Congratulations, and Good Luck

Kevin Coolidge
Kevin is the creator of The Totally Ninja Raccoons and lives in Wellsboro Pennsylvania
Arts And Entertainment

May 01,2018

It’s graduation time. Congratulations and good luck. You’re going to need it, because it’s all down hill from here. Some of your worse days lie ahead. No job, few prospects. Sure, you can debate the finer points of free will versus determinism, but I’m in a hurry and I want you to make sure you give me fries.

Your mom wanted you to be a doctor or a lawyer, and meet a nice girl. Your dad worked overtime so you wouldn’t have to wash dishes like he did. No, you had to see the world. Backpack through Europe, and move into the basement. Welcome to the real world.

I hate commencement speeches…enthusiastic, inspiring, and boring. I don’t even remember the speaker at my graduation, or the extraordinary tidbits of wisdom imparted. I know graduation is supposed to be a happy event. You are young and ripe with promise. You are the future. I just thought you should know that future is going to hold periods of grinding self-doubt and failure. 

I might have remembered my speaker if he was as refreshingly honest as Charles Wheelan. Charles teaches economics at Dartmouth College and is the author of the best-selling Naked Economics. One of his first jobs out of college was writing speeches for the governor of Maine. So when asked to give a speech during Commencement weekend at Dartmouth College in June of 2011, he was determined not to give a saccharine, conventional graduation-type speech. 

But what to say? Commencement is a time of excitement and promise, but also anxiety and self-doubt. There were things that Charles had wished someone had told him, and that gave him the insight he needed to write the speech. He would tell the Class of 2011 what he wished someone had told the Class of 1988. Some unconventional advice that he hoped would prepare them for the rough patches ahead.

From that idea, a speech was born: Five Things No Commencement Speaker Has Ever Said. Among those things were assurance that the time spent in fraternity basements was well spent. No he doesn’t mean the drinking games, but the time you spent playing intramural sports, or just lounging with friends on an autumn day. Sure, there was work you could be doing—and there always will be. That is the point.

A speaker is supposed to tell you to aspire to greatness. But Charles wants to make sure that first you don’t use your prodigious talents to mess the world up, because we have plenty of smart people doing that already. He reminds us that “changing the world” also includes things like designing sub-prime mortgages that people won’t understand. Sometimes you don’t need to cure cancer; just don’t spread it.

You don’t have to be great. Just be solid. Don’t worry about what you aren’t certain you can deliver. Focus on doing what you know you can. If you are in business, trying to be great can make you avoid risk. If you are in politics, trying to be great might make you resistant to compromise.

Being great involves a little luck and being consistent. You can’t make it happen by working more or trying harder. Of course, the irony is that the less you think about being great, the more likely it is to happen. And if it doesn’t, there’s nothing wrong with being solid. 

Charles speech was well received, and when the transcript of the speech began bouncing around the Internet, he realized that the themes he had touched upon struck a chord. His speech became the book 10 ½ Things No Commencement Speaker Has Ever Said. It’s not the greatest book ever written, but it’s good advice, funny, and solid, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Good luck and congratulations to the Class of 2018…

Congratulations? Or good luck? Why not both?

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