannot stop them: we cannot turn them around. But we can direct them. We design the incentives, build the social institutions, mediate the disputes, make the laws, and decide how our collective resources will be used or not used, shared or not shared. We, as educated and responsible adults, have the ability to shape and direct the inexorable forces as they come spilling downhill.
Change is inevitable; but progress depends on what we do with that change.
3 1/2. Don’t try to be great. Just be solid
Being great involves luck, and unique circumstances, and lots of other forces beyond your control. You can’t just make it happen by working more or trying harder.
There is an irony here, of course. The less you think about being great, the more likely it is to happen. And if it doesn’t, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being solid.
Good luck and congratulations.