To The New Canaan Class of 2014 – Vive Le Difference

my-brain-is-fullIt’s June – a special time of year when we dump three million fingerling seniors into the ocean of adulthood. As graduates of the “we will love you until you learn to love yourself” school of helicopter parenting, you don’t want more advice. But, you’re going to get it any way. Most of you just want to head west or south to find sun and towns with no police blotters or curfews. Good luck with that.

Many of you were born in 1996, the Chinese year of the Pig. This explains the state of your bedrooms, motor vehicles and your penchant to leave wrappers wedged between pillows on the couch.

When you were born, most of us read something by Malcolm Gladwell or an article in Parents magazine telling us that if we desired high performance outliers, we had to hold you back a grade. As a result, your graduating class is an uneven skyline of red-shirted college students and overachieving youngsters. Some of you have been driving since your sophomore year – a few legally.

When we were born before the Civil War, the mid wife gave us a swat to make sure we would cry. It was also a preemptive punishment for all the stupid things we were likely to do. When you were born, swatting was considered child abuse, so the Obstetrician merely asked you how you were feeling. You naturally did not respond and so you got a few free nights in neonatal intensive care and we got a bill for $900,000.

1996 was a wild year. A computer called Deep Blue beat the world chess champion Gary Kasparov. Kasparov later found a website on cheats and shortcuts and subsequently beat Deep Blue. In 1996, a wonderful microcosm of America passed away before you could get to know them. You know their iconic images but you never really felt their physical presence. Gene Kelly was a star who danced while George Burns reminded us that age was merely a number. Erma Bombeck told us never to give the car keys to a teenager and Timothy Leary, well, let’s just say he explored inner space while Karl Sagan came back from outer space to tell us we were not alone. Ella Fitzgerald improvised her way to become the first lady of jazz while militant and talented Tupac Shakur died as violently as the lyrics of his brilliant rap. Tiny Tim was our first trip through the tulips in light loafers.

You were pretty normal. Like all children, you loved the notion of having special powers. We played Pokemon, watched Dragon Tales and Arthur, read Harry Potter and observed you with fascination as you got your first taste of dystopia in The Hunger Games. Up to that point, your idea of dystopia was a house without a pimped out basement and any kind of “because you live here” chores.  A few years later, we all went to Washington DC for a family vacation, and got a real taste of futuristic dysfunction.

We tried to stop you from using violent video games but found them so much fun that we joined you on Black Ops missions. You always shot us in the back. When it came to inappropriate movies, it always seemed that you managed to see gory cinema du jour at someone else’s house. We still can’t figure out whose house because we all claimed that we did not allow blood and guts programming — unless of course, your Mom was out for the night and then we agreed that you would not tell about my smoking a cigar if I let you and your friends watch Jeepers Creepers 4.

For many of you, your biggest problems have arisen out of how to deal with a caste system borne out of prosperity. In life, as in nature, the seeds of true character only germinate during the wet winters of personal crisis. Some of you have already felt the sting of broken homes and tragedy. Green lawns and clean streets don’t immunize us from life. Some of you handled your challenges with incredible grace. Through these challenges, you guys cared for and loved each other. That capacity to put someone or something ahead of you is a sign of great emotional intelligence.

Like all of us you don’t like trials and tribulations. Hell, some of you don’t even like the dentist although it is ten times better now than when we were clutching the chair having cavities filled by escaped war criminals. I digress. The fact is you will need to have your fair share of failures and would prefer to avoid them. Woody Allen once shared “I’m not afraid of dying.  I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

You are part of a demographic cohort called the “Millennials”. Authors Strauss and Howe educated us that your tribe is characterized by extreme confidence, social tolerance, a strong sense of entitlement and the narcissistic tendency to take photographs of yourself and post them 100 times a day. Like the generations that preceded you, you are regularly accused of being pampered and unprepared. Yet, Strauss and Howe boldly predict that you will become civic-minded and in the face of some yet to be defined great crisis, emerge as a hero generation. It will reassure us if you occasionally start looking up from your phones – if for no other reason than to see the bad guys when they are coming.

