This weekend, I'll videotape a graduation ceremony, and I'll listen to another series of graduation speeches. As many as I've heard, I've never given one. I don't know why I've never been asked; after all, I'm smart, witty, and I can actually pronounce some pretty big words. That's more than some of these clowns can do.But that notwithstanding, I was once again passed over as a graduation speaker. So here's the speech that I'd give if I were asked (which, once again, I wasn't).
Dear Graduating Class of 2011:
Welcome to the real world.
When you leave here today, you'll step out of the sheltered halls of academia into that mystical place you've heard about for so many years called "The Real World". Some of you may have already experienced it on one level or another, and others among you may think it's a TV show on MTV, and still others are wondering what the old codger up behind the lectern is rambling about when he uses phrases like "MTV" and "TV show". But that's not important right now.
The fact is, when you wake up tomorrow, you're going to find yourself in the position you've worked so hard for all these years: Hung over, unemployed, and in debt up to your mortarboard.
Welcome to the real world.
It's customary for graduation speakers to offer some brilliant bit of wisdom to help carry you out into this brave new place, but I'm afraid I don't have anything particularly insightful to offer. I can't even draw from my own graduation ceremonies, because I don't remember a thing they said, except for the speaker at my college commencement, who said, "Just as there was when I was graduating, there's a whole wide world waiting for you. Only it's waiting for you with a 2x4 to knock you upside the head."
That explains why I stayed in school for an extra two years for an advanced degree. The man scared the hell out of me.
And so here you are in the glorious year of 2011. Unemployment is at the highest it's been in your lifetime. The world is facing increasing pressures from natural disasters, global wars, technology run rampant, and environmental uncertainty.
Welcome to the real world.
Now don't get me wrong; I'm an eternal optimist. It takes a certain kind of crazy person to open a business in the middle of a recession providing a service that no one really needs in a town that seems to have as many vacant buildings as it does occupied ones. My business offers a premium service in a city where the per capita income is $14,495, and where the population has declined for the seventh year in a row. Where historic buildings were literally crumbling into the street. It's the kind of place that's a great place to be FROM, but people like you—newly-minted graduates—would barely consider a hotbed of opportunity.
But that's where you would be wrong. In the midst of what has been called "the worst economy since the great depression", I've found a small but thriving business community, fantastic people that are engaging, fun and polite, and a small-town atmosphere that I find refreshing, in an area surrounded by some of the most natural beauty I've ever seen. I've witnessed a small renaissance in the downtown business district, and I'm now hearing complaints that the biggest problem we have downtown is a lack of parking spaces. Go figure.
So that brings me to my point (which I think I had, but I almost forgot). The world is what you make of it. You can look at the ugliness around you and get discouraged and depressed, or you can face that approaching 2x4 as it heads for your head and DUCK. Then punch that sucker that's swinging it right in the face.
Some of you were just toddlers when a band called "Crowded House" performed a song called "Weather With You" in the 80's. The chorus includes the line, "Everywhere you go, you always take the weather with you". It's a simple but profound verse; a more sophisticated version of the one-liner, "No matter where you go, you'll always be there." In short, the world is what you make of it. If you walk around carrying a storm cloud above your head, all you'll see is rain. That doesn't mean that you put blinders on to the very real problems that surround you, but life is about making choices. You can choose sunshine or rain. It really is that simple.
One more thing for those of you who haven't fallen asleep or who aren't posting disparaging remarks about this speech on twitter before I'm even done:
I encourage you to be kind. We live in an age of increased polarization, rancor, anger and bitterness. We label each other: Conservative, Liberal, Radical, Warmonger, Racist...you name it, there's a label for it. Folks, labels are for jars, not people. The sooner we stop trying to fit each other into convenient little boxes where we can shove each other on a shelf and say, "There, that's a good little [insert label here]" the better off we'll all be. As we all enter the real world, we're going to need each other more than ever. Yes, we can disagree. Yes, we can have differences of opinion. But in the end, we all have to work together.
So as you head out into that mythical new frontier before you, and as you consider the advice I've so wisely dished out, please ponder the words of author P.J. O'Rourke who wrote: "Everybody knows how to raise children, except the people who have them." Then realize that I really don't know a damn thing, and I've made it all up. Congratulations on your graduation, and again...welcome to the real world.