The Graduation Speech Someone Should Give Millennials, But Won't


Greetings to you, America's most recently unemployed, and congratulations! You're all college graduates, so welcome to hell where there's no non-smoking section. None of you are going to realize your ambitions to the fullest. But I'm not here to tell you why that's a bad thing. I'm here to tell you why that's a good thing.

From your chair right now, the world probably doesn't look like hell. You're seeing yourself three years ahead. You're that face on the cover of Fortune magazine. You're the person who cured leukemia. You're the one who silences everyone when you walk into a room. You've rehearsed in your mind all of the conversations that you will have once you're chief executive officer. And when you speak, the apparition employees in your head obey. This is what you tell yourself you will be.

But economists and journalists disagree. Here are a few recent headlines: "Young People in the Recession — War Against the Youth."; "Effective Unemployment Among Young People: 16.6%"; "Student Debt Keeping Millennials from Home, Car Loans." The numbers are definitely stacked against all of you. 

But forget about what they say. Things will be bad for awhile. A couple of you will probably spend a few years in the Horse Latitudes known as your parents' basement; that unpaid internship at a nonprofit; maybe even the state unemployment office (the horror, the absolute horror). But my guess is that just about all of you will be okay. And when I say okay, I mean only OK. The very worst sense of the word.

I see before me today people who will make quite great mediocrities. You all think that is a bad thing. But it isn't. Mediocrity is one of the most underrated qualities in the world. Three cheers for the mediocracy, I say. While "mediocracy" may not even be a real word, it certainly isn't a bad idea.

A lot of you want to be the one who will change the world. While I do not mean to dissuade you from this goal, I would ask you to question your motives. Some of the most evil people throughout history, whether they are named Hitler or Stalin or Pol Pot, also had the desire to change the world. No doubt, you do not want to change the world the way they did, but the point is that people are often driven less by a desire to make the world a better place than by the desire to force others into conformity with their prejudices, no matter what the cost. If that could ever be your motivation, then you should probably consider aspiring to mediocrity instead. Mediocrity may not always make the world a better place, but it does very little harm.

It's okay to put on the gray flannel suit or executive high-heels. It's okay to live in a suburban house with a white picket fence. It's okay to have a dog and 2.1 kids. In other words, it's okay to be Willy Loman without hating your life and always trying to break away from it. You shouldn't hate it either. While your dream might not be realized, you are likely the realization of someone's dream.

Though life might seem hard at times, it is much easier for you now than it has been for anyone at any time in history. Here in New York today, I could tell you to get up and drive to California, and most of you could probably find a way to do it. But whether your ancestor came to America voluntarily on the Mayflower or was forced to our shores on the rank lower decks of the Lord Ligonier, your capabilities now are ones which your ancestors could never even imagined.

But your ancestors kept up the hard work, your grandparents kept it up and your parents did too. Not because they enjoyed work so much. If work teaches you anything it should be that it is usually, well, work. They kept it up because they realized that it might mean that somehow, you could have a better life than they did.

And they were basically right. The quality of your life is, by so many measures, better than the one that they had. And yet you are probably not as happy as they were. That is because you have been trained to aspirations which are ultimately unrealisable. You have been set up to fail. If you become an entrepreneur, you will find that there is always that one service that some competitor does better; if you become a professor, you will find that you can never get that last promotion you want to get; if you are a soldier, you will see that there is always at least one person you work with who is more worthy of honor.

You've all been brought up to believe that you can do anything in your ambition. Spoiler alert: You can't. Ambition can get all the way around the world in the time that it takes will power to get its shoes on. But you can do much more than your ambition could fathom. You just do not know how attainable the most valuable things in life are: They are like water — everywhere, but irreplaceable.

My advice would be to settle down. Get full. Get wisdom. And you might consider continuing the work that your parents did. I don't mean working at their old job. Work at whatever job pays your bills and pays for the personal life. But you are the realization of their work and your children should be the realization of yours, just as your grandchildren will be the realization of theirs. If you find that you do not enjoy your job, you probably shouldn't worry too much unless it is thwarting other ambitions. Hunter gatherers who share your DNA probably didn't enjoy their work too much either. Even your parents had bad days working behind the desk to make sure that you wouldn't go hungry.

It isn't how much you enjoy your job. It is how much your job pays for things that you enjoy. Take a step back from your life and realize that it isn't about the vision of yourself you have in three years. It's the vision you have of yourself in twenty years, or thirty, or fifty, or maybe at the wake. What will people say about you there? That will determine whether you have lived your life to your full potential and sometimes that means being a little boring, at least from the point of view of the chair in which you currently sit — in that ridiculous "Charge of the Light Brigade" hat. But remember, it is okay to be only okay.