We see you seniors like Internet start-ups — full of promise, cool ideas and with a market cap that far exceeds the fact that you still don’t make any money. However, our irrational exuberance for you keeps us investing.

Please understand we do not like regulating your every move as teenagers but we are now being told that we are bad parents if you screw up. The headline seems to now be that life is over if you get caught doing something stupid. Here’s the good news: You’ll recover. America loves a comeback — just ask Bill Clinton who is the only head of state in US history to generate successive budget surpluses, be unsuccessfully impeached, have an affair, stay married, be President and possibly become a First Lady.

You are smart. You adapt rapidly — some of you resemble human thumbs. But please don’t use your handheld devices as an excuse to avoid social interaction. Nothing will ever replace the joy that comes from helping and interacting with other people. Be fearless. The only thing that seems to really scare you is Tony’s Deli being closed on a snow day.

You are a tolerant contrarian bunch that don’t seem to buy into any rigid dogma that excludes others, labels them or requires a greater than thirty hour workweek. You are like the French. You appreciate the finer things in life and prefer to be on vacation when you are not eating, making out or sleeping. You look great in shorts and Capris while the rest of us are putting in 25 watt Blanche Dubois GE light bulbs – ostensibly to conserve energy.

You have a chance to fix the financial mess we have left you but you have to decide between austerity or trying to grow your way out of the hole. Just remember that a strong middle class anchors any society and the true measure of any civilization is how we treat the least among us. Don’t watch MSNBC or Fox, you’ll live longer. South Park is okay. Life outside our bubble is hard – and not every body wants to play by the same rules. Being a humanist is hard. If any of you start a new political party, count me in – especially if it includes eating Nutella crepes and drinking cappuccinos.

Focus on other people because as a rule of thumb, most of you are your own worst enemy. You will spend your lives on a schizophrenic quest for interpersonal unification — trying to merge the tripartite of personalities that is you — the person you project to the world, the person you secretly believe yourself to be and the person your mother knows. The day those three people become one, you will be officially self-actualized or possibly doing thirty days in the can for having the guts to throw a shoe at a public official.

Life is messy, like your bathroom.  You will fail and it will seem weird the first time you don’t immediately hear that familiar whump-whump of the parental helicopter on the horizon. You’ll have your Khe Sahn moments, isolated, no air support surrounded by circumstances that trigger all your self-centered fears. It’s in these moments you will find your capacity to dig in and fight harder. You’ll appreciate everything that you truly earn more than what is given to you.

That sore thing on your hand that you once got shoveling snow is called a callous. It’s a badge of honor suggesting that you worked hard. We can tell when we shake someone’s hands if they have ever met a rake or put in a day’s hard work. Although, be careful being fooled by golfers, they have callouses but tend to avoid late afternoon meetings.

If you choose to attend college, don’t waste your next four years. Get your butt out of bed and go to class. It costs about $2,230 per class so go and learn something. There’s more to life than knowing how to make a mean Mai Tai. To succeed in a flat, competitive world, you’ll need the equilibrium of a jet pilot and the guts of a burglar. You acquire those skills in alleyways, not in your room watching six consecutive seasons of Breaking Bad.

Don’t be a victim. I assure you that whatever higher power you worship has the same desire for you that we do — for you to be happy and to leave the world a better place than when you found it.

Just remember, people are not FTEs or headcount, we are souls on a spiritual journey. Everyone has value. Be a rock of predictability and an oasis of empathy. Never take the last of anything. Make your bed when you stay at someone’s house and strip the sheets. Don’t wear shoes without socks. If your first roommate is nicknamed “Lysol” or “Candyman”, ask for a new one. The semester won’t end well.

Remember Rome was not built in a day and that it rotted from within because of weak politicians, foreign wars and the fact that everyone was inside with their air conditioners on and could not hear the Vandals coming. For that reason alone, always keep a window open.

Be French and live well. Study history and remember the famous line of De Tocqueville, “When the past no longer illuminates the future, the spirit walks in darkness.”

Class of 2014, Vive le difference !

 

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.