The bizarro commencement speech
College commencement season is once again upon us. Because I work in higher education, I’ve been to about 40 of these (some institutions host more than one per year). These events feature speakers who, like their counterparts at high school graduations, offer the same familiar bromides time after time. I’ve heard my fair share and can recite these platitudes by heart.
Were I asked to speak at a commencement, I’d confound expectations and offer the following advice and counsel.
Members of the Class of 2016: I’m honored to have the opportunity to address you today.
Commencement, we all know, signifies a beginning — the beginning of student loan payments, additional crushing debt, a life of heartache and despair, and in most cases a future destined ultimately for failure. Believe me, you’re better off staying here and avoiding the real world altogether.
I know you think you’ll be the exception, and you’ve been told you are the best and brightest of your generation. Well, let me assure you you’re not. If you were, you’d be graduating from a better college. You are average. You’ll remain average. You’ll have average jobs, make an average wage, drive an average car and live in an average house.
You are not going to change the world. If anything, you’ll screw it up even more.
Perhaps you have big dreams and have been encouraged to follow them. Do not. Dreams are silly exercises. They don’t come true. You will eventually become disillusioned and realize how foolish you were.
Likewise, don’t follow what you believe is your passion. Instead, be opportunistic. Seek security and safety. Settle for what’s right in front of you. Risk is overrated. It’s dangerous and foolish. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side. It’s often brown and disgusting and full of weeds.
Whatever initial path you choose, if you do fail, quit and try something else. Don’t bother mounting the same horse; he’ll only throw you off again. Such persistence, as we know, is the definition of insanity.
Yes, you may get bored, but you have to ask yourself if boredom is preferable to failure. I think you’ll agree it is. Change, you’ll discover, is your enemy. With change comes fear, and we all want to avoid fear. Fear is not something to be embraced and overcome; it is something to run from. Seek stability and comfort in the familiar and you’ll be happier for it. Nothing ventured, nothing lost.
You’ll find, too, that hard work simply doesn’t pay off. You’ll work hard but fall victim to organizational politics, nepotism, personality conflicts and general bad fortune. Do just enough work not to get fired, and you’ll think you’ve won. Advancement isn’t the end game; steady employment is.
What you’ve learned over the past few years is probably all you’ll need to get by. Lifelong learning is a waste of time and effort. If anything, submit to lifelong training — but here again, gain just enough basic skills to keep doing your job adequately. Anything beyond that is gilding the lily, and to what end?
At some point in your career, you’ll become more defined by what you’ve done than by what you want. You will concede to living the life others expect you to live. That’s okay. Don’t attempt to think or act outside this box. It provides valuable shelter.
If you do get ahead and achieve some modicum of success, it will likely occur because of luck. Bear in mind that you don’t make your own luck; it happens to you accidentally. You are an unwitting bystander to your own fate. Accept it now and get used to it.
And once you leave this middling institution, you’d do well never to return. Staying engaged with your alma mater is pointless. You served your time here, you paid your tuition and you earned your degree. It’s time to move on. You may wish to network among your 30,000 fellow alumni, but they have nothing to offer you, nor you them.
Finally, don’t waste your money or time giving back. Helping others does nothing to get you ahead. Your charity won’t help them anyway. This institution will lay on the guilt trip about supporting the next generation. Let them suffer like you have. You don’t owe them a thing. Charity begins at home — theirs, not yours.
Let me conclude by offering my congratulations to the Class of 2016. This is truly a noteworthy occasion, and you’ll probably never be happier than you are now. In fact, I guarantee it. You are poised to embark on a tepid journey marked by mediocrity and predictability.
In the years to come, if you remember anything from this address, let it be this: If you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take, don’t take any and you won’t miss.
— Mark J. Drozdowski
Mark J. Drozdowski is a writer, humorist and aspiring pundit. He was a columnist for The Chronicle of Higher Education for nine years and currently writes a humor column, “Special Edification,” for Inside Higher Ed. His writing has appeared inThe New York Times Magazine, Boston Globe Magazine, theBaltimore Sun, the Hartford Courant and Salon, among other publications and websites. He blogs at drdroz.wordpress.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @drdroz.