For my latest book, “The Secret of Their Success,” I interviewed 78 notable people, including the likes of Gerald Ford, Billy Wilder, Ginger Rogers, Steve Allen, Art Linkletter and the recently departed George Carlin and Jo Stafford. One of the many questions I asked them was the best piece of advice they had ever received. In most cases, the gist of their responses was that people should never cease pursuing their passion, whatever it might be.
Even I can’t quibble with that. I do believe that far too many people surrender their dreams far too soon. I mean, unless you believe in reincarnation, this one life here on earth is all we have. Why be so anxious to settle for less than you really want?
I have never been invited to give a commencement speech at a college graduation, and that is probably just as well, seeing as how the order of the day seems to be to praise the youngsters to the heavens, to insist that they’re the shining hope of the future. How could I, in good conscience, promote such nonsense when so many of them have squandered their parents’ hard-earned money majoring in such kiddy fare as black studies, Hispanic studies, lesbian studies and binge-drinking? When I see thousands and thousands of these so-called scholars gazing goo-goo eyed at Barack Obama as he utters endless banalities about hope and change, my own hope for the future doesn’t extend much beyond the middle of next week.
It always struck me that there was something wacky about teenagers, whose biggest decision in life has been to choose which of the dumb Hollywood comedies to go see this weekend, deciding what they’d be doing 50 years down the road. Quite honestly, I don’t know how I’d improve on the present system, but I think simple logic indicates there is something amiss about a 65-year-old selling insurance or fixing teeth or teaching phys ed because an 18-year-old, whose opinion he wouldn’t trust to pick out a magazine, got to pick out his career.
Most of these commencement addresses are nothing more than a series of platitudes emphasizing the importance of courage, honesty and devoting one’s life to good works. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with such speeches, aside from the fact that they fall on deaf ears and are typically sleep-inducing. Most of the kids are not looking to slay dragons. They’re looking to find the fastest way to pay off student loans and get behind the wheel of a new Infiniti. That’s not to say that among the hordes of mortar-boarded youngsters there aren’t a few who will make their mark in some extraordinary fashion, perhaps by curing a disease, inventing a low-cost fuel or even by becoming that most essential of human beings, an essayist. But it won’t be because they sat in cap and gown, sweltering in the sun, listening to a lot of hogwash.
If the responsibility were mine, I would not waste my time or theirs by trying to curry favor by comparing the young grads to the gods on Mount Olympus. It’s bad enough that their parents have already made too big a deal out of their having done little more than endure endless lectures, which only speaks well for their survival skills.
Instead, I would give them three pieces of practical advice, which, if followed, would do a great deal to improve everyday life in America. First, I would advise the grads to always slow down when leaving their phone numbers on answering machines. It’s at the very moment when people should be speaking slowly and distinctly that they usually turn into motor mouths. I can’t tell you how often I have had to replay messages eight or nine times while trying to decode something that sounds like seventhreefoureightsixninefive.
Next, when giving someone directions, don’t just say “Take Sixth Street to Lipton Drive, turn left and go south to Main. Then take a right on Main until you reach Harper. It’s on the southeast corner. You can’t miss it.” At least until the great come-and-get-it day when everyone has a navigational system in his or her car, you must learn to indicate the distances the person is going to have to drive on Sixth, Lipton and Main. On one memorable occasion, I was given directions to a meeting by someone who neglected to mention that the last leg of the drive, which I assumed would just be a couple of blocks, was actually 17 miles!
And, finally, as I gazed out over those fresh, young faces, I would advise them to have nothing whatsoever to do with people who insist on using their computers to send Instant Messages. IMs, as they are better known, combine the worst aspects of phones and computers. Like phones, they are rude and obnoxious, demanding, like some bratty two-year-old, your complete and immediate attention; like computers, they require typing. I never believed Al Gore when he claimed to have invented the Internet, but I never doubted for a moment that he had a lot to do with foisting IMs on the rest of us. It has his carbon fingerprints all over it.