Monday, June 19, 2023

Impromptu Commencement Address


I attended my daughter's college graduation the other day. It was an absolute mob scene ... thousands in the audience and, by my (very rough) count, at least a thousand students. One of the new grads gave a great commencement address. Imagine how nerve-racking it would be to face an audience that large. With that in mind, I daydreamed about the speech I would make if given only twenty minutes to prepare. Here’s that speech.

Impromptu commencement address

Greetings, Math, Life, & Physical Sciences class of 2023, and congratulations!

[Wait for raucous applause or the silent thud of this mundane opener having utterly failed.]

You are all outstanding students, or you wouldn’t be here today. Take a moment to look back on all you have accomplished here, as a student.

Now take a moment to stare, right in the face, a fact that has probably been nagging at you to a growing extent lately: your life role as a great student ends today. It ends here, on the Commencement Green. After today, you have to go do something completely different: try to become an adult. A functioning adult. A working adult.

(Quick aside to those of you going right into graduate school: sorry, but I have no advice for you. I gather grad school is much less fun than undergrad but maybe that’s just a rumor.)

Isn’t it perverse that when you totally had your act together as a student, to the point of actually completing a degree four years in the making, you have to now go tackle something else—i.e., getting a real job—that you don’t really know how to do?

I know, total buzz-kill, right? But with your degree in hand and all that learning under your belt, along with your youthful vitality, you are well poised for this opportunity whether you realize it or not. Consider me, up on this stage, called up just twenty minutes ago to give this speech, without so much as some hastily written notes on a torn-up piece of notebook paper. I could have turned this down, but then I’d lose an incredible opportunity to have an amazing story to tell later, about the time I got booed off the stage at a university commencement address, or, possibly, the time I managed not to get booed off the stage when giving an impromptu commencement address. I would never pass up such an opportunity. And when you are handed similarly outsized opportunities, for which you feel equally unsuited, you should also take them. You won’t do any worse than I’m doing, I’m sure.

It’s true that in your next phase of life, you will be hired by, and work with, a bunch of professionals with way more experience than you. But you have something they don’t: the boundless, perhaps panicked, energy of the fresh recruit. Many of the professionals are also faking it, in our ever-changing careers, because we’ve been intentionally job-hopping in hopes of greater opportunity, or have been buffeted around by the winds of fate, so just like you, we’re flopping around in jobs we’re not necessarily perfect for. And many of us are tiring out. My generation, for all its bluster, is more than ready to hand you the baton. If most of us are loathe to admit this, that’s just out of habit, and envy, and the inevitable rise of curmudgeonry. You’re going to do fine, and anyway most of us aren’t paying much attention anymore, and soon enough we’ll be gone.

My first thought as I mounted this stage today was, “Wow. Look at this crush of people. This is insane.” My own graduation ceremony, though at a larger university, seemed much smaller. I don’t remember parking problems, and none of the audience had to stand on the grass so far from the stage they couldn’t tell their kid from Adam. It’s tempting for me to believe what you’ve all been telling yourselves and your parents: that everything has gotten so much harder these days; that there’s so much more competition now; that back in your parents’ day they were practically giving away college degrees; jobs were much easier to find; and blah blah blah.

[Wait for applause or maybe mostly silence, or the generalized murmur of people who have tuned out completely and are chattering away amongst themselves, and/or one or more people yelling things like “Get off the stage!”]

Well, it’s all false. Unemployment in this country is at its lowest level since 1969. You will all get jobs, if you’re not lame. And don’t ever forget that the teeming masses going up against you include a lot of lame-os: the same kind of lame-os you beat out to gain admission to this great university. And also a lot of lame-os from even more prestigious universities. I have interviewed many dozens of lame-os over the years and been incredulous at how hard it is to find a good candidate to hire. Then when somebody like you comes along I’m like, Aaaaaaah, thank goodness, a great candidate. So just don’t be lame, and you can write your own ticket.

It’s been over thirty years since I was in your shoes, sweating in my weird, unbreathable polyester cap and gown, waiting for my big moment to walk the stage. The commencement address was given by a bestselling author who, since she was addressing English majors, gave us permission to be fired from our first corporate job. Of course I’d been told for years by all kinds of people that as a liberal arts grad I would never get a job, and now it was time to go prove the naysayers wrong, or prove them right. But I found that speech very liberating. [Pause for possible chuckle.] When I set out to get a job, I was entering the famous economic recession of the early 1990s. I should have been shitting bricks. I’d done nothing, outside of school, to prepare for the workforce: no internships, no rubbing elbows with anyone influential, no summer programs, and with a degree everyone assured me was worthless. But nobody told me about the recession, and I was in the habit of ignoring liberal arts deniers, so I immediately got hired. And so will you.

