What If I Gave a Graduation Speech (and No One Came)?

1 Apr

This started as a joke challenge – what would I say, if I was invited to speak?  And it probably ensures it never happens.  <grin>.  And if you want to write your own, why not?

[I step onto the stage to a handful of claps.  My ego deflates accordingly.  But I manage to put on a pompous tone anyway.]

May I start by saying that it is a great honour to be invited to speak at the University of [mumble]’s graduation ceremony?

I mean, I’m not that important.  And I’m not a graduate of the University of [mumble].  I’m quite flattered you thought of me, if only because I’m going to commit an unpardonable sin.  I’m going to tell you the truth.  Or part of it, at least.  And I’m going to start with a story you probably won’t find very funny at all. 

A few years back, there were a bunch of interns who decided they didn’t like the company’s dress code.  So what did they do?  They wrote and signed a petition!  All, but one of them put their name to the paper demanding a change.  And they got fired.

When I heard it, I couldn’t believe it.  Not that they got fired, but that they were stupid enough to write and forward the petition in the first place.  What sort of idiot thought his boss would be amused to receive a petition from the lowest of the low, from short-term employees who are rarely worth the money they were paid?  I couldn’t wrap my head around the level of stupidity – as I saw it – that led someone to think that writing such a petition could possibly be a good idea.

And then, slowly, I came to understand.

You students have spent the last few years in a very artificial environment.  Your professors have a very good incentive to keep you sweet.  And that is reflected in everything from their willingness to listen to petitions to bending over backwards to give you what you say you want, to disinviting some controversial guests while allowing others to stay.  You say you have paid for an education and that’s true – you have.  But many students – perhaps including yourselves – have acted in a way that prevents you from getting a good education.  You have grown used to a world where you can pressure academics into giving you good grades, without realising that the rules of the internal world simply do not apply outside it. 

The thing is, you’re paying for a service.  And you have only yourselves to blame if you fail to take advantage of it.

I get it.  I really do.  I hire editors and I don’t like it when they say entire sections and chapters and whatever need rewriting.  But it’s their job to tell me when they think something doesn’t work.  Sure, I could demand they praised me endlessly and so on, and I’m sure they’d be happy to flatter me in terms that would make a despot blush – it’s amazing what people will do if you offer money – but it wouldn’t be very useful.  What you get out of education depends, very much, on what you put into it.  If you listen to your professors, and learn to think critically, you’ll go far. If you spend your days coming up with excuses and swanning around with a sense of entitlement, while partying the nights away, you’ll crash and burn soon after graduating. 

Your professors are human.  Many of them will have spent their entire lives in academia, inside the artificial environment I mentioned.  They will not be used to being wrong – because, in the artificial environment, they will not be wrong.  They will be ignorant – sometimes – of their own ignorance.  The blind are trying to lead the blind.  The skills they have leant to survive academia will not always be applicable in the outside world.  Believe me, anything you hear from a university or college career advice centre should be taken with a massive grain of salt!

The day you enter the job market, the rules change.  No one, absolutely no one, will feel obliged to give you a job.  Your importance to the company will depend on what they need at any given time.  There will be rules you won’t understand, at least at first; instructions that will seen, dare I say, senseless or discriminatory.  And you will not have the standing to push back unless you prove yourself.  The interns who signed the petition did not even remotely have the standing to demand anything.  If they were important, they would not have been fired.  They might even have been able to request a change in the rules!

This has wider implications than you might realise.  I’d bet good money your professors know an awful lot of theory.  It’s really easy to come up with a brilliant theory, if one isn’t charged with putting it into practice.  Those of us who have to actually turn the theory into reality rapidly discover the real world is not so obliging.  The path from idea to reality can be a bumpy one.  And if you don’t understand how the world really works, you’re going to start walking down the road to hell.

People are not, by and large, utterly selfish.  But they are self-interested.  If you try to convince them to act against their own self-interest, as they see it, they’ll resist.  They’ll push back.  You may feel that they’re being selfish bleepers.  You may feel that they’re racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, whatever-phobic.  They feel they’re protecting themselves against you.  They see you as the enemy.  And there’s a strong case they’re right.

The blunt truth is, you have been shielded from the realities of the world.  You have been coddled and cosseted, first by your parents and then by professors who are just a little bit scared of how you’ll react when they tell you no.  Many of you will have signed up to student loans without understanding they’ll become an anchor around your neck, dragging you down when you get a real job.  Others will have embraced the university lifestyle, a lifestyle that is no longer affordable once you leave campus.  And some of you will have an entirely warped view of how to get what you want. 

