It’s graduation season. Today as I thought of all the proud families and happy graduates, I also came to the realization that I will probably never give a commencement speech. To be honest, I’m pretty glad about that. I can barely introduce myself to a room that contains more than three people, let alone speak to a never-ending sea of mortarboards. However, I figured that if I ever find myself in that unfortunate situation I might as well have something on the back burner. It took every effort to not start with Marc Antony’s speech in Julius Caesar which I still have halfway memorized from high school English class. You should be proud of my self-restraint.
Good morning Class of 20-whatever! Well, here we are. Finals are over, school is over, and I am one of the few last things that stands between you and your backpacking trip through Asia. But after you are finished taking pictures of yourself next to big statues of Buddha and meeting other people from exotic places like Canada, you will return back stateside and do something called “gainful employment.” I hope to send you off on this fantastical journey of cover letter writing with the following observations.
I see that some of you are looking out onto the horizon wearing rose colored glasses. The world is tinged in shades of hope and social justice. Your hands are full of the riches of empathy, arms fully extended to bestow your wealth upon those less fortunate. You will march dutifully to staff meetings at your new job, and upon your notepad you will scribble words like, “Opportunity Gap.” You will draw circles and stars around phrases such as, “Can we move the needle?” and, “Need measurable outcomes.” You will say to your friends, “I can’t just work somewhere for a paycheck. I have to make a difference.” And then, one day, those rose colored glasses will go. They may get slapped right off by the very person you thought you were there to help. Or, they may have slowly slid down to the edge of your nose, ill-fitting from non-repair. You take them off and place them on your desk, rubbing your eyes and blinking at your computer screen. You will wonder if you need new frames or a whole new prescription. You will take out your notepad and alongside “compassionate action,” scrawl, “transferable skills.”
A lot of you, and I mean A LOT of you, will go to law school. It is my wish for you that you enjoy being a lawyer at least a little more than being a law student.
Some of you will find yourselves upon the rungs of the corporate ladder. You will walk through the shiny doors of your office building every day, coffee cup in one hand and smartphone in the other. Some days you might ride the elevator with your CEO and stare blankly at the floor numbers ticking off while you think of something succinctly clever to say. Like those numbers you will ascend up, up, up to an impressive salary with rent subsidies (because of course those in the upper tax brackets need subsidized housing from their employer) and perhaps even a nice view of the city below. You will go to events with an open bar and travel across the country, maybe the world with a company credit card. Your friends will know you are successful—at least in the monetary sense—but will have no idea what it is you actually do every day. No matter how long and industry-specific your actual title, you will simply be a “businessman” or “businesswoman” to everyone except those who sit in the cubicle next to yours. Occasionally, you will be reminded of the Mark Twain Riverboat at Disneyland. You will think of its loud churn, churn, churning as it gears up to take its passengers slowly in one big loop littered with views of the backsides of rides and plastic characters waving to you from the shore. You look down at that churning water and think of all that power, all that energy behind what might just feel like a pointless ride.
Some of you may work in fits and starts. You might take huge steps backward and then leaps forward. You may do it for a new family, a new dream, or maybe even sadly out of the fear of your own potential.
And then, some of you we will call the Lucky Ones. You will do something you find truly beautiful. And if you are even more lucky, it will be something that is intrinsically beautiful. You will have many admirers who regard you with awe. “She’s really doing it,” we’ll say. But, lucky one, you too will look back on the what-ifs and the should-haves and wonder at the flaws in the canvas of your art that no one else seems to see.
So, what of all this disillusionment, this churning, these paper wings and these stumbles? Do we run for the hills and off the grid as quickly as we ran to get here on time this morning? No, and here’s my suggestion. Look to the friend that you are currently sneaking sips of Peppermint Schnapps with. Tell them through your faint headache and slight buzz that frankly there will be times that you will not understand their choices. There will be times that you will not relate to their problems. But you will help them remember who they are at times when they have forgotten, and help them forget the times when they weren’t themselves. Tell them that hey, sometimes it is just a paycheck and that you’ve got to put food on the table somehow. Tell them sometimes it’ll feel like more than that, even if you can’t see it when they do. And while you’re at it, do that for yourselves too.
So what would you say to this next generation of graduates?
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