Commencement Speech 2017

In 2015 I wrote a commencement speech for the faceless graduates of that year. This year I decided to update the speech based on some personal experiences and meeting some of the people discussed in this speech.

Graduates, congratulations and welcome to the adult world.

You’ve already heard – no doubt – the soaring words of renowned speakers from business, entertainment, or government – who may be, or deserve to be, on their way to prison. By now, your asses are sore and your minds are weary from the half-funny anecdotes, inspiring rhetoric, and trite advice from those who have already achieved incomparable success.

You’re now thinking hand out the damned diploma; I have to endure relatives I can barely remember and attend a number of parties.
Before that, may I add several thoughts of my own? I promise to be relatively brief – or not.

Might I suggest that the stirring words of the eminent commencement speakers related to the unlimited opportunities you all have are just so much bullshit?

Listening to someone who defied the odds and achieved so much success – generally, that means obscene amounts of money – isn’t going to be a model or a possibility for most, if not all, of you.

Remember, I just welcomed you to the adult world. Adults acknowledge reality.

The truth is many of you have limited opportunities – and I only will mention the debt load you now carry that will limit your choices for a number of years; for some, maybe your entire working life.

I do hope we as a country get smart and, recalling the Book of Leviticus, declare a Jubilee year for all your college debts. You need to get on with your lives as previous generations did and do and all the things your parents and television taught you is part of being a grownup.

And to be completely honest, it will allow you to pay your taxes to keep Social Security going to take care of your parents and grandparents as they move out of the work force. And if you think Social Security is just something for all those old people – just wait. You’ll be one of them before you know it.

You face many challenges as you start your careers.

Some of these challenges are the same previous generations faced: tensions between nuclear-armed states; prejudice and oppression based on gender and race; increasing rates of economic inequality; public health issues; military adventurism in little understood parts of the world; and jobs being replaced by automation or being shipped overseas.

But you also face significant challenges that no previous generation sitting where you are now has faced.

I will cite only one: dramatic climate change is happening now and may threaten human existence in your lifetime. As David Brower, founder of Friends of the Earth, said, there is no business to be done on a dead planet.

Scary stuff indeed – particularly when you are looking forward to a long successful career.

But you sitting here means you still have more opportunities than members of your generation who didn’t have the ability or means to get where you are now.

Don’t forget them – more on them in a bit.

And you may not have thought about it, but you have already limited yourself by your choice of the major degree you just received. At least for right now, it will define your salary, your choices as to where you will live and where you will work, and who you will know. It may even affect whom you can – or can’t – marry.

Now you probably don’t see it that way.

You are at an age where you may think your life will go on forever and you can decide to do anything, so most decisions and choices are of little consequence as you can make up for them later.

Trust me on this. Life is more fragile than you may think. Strong and powerful one day – flat on your back struggling to be alive the next. Never take life or how long you will live for granted. And sorry to break the news: every one of you is going to die someday no matter how well or poorly you live.

Even without a serious illness, life will happen, and as much as you dread or deny it now, you will become just like your parents by being first caught up in the distractions and temptations of your twenties (not that there’s anything wrong with that) until you move into your more mature thirties and become loaded down with a mortgage, diapers, daycare, parent-teacher conferences, and soccer.

And hopefully not, but the odds are increasing you will find yourself unemployed as your chosen career evaporates.

You have lived your entire lives with iPhones Facebook, Snapchat and all the other technologies in a way no previous generation on Earth has. You have taken it as a given that all this technology is so terrific.

As you enter the workforce you will see the crushing side of that technology with demands for your constant availability at all hours – at least until your job is sent overseas or taken over by a robot.

Remember, immersing yourself in virtual reality with your phone will never ever be as real or important as holding someone’s hand or taking a walk in the woods.

Whatever happens, one day you will look up and realize you haven’t lived the life you planned or dreamed of when you were sitting where you are now. It’s not necessarily going to be worse – or better. But it will be different. For most of you, that will mean making peace with the choices and compromises you made. For a very few, that will lead to dramatic changes or unfortunate outcomes.

As I said earlier, adults acknowledge reality.

A few other thoughts.

You didn’t get to choose your parents or the circumstances of your birth. And neither did anyone else. So be cautious when judging anyone.

The homeless person might be a battle-scarred vet from this country’s endless wars or someone who fell out of the bottom after an illness bankrupted their family.

The guy in the dirty looking jeans just might be an NFL quarterback looking to buy a car.

The barista at Starbucks may be a law school graduate unable to find a law firm willing to hire her.

The sandwich maker at Subway may be desperate to find a way out of his dead-end job but unsure how to proceed in an economy that has done away with the blue-collar middle class.

The attractive well-dressed couple driving the Benz and who live in the gated community may have nothing in their house and are a missed paycheck or two away from losing it all.

Many of you will spend your working lives slouching in a chair, or maybe standing, starting at a glass screen – and it doesn’t matter if it’s in a corporate campus, your home office, or at a café in Prague.

You will be valued not for who you are, but only for how much you add to the bottom line each year – no matter what you’re told during the hiring process; and you need to understand those expectations will increase every year, often dramatically.

In other words, your career, even if you can hold onto it, may not turn out as well as you hope. So have a plan B.

Along the way you will encounter other people who earn their money doing more physical labor: the road crews working to repair the roads you drive; the truck drivers who come and haul your trash and garbage; the plumber who fixes your pipes; the carpenters who build the addition on your house; the people who serve you food or help you at Home Depot; and all the others.

They have their hopes and dreams too. You could have been them – and you still might be. In other words, there is dignity in all work and you should probably become familiar with the business end of a shovel.

Don’t accept at face value the words of anyone in a position of authority in business, government, or religion. They represent institutions that work for their own interests, and they will use you up – and maybe kill you – in the process. And they all lie all the time.

Remember that political ideology is a crutch; in recent years it has become a form of secular religion. Be wary of the political parties’ articles of faith and whom they establish as your designated saviors. Believe nothing said even from politicians you like and respect until they demonstrate actions beyond elegant phrases.

Always think for yourself, and given the seductive messages and sophisticated controls in place through the mass media think everything through again – and still be skeptical.

Here’s some final reality-based advice.

Stay awake to what your life is and where it’s headed starting right now. Associate only with people who have integrity and love in their hearts.
Be open to what life offers.

Nearly everyone when they’re your age has something offered to them; it could be a job in a different location; a blind date; or a chance to meet someone. These are doors to be walked through. Most of you will be presented with a number of these opportunities over the next few years.

But unless your family name is Clinton or Trump these opportunities will only come for a brief period. Sooner than you think, everyone will see the wide-eyed look you have now will have been replaced by the slightly glazed look that comes from having a job and responsibilities – a life that has few parties, no final exams, no year abroad, and no semester or summer breaks.

So when a door opens, if it feels right in your gut, take the chance and walk through it. It won’t always be what you hoped; it may not work out. But you won’t know unless you try.

And as means of encouragement, you may have heard of the 80/20 rule. It’s actually called the Pareto Principle, which states 80 percent of the effects comes from 20 percent of the causes.

So if you try enough times and take enough chances you’ll get most of what you want. We’re all adults here now, right? So most doesn’t mean all.

But for the majority of you, that will still give you an extraordinary life filled with people you love and who love you, and with a sense of personal worth.

Now, get busy. You need to take the lead and be the generation that fixes the problems I mentioned earlier.

Congratulations and well done.

Thank you.


Author: Tom

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