And many of you, I think, will come to realise that attitudes held by the deplorables become somewhat less deplorable when you’re one of them.

I’ll wrap this talk up by committing another unpardonable sin, bringing religion into the public arena.  God helps those who help themselves.  Many of you will find post-university life difficult, at first.  You’ll discover that experience counts more than degrees – and, if you’re anything like me, you won’t have any.  Work hard.  Do whatever you can to broaden your skills.  And don’t think you can bully your boss into giving you whatever you want.  That never ends well.

Thank you. 

[An angry mob advances on the stage.  I decide discretion is the better part of valour and run.]

13 Responses to “What If I Gave a Graduation Speech (and No One Came)?”

  1. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard April 1, 2020 at 8:41 pm #

    The mob would be after you before you reach the end of your speech. 😆

  2. John April 1, 2020 at 8:48 pm #

    Well said, plus you kept it pithy

  3. Sean Meltvedt April 1, 2020 at 10:26 pm #

    Chris-you are AWESOME! How true your words ring!
    Stay healthyh

  4. Robert Stewart April 1, 2020 at 11:52 pm #

    A few brief asides in italics describing the audience reaction could be fun. The latest thing is to snap your fingers when you don’t want to hear what someone is saying, or if you want this person to know that your despise him beyond words. A very quiet form of passive aggression. And then there is the opportunity to fiddle with the speaker system, inducing some ear-splitting squeals. And don’t forget the protesters bearing banners marching across the stage in front of the podium. While the professors are a problem, it is the administers who really control what is allowed (and discouraged) on campus, and they are of roughly same number as the faculty. A group of them from the Office of Diversity Is Our Strength might have handed out over-ripe tomatoes as the graduates entered the hall, and, with some gentle encouragement by one of the diversity officers, a few of the students might be able to throw them at you with some accuracy and force (it goes without saying that most throw like girls, except for the varsity softball team, and thus are of no concern to you in your elevated platform, although those sitting beneath you in the front rows are at considerable risk.) Are there safe spaces in the auditorium for those who need them? Do they cry and wail in harmony, or is it simply chaos writ large?

  5. Michael Creek April 2, 2020 at 1:52 am #

    I don’t particularly disagree with anything you say, but I’d say that it would be better given as a commencement speech. After all, as a Graduation speech, it’s too late.
    Secondly, some of the more vocationally focused degrees with external bodies enforcing standards for professional entry are insulated to some extent from this failure to come to terms with the real world.

  6. Rod Holmden April 2, 2020 at 7:17 am #

    I really want to send this to the Australian newspaper. There are some universities (Sydney University being the primary example) that really need this truth.
    Over and over again.

  7. PhilippeO April 2, 2020 at 8:28 am #

    Hahaha, that certainly push every listener to join Sanders/Corbyn camp, after all in Socialism employee outnumber employer.

  8. Warren The Ape April 3, 2020 at 4:45 am #

    Nah, They can turn spoiled-rottenhood into a career on TiktTock like the Ok Boomer Girl did.

  9. Malta George April 3, 2020 at 4:03 pm #

    I believe Bill Gates gave an address similar. It was somewhat well received.

  10. Timothy A Schmidt April 3, 2020 at 7:10 pm #

    I guess its been too long since I graduated (40+ years) that none of this rings true. I attended a state university and they depended on flunking out half the underclassmen, who were cheap to teach, to fund upper division and graduate programs. For us freshman and sophomores, the school and teachers weren’t interested in coddling us or caring about how we felt.
    I did get an associates degree, 2 year degree at a community college, in 2005 and they were very focused on prepping us for employment in the “real” world.
    As for the interns, I’ve seen this kind of thing a time or 2 or 3 during my working career, both from college graduates and those without any advanced degree; proving that you don’t have to have a university education to be an idiot.

  11. Robert Kaliski April 4, 2020 at 12:48 am #

    I think the worst advice to students is to chase your dream and if you work hard enough you can accomplish anything. Ah, no. If you are lacking talent I don’t care how hard you work nobody wants you. A 6 foot 170 lb man will never be a jockey no matter how hard heworks.

    You need to find out what you are good at then work at it.

  12. James Jeffery April 4, 2020 at 12:14 pm #

    So very true, I always like your insights usually agree with them.

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