Last week The Independent ran an opinion piece by Tom McDonald titled “Unconventional Advice for Graduates.” So I thought I might push unconventionality a bit further.
While warning only not to “make any mistakes that can get you killed,” McDonald offers what could be called libertarian advice: “Let your young grads get out there and screw up!”
But he goes on to prescribe limited horizons. “Let’s dispel the notion that you can be anything you set your mind to becoming, because you can’t….Recognize your limitations.” Later he adds, “Dreams get you nowhere without discipline and hard work.”
While his advice is unexceptionable, the problem with it is that it is still advice. I have a problem with advice, especially from the generation slip sliding down the mountain of life to the one just starting the ascent.
The tradition in graduation advice is that people who have already been there know something that those just coming along don’t.
Our new graduates are in their late teens if emerging from high school and in their early to mid 20s (or in McDonald’s case in his 30s) if leaving university. Their parents may be as young as their late 30s but more often in their 40s, 50s and 60s. What have been their experiences during the past half-century, the experiences that they now want to pass on to the new graduates? Here are a few examples:
• Watergate, Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew;
• The failed War on Poverty and the violence of the Chicago Days of Rage;
• Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan with side trips into warfare in Syria, Lebanon, Kuwait, Somalia, Libya, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Panama and Nicaragua.
• One recession after another, culminating in the Great Recession;
• The worst inequality since the 1920s;
• A Congress so tied in knots that it can’t pass even the simplest and least controversial bills, leading 77 percent of Americans to disapprove of Congress and only 14 percent to approve;
• A populace that has allowed itself to be terrorized by a handful of Saudi, Yemeni and Syrian nuts.
• A financial and banking system controlled by a half dozen CEOs that has become, even by its on admission, too big to fail.
• An education system that supplies an acceptable level of knowledge and skill to a smaller percentage of the population that any other in the developed world.
• A health care system that, despite improvements, still fails to cover millions of people and costs more than any other in the developed world.
• A welfare system that leaves millions of people homeless and hungry.
• Nearly two-thirds of Americans say the country is headed in the wrong direction, and they’ve been saying it for years.
• And now we adults are threatening to give new graduates the blessings of a Trump presidency. With such blessings, who needs curses?
When we oldsters give advice to you youngsters, look out. We are telling you one of two things. Either go out into the world and do like us, making the same dumb mistakes we did. Or go out into the world and don’t do like us, avoiding the mistakes that we were so dumb we didn’t know how to avoid. Either way, the advice is not worth the paper it is printed on. Either way, the proof is in our own lives.
Maybe we should just reverse the traditional order of things and at graduation ceremonies have the young advise us how to stop making fools of ourselves and a mess of the world. It’s a new world you will be entering, and with even the tiniest bit of luck you will make less of a hash of it than we have.
So if you can’t learn from your elders, what can you do? Here’s my non-advice answer: Triangulate your needs, your desires and your abilities to carve out your own private niche in the biosphere. Figure out that triad and all the rest will fall into place. That’s what human beings have been doing for tens of thousands of years. It’s all you will ever need.
I have only one other piece of non-advice for new graduates from high school and college: Don’t heed advice, from me or any other elder. If you take my advice, of course, you won’t heed this advice either. It’s an endless circle. Sort of like life itself. No start. No end.
So this advisory non-advice is a good way to get used to the conundrums you will face doing whatever you will do after you have finished doing whatever you have done.
One final thought on my way out of history and yours into it: If you take to heart my message and pay no attention to adult advice, you will tear up this column and throw it it out with tomorrow’s trash.
Bene vale—go well.