To the Class of 2012 – “You’re Not Special, Yet”

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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 this week without acknowledging another graduation speech that got a lot of press this week past as 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 Mister 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 6800 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 and gave many of these same student an A in his class)

Now some of you seniors are thinking, “I never professed to be anything special and it’s been hours since I have tweeted anything profound. GTFO, dude!” On the other hand, some of you might be elated to think that somewhere you have 7000 twins running around and will try to pull together a Twitter group where you might agree to “meet half-way” for a rave on some South Pacific atoll.

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 fist-fight with someone who has less to lose than you do.  While you exude self-confidence, we wonder if we are preparing Pickett at Gettysburg or the French at the Somme. Are we pumping you up with illusory élan 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. CS Lewis called it the “Snobbery of Chronology”. 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 the belt. 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 to school. We rode our bikes uphill – each way – through the damned stuff, which was pretty tough because a ten-speed does not get much traction on ice.

Our fathers did not attend many of our scholastic events because they off practicing their swearing and forehand spanking stroke. Moms carried the load and still do. Dad’s now help more, hit less and only swear at the MSNBC and after 11pm at night when everyone has gone to bed. We now use “I messages” which seems so counterintuitive 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 what  “special” means and whether it allows you to still use your iPhone.

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 “In Search of Sasquatch” special on Nat Geo.  Facebook is fine and although we won’t buy the stock — we are too scared to own equities. We do like the portal as it helps us see what you did last night.  Unfortunately, everyone else can too including college admissions counselors and your future employers who will note that by day you were a model kid and by night, you were a truck without breaks.

A lot has changed since you arrived in 1994.  That year, NAFTA was passed and did more to help you avoid yard work than any piece of legislation since the 1916 Child Labor Act. When you finally started to sleep in your crib, we snuck out to see a movie called “Forrest Gump”.  It was about our own loss of innocence as a nation. While the Moms were crying for Tom Hanks, we snuck in to see Pulp Fiction. When you hear us say ” Zed is dead” and then laugh manically out loud,  you need to understand that we are still punch drunk eighteen years later from no sleep and that Pulp Fiction just seems to make us feel like life is going to be ok.   Your Mom still does not get Quentin Tarantino.

Former President Richard Nixon died in 1994. “Tricky Dick” was a complicated guy – sort of like that friend of yours who you want to like but they keep doing self-destructive things. We lost Jackie Kennedy Onassis, the crown jewel of American royalty whose style and grace taught a generation of women how to be elegant without speaking. She had more Grace Kelly in her pinky than Kim Kardashian has in her entire trunk.

Yup, 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 where we had always just assumed everything would be there when we wanted it and that we could step off of the merry-go-round whenever we felt queasy.

But you made it all worth our while. Yes, that “whump, whump, whump” over you 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 mislead you into thinking you had done great things so you would not try to sneak out at night.  You did anyway.  You learned the consequences of adolescent screw ups were now a lot more severe and that rumors that once moved like molasses could become 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 allow yourself to disappear into the mythology of what made America great. Remember there are still 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.

“Oh, The Places You Will Go!” – To The Class of 2016

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You arrived eighteen years ago on a cool April breeze. You were late, as usual. The doctor swore that the ultrasound picture showed you with the umbilical cord connected into your ears.  It was only when he screamed, “bus, bus!”, that you decided to grace us with your presence.

Some of you were our first kids, while others merely slipped into a birth order and immediately began throwing elbows – fighting for food, attention and a sense of identity.  We often watched you when you slept to make sure you were still breathing.  It sounds creepy but that’s what you do when you get handed a complex piece of machinery with no instruction manual.

As infants, you won us over instantly with your first drunken sailor steps, gassy smiles, funny laugh, relentless requests for Goodnight Moon and your ability to look us right in the eye and disobey.  For a brief time we were the center of your universe but somewhere along the way, we were relegated to the status of a distant planet.

In time, we annoyed you.  We hovered – a relentless helicopter thump of windy opinions, emphatic ideas, dogmatic directions, do’s, don’ts – forever laying out an endless highway of guardrails.  You constantly probed the invisible fence line of our values probing for gaps and weak linkages – all the while  hoping for that one weekend when we parents would be dumb enough to go away and leave you at home swearing on a stack of Bibles that you were not going to have a party.  Speaking of parties, we never understood how your generation could be so environmentally correct as to pack up all your beer cans in a hefty bag only to throw them by the side of some random road.  Yes, we bugged you. We were always running out ahead of you trying to remove obstacles or prevent you from making the same mistakes that we made in another time when society seemed more tolerant of the self inflicted wounds of youth.

