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Commencement clichés, debunked

By Marty Nemko

I didn’t attend your graduation ceremony, but I’ll bet that the speaker exhorted you with clichás such as “follow your passion, “ “make a difference,” and “education pays.” Such idealism is inspiring, but in the real world, can lead you astray.

Cliché: “Follow your passion.” We all know the storyline: People from Abraham Lincoln to Oprah grew up modestly but followed their passion and thus succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

Reality: For every Oprah, there are 10,000 schmucks who never made more than McWages in following their dream. So, they’re now working as marketing assistant for the Western Widget Waxing Company, Inc. While ambition, drive, and intelligence are obviously important, it usually takes considerable luck to make a living doing what you love.

Advice for mere mortals: Do what you love, but don’t expect to get paid for it. Want to be on stage? Act in community theater. Want to be an artist? Convince a restaurant to let you decorate its walls with your creations. To make money, pick a field that pays decently and has few liabilities. Chances are, that will lead to more career contentment than pursuing a long-shot dream as your career. Treating a long-shot dream as an avocation gives you most of its pleasure without forcing you to endure a life of poverty.

Cliché: “You’ve got to pay your dues.” Usually you hear this from that CEO who started in the mail room.

Reality: Many higher-ups think of employees willing to do scut work as drones, even losers.

Advice for mere mortals: If you want to be a star, demonstrate your potential from Day 1--first impressions tend to be lasting ones. So impress the hell out of them, right out of the gate. For example, propose doing an innovative project, on your own time if you have to. If you hear your boss complain, tactfully propose a solution or offer to help.

Cliché: “Make a Difference.” Many commencement speakers state or imply that to make a difference, grads should work for a non-profit organization or the government.

Reality: The nonprofit and government sectors are notoriously inefficient. Working for an ethical business—or starting your own--may make a bigger difference to society. Even a company that makes the most mundane of products--for example, nuts and bolts--adds value to the world: imagine your car or home without nuts and bolts. Can you assert with confidence that workers for the U.S. Department of the Interior or for the Interfaith Anti-Poverty Council will make a bigger difference?

Advice for mere mortals: You can make a difference while making a profit. You needn’t work for Ben & Jerry’s. Any business that sells a good product at a fair price and treats its employees well is a worthy place to work.

Cliché: “Education pays.” The speaker gushes about the joys of learning…and that more degrees means more bucks.

Reality: Remember, the source is biased: No university will ever hire an education skeptic to speak to thousands of new alumni and potential donors. Professors and university mouthpieces are also likely to be cheerleaders for getting more degrees--that’s what universities sell. Please know that the university-trumpeted statistic linking higher pay to higher education may be misleading: The people who get more education are brighter and more motivated in the first place, with better family and professional connections. They’d make more money even if they were locked in a closet for their grad school years. And to the extent that statistic was true in the past, it may be less so in the future: More people are getting graduate degrees at the same time that companies are eliminating, automating, or offshoring more professional jobs.

Advice for mere mortals: Where possible, get your learning in the real world. Grad school is a must if you want to be a brain surgeon or a professor, but for many careers, you’ll learn more of practical value on the job—plus, instead of paying tuition, you’re getting paid.

Cliché: “Be true to yourself.” That’s a guaranteed crowd pleaser.

Reality: Many people, especially as new college graduates, are not wise. Many aren’t even ethical.

Advice for mere mortals: It may be wiser to be true, not to yourself but to an older person you respect.

Anyone want me to give a commencement speech?

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