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To the Graduates

To the Graduates

by William H. Benson

May 18, 2017

     On August 10, 1979, there appeared in the New York Times, Woody Allen’s article, “My Speech to the Graduates.” He began, “More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.” Here we see on full display Woody Allen’s sense of humor.

     The comedian’s article is a parody of the standard commencement speech. He refuses to repeat the oft-repeated platitudes: “Don’t be afraid to fail.” “Remember that you are the future.” “Always appreciate your parents.” “Enjoy this time in your life.” “Follow your dreams.” “Never stop learning.”

     Instead, he adopts a tongue-in-cheek approach. He says, “We realize that science has failed us.” “Religion too has unfortunately let us down.” “The trouble is, our leaders have not adequately prepared us for a mechanized society,” and, “Instead of facing these challenges, we turn instead to distractions.” Although his words sound serious, his mood is light and funny, as he turns each cliché on its head.

     Today, the most overused word in the English language is “perfect.” We hear the words often, “That is perfect!” Yet, except for perhaps calculus, most things in life are not perfect.

     Raising kids, teaching kids, passing laws, winning the Super Bowl, taking our case to court, winning a Presidential election, declaring and conducting a war, and forging an independent life are all messy affairs. Nothing about any of them is perfect. It is haphazard, slipshod, go-along in order to get-along. Life is more messy than perfect.

     To the graduate, I say, surrender “perfect,” and instead adopt a “try to achieve” approach.”

     You may have heard it said, “Strengthen your emotional intelligence: your resilience, initiative, optimism, and adaptability.” Those are big words, but how do you do that? One way is to try a really hard thing, just for a short time.

     Try cold-call selling at the door or on the telephone. Work in a slaughter house. Ask to give a speech. Study a hard foreign language, like Japanese. Take an evening class in trigonometry. Write a thousand-word essay.  No doubt you will stumble and fail, but you will discover inside of you untapped and unknown reservoirs of strength, energy, and will power that will astonish you and your friends.

     Also, try to find smart people at work, at play, at home, and talk with them. But how can you know if someone is smart? Smart people welcome others, they make people around them feel great, and they accomplish the impossible.

     The fictional Forrest Gump said, “Stupid is as stupid does.” He meant that if a person does a series of stupid things, he or she is stupid, no matter his or her intelligence quotient. Consider Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber. In his early twenties, he achieved a PhD in mathematics, but then he decided to mail bombs to unsuspecting people. Not very smart.

     Ignorant people are so self-absorbed that they do not know the effect they have upon other people. They play cruel tricks, manipulate, dominate, and stun others by their merciless actions. Avoid those who make you feel awful inside. A quote I read, “On occasion, we have to see the good in ‘good-bye.’”

     Last week in the New York Times, the British novelist Penelope Lively said, “I have six grandchildren, in their early twenties, and I look at them now and think they’re making the sort of decisions that are going to determine the rest of their lives. It’s quite alarming.”

     She is correct, but people also can take control of their life at any age and redirect it to where they want it to go, in order to try and achieve something grand, whether in their forties, sixties, or eighties. If, in your twenties, you made a decision that you now regret, I say, try to achieve something else. 

     Also, limit your choices. Too many, and we feel overwhelmed. Too few, and we feel slighted.

     One psychologist said, “We are biologically unprepared for the number of choices we face in the modern world. People worry that once they make a choice, they should have chosen a different one. Repeated tests have shown that people are more satisfied when they have less choices, even when the quality is not as good.”    

     Life is less than perfect. Often it is messy. But it is our life, and it is a work-in-progress.

     Woody Allen concluded his speech to the graduates. “Summing it up, it is clear the future holds great opportunities. It also holds pitfalls. The trick will be to avoid the pitfalls, seize the opportunities, and get home by six o’clock.”

     To the graduates of 2017, congratulations. Well done. You are now free to try to achieve something else.