A friend of mine recently began a diet to lose weight, assisted by one of those patented weight loss programs that profess to possess “the secret”—a silver bullet that will guarantee results, no matter who you are. Just follow these few simple steps and you cannot fail!
We are amidst the season of college commencements, in which graduating classes assemble on football fields and in auditoriums across the country and, upon receiving their diplomas, hear a few (hopefully) inspiring words from successful grownups who hope to guide these young minds onto wise paths as they are released into the wild.
Of all the misbegotten collegiate traditions that have cemented themselves across the centuries, the commencement address is perhaps the worst of all.
The featured speaker at my own commencement ceremony was a distinguished member of the Obama administration—an impressive “get” on my school’s part, yet thinking back on it this week, I couldn’t recall a word that he said. Uploading the speech from YouTube, I discovered why: It was as boring as all heck, with not a single original thought or useful piece of advice. It was simply one cliché after another.
This person should not be blamed for this, for his remarks were no more or less forgettable than most other such spiels at any other university in any other year. The college commencement address is simply one of those things that is almost impossible to do well. As with hosting the Academy Awards, one is almost destined to blend in with every other person who has undertaken the task, since there is very little new material one could possibly bring to the proceedings.
The reason this is the case—the reason commencement speeches tend to be interchangeable and therefore useless—is the same reason most commercial weight loss programs are useless: Both are based on the assumption that certain principles and so-called “rules of thumb” are universally true, when in fact they are not.
As any given diet plan presumes there is a secret to losing weight, any given commencement address presumes there is a secret to success.
The first problem with this theory is the assumption that we all agree on the definition of success. Surely, we do not. I, for instance, went to college to be a writer; should I manage to scribble something decent before I keel over and be able to consistently pay rent in the meanwhile, I will have lived a successful life. A man or woman aspiring to be the next Donald Trump or Warren Buffet probably does not think in quite the same way.
Even supposing we did agree to our terms, however, how would this all-knowing graduation speaker map it out? How does one espouse a message to a few thousand graduates that will apply to each and every one of them?
Answer: With vague, inane drivel.
We are well-acquainted with the usual tropes. “Follow your heart.” “Don’t give up on your dreams.” “Do what you love.” “Don’t be afraid of failure.” “Work hard.”
Stop the presses.
As an old standby has it, a theory that attempts to explain everything, explains nothing at all.
As experience proves, the only commencement speeches worth a damn are those by people honest enough to stay within the confines of their own lives, although this invites roadblocks of its own.
For those speakers clever enough to ditch the vagaries and clichés and actually get specific, the resulting material tends to fall into one of two categories: “To be successful, do what I did,” or, “To be successful, avoid doing what I did.”
Crystallizing the problem with both approaches, Late Late Show host Craig Ferguson once recounted to his studio audience about being invited to speak at his old high school in Scotland, where he dropped out at age 16. “Here’s what you do,” he imagined himself telling the graduating class, “Be a blackout drunk for 15 years, snort every powder you see, get divorced twice and all your dreams will come true!” (Ferguson declined the invitation.)
In other words, the secret to success is that there isn’t one, just as there isn’t a secret to losing weight. We are individuals, and what works for you will not necessarily work for me. Our lives are subject to chance at least as much as to ability and fortitude, and while we often have to live in forced ignorance of this fact, we do ourselves no favor in pretending it is not so.