Lessons Learned / Mike Turpin
"Summing 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 back home by six o'clock." -- Woody Allen, speech to graduates
It's that time of year where we throw another 3.2 million high school minnows into the deep end of life's ocean. It may feel a little crowded for you scholastic sardines, but there's actually plenty of room to kick, so splash away. It's impossible to offer any advice to graduates without acknowledging another commencement speech that got a lot of press this past week when English teacher David McCullough Jr. had the audacity to tell a group of seniors from Wellesley High School that they were not special at all -- even though he had given some of them passing grades in his class.
"Contrary to what your U9 soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh-grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mr. Rogers and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you -- you're nothing special."
Mr. McCullough went on to frame your demographic reality in stark terms. "So think about this: Even if you're one in a million, on a planet of 6.8 billion that means there are nearly 7,000 people just like you." (Actually, that's 6,800 people which slightly improves your odds. He also did not mention that at least half of them sleep with a goat at night. But, hey, McCullough does not teach math nor have a passport.)
What Mr. McCullough was saying has been on the mind of an entire generation of parents who are now a tad worried about how they have raised their beloved Millennials. Our greatest fear is that we have loved you so much that we have not prepared you for your first fistfight with someone who has less to lose than you do. While you exude self-confidence, we wonder if you are Pickett at Gettysburg or Patton at the Bulge. Are we pumping you up with illusory elan or are we infusing you with an energy that will sustain you during the inevitable tough days that lie ahead?
Of course you are cocky. It is human nature that every generation feels superior to those that preceded it. With the benefit of hindsight, you can judge us more accurately than we can judge you. You have the facts to prove it. You can see every one of our generation's gaffes, miscues, political blunders, hypocrisies and prescription medications.
The only thing we can do is growl back and warn you that life is not all green lawns and Chinese take-out. Personally, we grew up with parents that hit first and asked questions later. Everything was our fault. If the stock market dropped, we got grounded. We had chores that paid less than minimum wage and had to do them before we could breathe. We did not walk through eight miles of snow uphill to school -- each way. We rode our 10-speed bikes through the damned stuff.
Our fathers did not attend many of our scholastic events because they were off somewhere practicing their swearing. Moms carried the load and still do. Dads now help more, hit less and only swear at the Mets and after 11 p.m. We now use "I" messages which seems so counter-intuitive since we were told during our youth that it was not about us.
Secretly, we know that you are just like we were -- excited, clueless, capable of achieving great things and ready to commit momentous acts of stupidity. We like your style, but wish you'd put down the phone and look at us when we ask you a question. We like firm handshakes and a periodic offer to help do the dishes. And here's the good news: You may not be as special as you think, but you have the capacity to be as special as you want to be. Your challenge is to discover that "special" means being a part of something bigger than yourself.
It is natural to be self obsessed when you are young -- especially when you can consistently fit into your pants after drinking a milk shake. If we had Facebook when we were your age, we would have posted thousands of photos of ourselves. For most of us, there are only a handful of grainy photos from high school and college that look like something you would see in a Nat Geo special on "In Search of Sasquatch." Facebook is fine. We enjoy seeing what you did last night. Unfortunately, everyone else does too including college admissions counselors, parole officers and your future employers who will note that by day you were a model kid and by night, you were a truck without breaks.
Overall, 1994 was a good year. Mostly, because, you showed up. We smiled at every gurgle and wondered whether it was a real smile or just gas. We gladly took you everywhere because we did not want to miss a thing. Along the way, a lot changed. Everything started moving -- fast. Economic bubbles burst and the world got hot, flat and crowded. Terrorists showed up. Technology made everything real time and changed the social contract we had with life. But you made it all worth our while. And yes, that "whump, whump, whump" over your head was not a South Central LAPD helicopter, it was us. You were raised under our constant surveillance and as such, had a harder time doing great things or blowing it. You had to assume that you were great because we never really allowed you the same latitude we were given. The consequences of adolescent screw-ups were now too severe and rumors that once moved like molasses were now viral scandals that could ruin your reputation faster than a fat man chasing an ice cream truck.
A few tips:
Make a gratitude list every day; learn how to delay your own gratification; don't apologize for being American; find a hero; read Michael Lewis' "Boomerang," Hayek's "The Road to Serfdom" and Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged."
Watch a western and disappear into the mythology of what made America great. Remember there are endless possibilities in the world -- you just may need to ride your horse a little further south to find them.
Our gift to you was life, what you make of it will be your gift to us. Be happy. Be kind. Always go for the guy's nose in an alley fight. Learn how to do a good job even when you do not like what it is you are doing. Clean out your closets. We don't want to see you on "Hoarders." That would really embarrass your mother.
Remember, you are today's special, but every day the menu changes. Stay strong, have fun and don't ruin your chances for public office at your first college party. We need someone in Congress who will be looking out for us when we are wandering around town looking for our missing bag of string.
Check out Mike Turpin's blog at usturpin.wordpress.com.