June 07, 2014

One word of advice to #graduates — and it's not #plastics

The “plastics” reference, which many of today’s graduates might not even catch, is from dialogue in the movie, “The Graduate,” between Mr. McGuire (Walter Brooke) and Ben (Dustin Hoffman), as also shown in the clip above.
Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Ben: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire Are you listening?
Ben: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
Ben: Just how do you mean that, sir?

I’m not Steve Jobs, Steven Spielberg, or a past or present president of the United States. So, I don’t get a lot of graduation speaking gigs. (If only they knew what they were missing.)

But, in an occasional newspaper column, and occasional blog piece, I’ve written about graduation before. I’ve noted that it’s not a finish line. Related to that, I’ve said that it’s just one step in life; I once compared it to being a rite of passage.

The Jobses and others of the world seem to be dripping with pearls of wisdom. But if not, since this is the Internet era, people make up fake speeches that they think these people, or a Bill Cosby, a George Carlin, or some other comedian or humorist should have given.

Whether in real or fake versions, these speeches try to have an aura of timelessness. That’s also important in today’s Internet era. No speaker, or speaker faker, wants to refer to the latest social media trend and thus produce a speech that may have an 18-month shelf life rather than a potentially timeless one.

So, old proverbs get updated and polished. Religious insights get a more generic spirituality and rebranded. Sports and other competition clichés get trotted out.

Behind all of this, there’s one element that seems to be hovering in the background, and, because of that, another element that’s blocked out.

The background element seems to be that, in some ways, life is relatively simple or predictable. And, that idea tends to shove aside the one that life has a fair element of luck

Now, by “luck,” I don’t mean any metaphysical force. Rather, to trot out two of those old clichés, I mean something like, “That’s the way the ball bounces,” or “That’s the way the cookie crumbles.”

And, sometimes, that’s exactly what happens. And we even have an old saying for that: “There but for the grace of God go I.”

The end of high school, or the end of college, may seem a time of near-invincibility. And, of course, belief in one’s invincibility never wants to let luck enter into the picture.

If I were to be asked to give a few thoughts today, they’d probably touch a lot on luck.

For new high school or college graduates, luck can change a job path, a career path or a study path. It can open one’s mind, if a person is ready for that. It can provide a bit of humbleness, without humiliation, if someone is open to accepting that he or she isn’t in total control. Or, it can provide a little bit of humiliation to anyone who doesn’t want to accept that.

Luck can also provide a degree of connectedness. Per the “There but for the grace of God go I” proverb, luck can tell people the reason they did or did not get a new job, a raise, or a promotion, or a new boyfriend or girlfriend, isn’t always due to rational reasons, but sometimes, due to luck.

In short, as graduates prepare to enter the edges of the adult world, thinking about luck can be a reminder that a new version of Social Darwinism, repeatedly plugged by Tea Party types that seems to be growing stronger in America, that certain material rewards or achievements are “proof” of one’s own skill, especially one’s own inherited, inborn skill, simply aren’t true.

Beyond Social Darwinism, a similar, religiously spit-polished version of this is promoted as the Success Gospel. Here, it’s not what genes you inherited that are behind your success. Rather, this is all a mark of blessing from God.

Well, at spots in the Hebrew Tanakh, and the Christian Bible, God doesn’t like storing up wealth very much. Read Amos, for example, or the Sermon on the Mount. But, at other times, like in Psalms and Proverbs, he’s pretty much “down” with getting rich as a sign of his favor to humans indeed.

As a secularist, I find this as bad as Social Darwinism. I find the New Agey version of the Success Gospel even worse, if anything. Neither the virililty of one's genes, nor the strength of one’s faithful willpower, with NO apologies to either Schopenhauer or Hitler, has a tremendous amount of connection with a lot material success for a lot of people.

Rather, it’s that good, old, non-metaphysical randomness that we call “luck.”

So, 2014 graduates? Take that word with you. For your peace of mind, it’s a lot more valuable than “plastics.” And, with an American population expected to hit 400 million by 2050, and a world population of 9 billion by then, you're going to need a lot of it.

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