How to Avoid Commencement Clichés

Written by Arthur C. Brooks

First Publish in The New York Times

NATIONWIDE, commencement speakers are preparing remarks to deliver to this year’s crop of college graduates. I was one, and frankly I was a little worried. I wanted to inspire and uplift, but I was well aware that, more often than not, graduation addresses are met with blank stares and tepid applause.

Would I encourage the young people to pursue their professional dreams, to find a fun job, to become an entrepreneur or teacher? All of that seemed like solid guidance. But when I asked a few of my 20-something colleagues, they warned me that, while this might sound great to a baby boomer at the podium, to a millennial audience it’s just product advice. It sounds more or less like the famous unsolicited counsel in the 1967 movie “The Graduate,” in which a middle-aged businessman told the young Ben Braddock (played by Dustin Hoffman): “I just want to say one word to you. Just one word. Plastics.”

One clue came from looking at how life and career expectations are changing. Back in the late 1970s, human resource scholars began to notice and write about four distinct career patterns in the American economy.

In the most conventional career type, which scholars call “expert” or “steady state,” a person held the same job and basic duties — often with the same company or government agency — for decades. A second career type was “linear,” in which all job changes were upwardly mobile in the same career path. Each job paid more than the last and had more responsibility, but rarely deviated from the same basic field. This linear path was the yuppie sine qua non, the mark of a serious person who climbed the ladder.

The third and fourth models characterized how some younger adults back in the 1980s were seeing their professional lives. The “transitory” career featured no set job or field, and there was little apparent progress in money or responsibility. Let’s call that one “your mom’s worst nightmare.” The “spiral” model looked similar in terms of periodic job and industry changes, but differed in that these changes were purposive, following changing interests, circumstances and personal values. In other words, a spiral career served life purpose more than a product line.

The spiral model was most fascinating to researchers at the time, representing as it did the new Generation X work force of uninhibited individualists. And indeed, it described me to a T. After graduating from high school, in 1982, I dropped out of college after a year, spent a decade on the road as a musician, dropped back into college, became a college professor teaching economics, and now lead a Washington think tank. I’ve spiraled all over the place for 30 years.

What seemed new when I was a high school graduate is now the norm. To be sure, many young people find only transitory work available during this poor recovery. But even for those who have done well in the job market, “paying their dues” and waiting to rise through some set of professional ranks is laughable. They feel responsible for their lives, and are in search of the diverse experiences that will fulfill them. That means frequent career changes and a willingness to take pay cuts when necessary.

Today’s spiraling millennials know intuitively that having a sense of one’s purpose in life is the key to well-being. And research clearly shows they are right. In a 2009 study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology, researchers interviewed 806 adolescents, emerging adults and adults about their purpose in life. A key finding of the study was that being able to articulate a life purpose was strongly associated with much greater life satisfaction than failing to do so.

In contrast, purposelessness — no matter how closely tied to worldly prosperity — generally defines a hamster-wheel life, alarmingly bereft of satisfaction. “Find a fun job” sounds vaguely Sisyphean. The existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre evocatively termed the sensation of purposeless living the “nausea of existence.” This nausea is exactly the sensation engendered by typical career advice.

As I prepared to give my remarks — I spoke on Saturday to graduates of Ave Maria University, a Catholic institution in southwestern Florida — I thought about the words of Bach. If anyone had the right to dispense product advice, it was Bach, the creator of more than a thousand published works and considered by many to be the greatest composer who ever lived. But when asked his approach to writing music, he said, “Music’s only purpose should be the glory of God and the recreation of the human spirit.” Bach was a true man on a mission, and the two ingredients of his mission were sanctification and service. It is hard to find a better life purpose than the pursuit of higher consciousness and benevolence to others.

So here’s my advice for anyone asked to give a commencement speech: Avoid plastics; put purpose ahead of product; emphasize sanctification and service. Also, keep it under 30 minutes.

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