Our job has always been to love you until you learn to love yourself.  If you don’t believe us, it’s in our job descriptions which are filed down at City Hall.

You grew up during a time of silver technology bubbles, crimson red real estate busts, and a great purple dinosaur named Barney.  We taught you tolerance and tried to explain terrorism.  Life swirled around you at fiber optic speed and as the language of society changed, you adapted faster than we did.  You became our bridge to a new millennium – fluent in a new castrated language called texting. You shared that The Shins were not just bones in our leg. You gave us endless, magical hours by your bedside reading of Muggles, Wizards and Deatheaters.  You were our eyes and ears helping us understand that we were literally the last family in Connecticut that did not possess an iPod, iPhone, iMac or iPad.  Come to think of it, there seems to be a lot of  “I’s” in that list of essentials.  No wonder the Wii did not get much traction.

We never shared that we have worried for years that you were schizophrenic as you often revealed multiple personalities in the course of a five minute dinner conversation.  You multi-tasked like an Isaac Assimov science fiction robot,  studying, watching Hulu Plus, listening to iTunes, texting and looking at yourself in the mirror – – while still seeming in touch with reality.  Most people of our generation are precribed heavy doses of lithium to prevent this kind of manic behavior and claim to receive their instructions from an alien space craft hovering just over the tree line.

As your parents, we celebrated every one of your prosaic little accomplishments – I mean every one.  We attended more recitals, art shows, scrimmages, games, and microscopic milestones – not wanting to miss or regret a moment of your lives.  We were and are your biggest fans.  You taught us that material satisfaction has a brief shelf life while true joy that arises out of seeing someone you love get what they need, endures.

You are our chance to do things better – to be kinder, more resolute, less selfish and more open and understanding of a hot crowded world.  Speaking of  “hot”, we are so much cooler than you think but we are not allowed to tell you these stories as it violates the terms of our parole.

We live in a time of viral information.   Some of you learned the hard way that a reputation is easier to lose in a small town than your favorite hoody.  But don’t worry. One of the advantages of growing up in a small town is there are fewer witnesses. You may feel that you have not accomplished much but you are already ahead of 90% of the world just because you showed up. “And oh, the places you will go!”

To obtain your degree in Life, you are going to have to attend some night classes in the School of Hard Knocks. Bonehead 101 will teach you that your own best thinking can get you in trouble. Advanced Diversity prepares you for the fact that not everyone shares your values, politics or your belief that “The Hangover” was the greatest film of your generation. Tolerance 201 reveals that some may dislike you the moment they meet you because of what you represent or because you forgot to shower that morning.  Don’t sweat it.  There are 6B people in the world – most of whom do not bathe and who want the same things that you want – happiness, security and 24/7 access to a secure wireless router.

You will need to learn delayed gratification.  Whether you like it or not, everything gets a little harder from here and you will wait longer for things that you would like to have right away.  There’s more competition for everything – education, jobs, and natural resources – – many of the things that you always assumed would be there when you wanted them.

You will have to author your own definition of success so society does not typecast you into a role that leaves you unfulfilled. Your goal is to discover your passion – this is your “avocation”. Your mission is to find a way of getting paid for performing the aforementioned avocation so that we do not have to keep slipping you $20. This “mission” will be hereafter known in paragraph 3, subsection 4 of our social contract as your “vocation”.  The ability to combine one’s avocation and vocation is the holy grail of life. Otherwise, you end up in the insurance industry.  In parental vernacular, we refer to any form of compensation you receive from a third party for services rendered as “getting off the payroll.” That should be our mutual goal.

We are proud of you. We have a lot of faith in you.  You are smarter, more informed, more talented and more resourceful than many who have preceded you. You figured out how to avoid doing all your chores and still get an allowance.  You see the world – not in shades of black and white but as a broad palette of colors and possibilities.  As your revered principal has always told you, every door is open to you from this point.  It’s only through making wrong choices that you choose to close an open door.

We will miss seeing you at Zumbachs and Tony’s Deli. If you want to come back and visit, that would be nice.  We will be hanging out down by the Mobil station.  It is the greatest time of your lives – a convergence of youth, strength, possibility, lack of inhibition and personal freedom.

And “oh, the places you will go!”