Commentary: What I would say to graduates
No one having asked me to give their commencement address this year, I have decided to give it anyway. Here.
I have been reading reports of these addresses, mostly given by public figures, some stirring debate, demonstrations and boycott. All in all, the passion is wasted because most of these addresses are not worth the fuss, the fee or the honorary degree.
They occupy the unhappy space between a Sunday sermon and a sales meeting. Having exhorted the students to heights of moral rectitude, they urge on them a manic menu for striving; of getting to the top of the class of life by making a lot of money and keeping America in front of China, India and, on a good day, Germany.
To read these addresses is to be told that life is a marathon in which most of the participants are from Asia and the United States is on the slippery slope to oblivion, and it missed the starter’s pistol shot.
With fine irony, it is many of those who have made a hash of national policies and foreign adventures who feel the most obliged to urge the bewildered young people of the class of 2014 to sally forth and do great things. I would humbly suggest they sally forth and live their lives: less striving, more living.
My commencement wisdom:
Do not be defined by where you work, but by what you do. Working for the dominant institution in your field may sound swell at a cocktail party, but it is almost guaranteed to be less fun and less invigorating than a lesser institution, which is not inhabited wholly by strivers. Strivers can be very tedious.
The same goes for the institution you are leaving. Worry less about where you studied and more about what you learned.
The best thing I can advise any young person is to have a well-stocked mind. It is a bulwark against adversity, a comfort in disaster, and a place where you can find strength all the days of your life; in success and disaster, in helping to heal a broken heart — and there are going to be broken hearts aplenty in this class, as there have been in all the preceding graduating classes.
Life has stages and it is worth knowing them, without being dictated to by them. In your twenties you will suffer Cupid’s arrow, the ecstasy and pain of love, make your professional mistakes, and begin the intriguing business of finding out who you are.
The thirties are the great decade: The idealism is intact, most of the mistakes are in the past, and you have the enthusiasm and energy to make your move in life. It is a golden decade when everything starts to come into focus.
The forties are for consolidating, watching children grow and deciding what is possible.
From age 50 on, you are in the harvest years. Harvest the rewards of being good at what you do, the respect of your peers, while as ever stocking your mind — the permanent joy of learning, and especially of learning that you have not taken the human pilgrimage alone.
I have known too many people who do not know the reward and sanctuary of reading. Prodigious readers, like Teddy Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, would read in the five minutes before a meeting, or while waiting for a call to come through. It was the secret life that balanced the public life.
My father was not a lettered man, and reading was not something that came easily for him. As result, he missed the great community that is open to all with the good fortune to know how to read.
Do not fence yourself in — and do not let others do it for you. Do not believe that you have aptitude for this or that on a hunch: Please find out.
I have made a living as a public speaker and broadcaster for many decades. But a lawyer, in a traffic case, once told me that she would not put me on the stand because she felt I was not good at speaking in front of people. The terrifying truth is that I accepted her judgment — and lost the case.
Besides being corralled by false knowledge of ourselves, the other great monster lying in wait for you is rejection.
We all dread rejection, not just those who meet it constantly like writers and sales people. Fear of rejection is a great disabler; fight it, you are not unique that way. Treat “no” as the prologue to “yes.”