By the way, your job may not have much to do with your degree. I read a New York Times article recently saying that fewer than 20 percent of life sciences and physical sciences grads end up working in their field. But that’s fine. With your great education you’ll find a cool job in an exciting realm. The field that I have worked in for over 25 years now did not yet exist when I was a senior in college.

How about this statement I’ve been hearing lately and seeing in the news and on t-shirts: “The future is female”? Another myth? Actually, as far as I can tell, this one is true. Look around you at your fellow grads. A majority are young women, it appears … looks to me like about three quarters female. The official enrollment stat I heard was 60% female … did a bunch of your brethren drop out? Or did they skip this ceremony? Whatever the case, we hear it a lot: males in America are becoming an anachronism.

So to the young women among you, congratulations. Your generation is finally challenging a tradition of self-entitled deadwood, at least in this great country. And to the young men out there, don’t feel too bad. Men have had a good run, probably better than they deserve. Be glad you’re part of a society where women are no longer kept down. And to be clear, nobody is keeping men down in this country … we have simply squandered our early, historical lead. The surge of women in universities and high-flying careers is what fairness looks like. There’s still more work to be done, like eliminating the wage gap, but this is real progress.

To the parents in the audience: a solid majority of you are evidently here to celebrate your daughters. Congratulations to you and to them. I speak from proud personal experience when I say daughters rock. And if you have a son walking the stage today, well done … you managed to help him avoid a video gaming addiction, or soul-destroying cynicism, or whatever other problems are keeping so many dudes from getting college degrees. You can also be glad for exceptionally high odds that your son will marry well. Today’s potential brides are educated, empowered, and selective, and your degree-holding son will have the chops to compete. And who knows, maybe he’ll be lucky enough to sire daughters one day.

But to all in the audience: please don’t run out and get a t-shirt that says “The future is female.” First of all, it’s in poor taste to rub it in. Meanwhile, the statement is kind of absurd. Just because woman have been held back in the past doesn’t mean they weren’t relevant all along. The human race would have gone extinct immediately without women. Meanwhile, we’ll obviously always need men, too. For one thing, somebody needs to fetch stuff from high shelves and clean out the cat box.

But enough on that subject. I have a greater topic to address. To all the students assembled here, I want to take a moment to remind you of something huge: you are the future.

[Pause to let that sink in, and/or for loud whooping and applause, or whatever else you get.]

Thank you to all those who bit their tongues and didn’t boo me off the stage for that hackneyed and fundamentally untrue platitude. Actually, you are not the future. The future does not exist, yet, and you will not actually be defining it as you go along. There are seven billion people here and your individual effect on the planet will most likely be a rounding error at best. Meanwhile, the planet will continue on unperturbed long after our species has gone extinct. Don’t focus on changing the world; just be honest and kind and earnest, and work hard to do right by your family and friends. And don’t ever forget to be grateful. As a university graduate in America you’ve already been dealt one of the best hands imaginable in life, so don’t be greedy or petty. Enjoy your successes but don’t obsess over them. Be proud of your achievement but don’t forget that the random luck of your life circumstance, and/or the striving and sacrifice of your parents, brought you most of the way here.

I have one more topic to address: there seems to be a tremendous amount of generalized anxiety swirling around these days. This is despite the world having steadily improved over the decades, with countless people transcending poverty in a largely unabated upward trend. Some of this modern anxiety is existential; some biochemical; some geopolitical; I’m no expert on all the causes. But as you prepare to enter the workforce, many of you may be worried about GPT-3, its ChatGPT utility, and other forms of artificial intelligence that promise to replace humans in an ever-increasing range of jobs. Well, I’ve messed about with modern AI a fair bit and am absolutely convinced it’s overrated. Some day perhaps we’ll laugh at today’s state of the art in AI, much as we laugh at 1950s artist’s renditions of what the 1990s would look like, with flying cars and robots everywhere. To prove my point, I asked ChatGPT to write a commencement address for me right before coming up here. If you think my speech has been insufferable, let me read you a (mercifully brief) excerpt from ChatGPT’s half-assed, vapid output:

As you leave the hallowed halls of this institution, know that you carry with you the hopes and dreams of generations past, present, and future. You are the torchbearers of progress, the champions of discovery, and the guardians of knowledge. Your calling is noble, your potential boundless.

Okay, now you can boo me off the stage. In fact, I want you to. I beg you too.

[Bow dramatically and wait for enthusiastic booing and/or applause and/or a smattering of polite clapping and/or or the generalized murmur of people who have tuned out completely and are chattering away amongst themselves.]

Further reading

Middle School Graduation Speech - From a Dad

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