A graduation speech that claims to be an anti-graduation speech was turned into a clever little column in the Wall Street Journal the other day. “10 Things Your Commencement Speaker Won’t Tell You” is how the speech, by University of Chicago professor Charles Wheelan, was billed. (It’s based on a book about to be published by Norton.)
Of the ten things Wheelan told the Dartmouth grads last year, I thought the most important for young people to hear — and the most contrarian, the piece that diverged most radically from typical advice to new graduates — was number 2, “Some of your worst days lie ahead.” Ow.
“If you are going to do anything worthwhile,” Wheeler told his twenty-something audience, “you will face periods of grinding self-doubt and failure. Be prepared to work through them. I’ll spare you my personal details, other than to say that one year after college graduation I had no job, less than $500 in assets, and I was living with an elderly retired couple.”
He added, mostly as a joke I think, that the only difference between when he graduated in 1988 and today is that now no one can afford to retire.
But the serious part of his speech is that people won’t tell twenty-somethings the full truth about what awaits them. There are wonderful days ahead for new college graduates, but dark days, too, and if they don’t realize how common the darkness is they might be undone by it. We owe our kids the truth, including in our graduation speeches.