Monday, May 11, 2009

Dear Graduates,

Congratulations on your achievement.

I've heard some grumbling among you, and I have to acknowledge the truth: you're graduating into a nasty job market. It's a brutal time to try to break in. This isn't your fault, and it isn't your college's, either; sometimes the market just breaks that way. As painful as that is, it's worth giving some thought.

In boom years, I've seen some folks succeed a bit too easily, and draw some falsely flattering conclusions about themselves. It wouldn't matter, I suppose, if it didn't lead to a certain smugness about the failures of others. I've heard it said that success is a terrible teacher; no less a mind than Aristotle suggested that the opposite of a friend is a flatterer. When circumstances conspire to flatter us, it's easy to lose sight of the breaks we've caught. Yes, we help create our own luck, but we do no more than help. You don't choose your parents, or your genes, or your time and place of birth. As hard as you've worked – and you have – others have worked, too, to make this possible for you. Ignoring that is both inaccurate and rude. Assuming that the chain of responsibility stops with you is arrogant and infantile. I've worked hard, but I was also born to educated parents of dominant ethnicity and culture in a world superpower during the age of antibiotics and abundant food. That gave me possibilities not available for a similarly hard worker in most other times and places in human history.

Among those who've been on the underside for too long, I've sometimes seen a fatalism that can curdle into misplaced rage. If nobody around you catches a break, it's easy to assume that the fix is in, that someone, somewhere, is masterminding a scheme to keep you down. Sometimes it's partly true. But jumping to that too quickly can defeat initiative. It can lead to habits that amount to self-sabotage, and to distrust even of the possibility of something better. Among unsubtle minds, it's a short path from that to rage and violence, usually against whomever is close at hand.

Both of these stories we tell ourselves are wrong. The world is far bigger than our puny efforts, as well as those of anybody else. The fatal flaw in both is the same; the idea that the world is organized around you, whether in the form of 'your oyster' or a conspiracy. It isn't. But our culture acts as if it is.

The gift you've been given, by dint of timing, is the possibility of awareness. In our culture, economic success or failure is supposed to be the direct result of individual fitness or weakness. One way to show fitness in our culture is to get education. You've done that – you've got the degree now to prove it – and yet, jobs for new grads are hard to come by. You've done what you were supposed to do, yet for many of you, the only economic impact you can see is student loan payments. You tried to follow the first narrative, yet, through no fault of your own, find yourself in the second.

Through no fault of your own. That's the key phrase. Through no fault of your own.

You can see the fault line, so to speak, in our culture. You're straddling it. It's staring you in the face. You didn't choose it – that's sort of the point – but you can choose what you're going to do about it.

You can take the nasty job market as a verdict on the worth of everything you've done for the last few years, decide that it's all a scam, and give up. Probably, some of you will. Or you can decide to double down on the cultural bet, to plow forward all the harder, and to take your eventual success as a sign that you were right all along. That's better, but it still falls short.

If you're really good – and I'm showing some actual hope here – you'll retain a memory of this moment as you plow forward. You'll remember the feeling of “now what?” and the sense of helplessness that comes from having done everything right and still coming up short. And you'll pause before passing judgment on people in bad spots, because you'll realize that, at some level, we're all just a few bad breaks away from there. If you're really, really good, you might even think about what a world might look like in which we tried to make 'there' a little less awful.

I remember vividly the end of my doctoral graduation ceremony, as the crowd started to scatter, and I realized that even with a PhD from a respected research university in a real field, I didn't have a job. There didn't even seem much point in leaving the auditorium. For months after that, the best I could do was hourly work, usually at a considerable distance. It did a number on my confidence, and I'll admit that some of those nights were long. When I did catch a break – the first of two big ones – I nearly didn't take it. To the extent that I'll give myself credit for anything, it's that at two key moments of my career, I was able to reject – consciously and with effort – some myths I had previously held sacred. I was inarguably lucky to get some breaks, but it also took conscious effort to shuck off the myths to allow myself to take them. I had to confront the fact that the world was utterly indifferent to what I thought, and to the stories I told myself. The 'rules' by which I had played – at length, with great effort and some skill – were really just someone else's guesses, and they turned out to be wrong. I couldn't move forward until I figured that out.

Some people don't have the moment of clarity until well into their lives, when they've already taken on commitments that don't allow for risk. Though you wouldn't have chosen this – and nobody could blame you for that – you've been given this moment early. Take it. Think it through, and think it through again. Remember its painful and awkward parts after it passes. Those painful and awkward parts – the parts the culture at large denies with such venom – are the truth.

Live in truth. Remember these long nights.

Congratulations, and good luck.