Yet another college graduation season has come and gone without any school inviting me to deliver the keynote speech. Sigh. But being hopeful I prepared my talk and put my voice in good trim to deliver it! Here’s what some 2021 college graduates missed.
Dear Class of 2021:
Congratulations on your achievements so far!
Thank you for giving me the honor of addressing you today. The one thing that I can promise you is that your life outside of these ivied walls will be an adventure filled with unanticipated twists and turns and ups and downs. If you think you know today, at the age of 21 or 22, what you’ll be working on and will be passionate about 25 years from now – or even ten years from now – think again.
That’s a good thing. How dreary would your life be if its full course were already set and you knew your future with as much clarity as you know your past? No surprises. No ‘Aha!’ moments. No discoveries. No creativity.
Of course, you’d also suffer no disappointments or failures. You can’t be disappointed when something disagreeable occurs if you’ve known for years that that disagreeable thing would happen. Nor can you fail if your future is predetermined. After all, a predetermined future is one over which you’d exercise no control.
So rejoice that some disappointments await you! Be pleased that you can and (believe me!) will experience failure.
Hopefully, these obstructions along your life’s road will be more like pebbles than boulders. But even with the possibility that a veritable Gibraltar will one day obstruct you along your chosen path, do recognize that you would not truly be living if you could today immunize yourself from disappointment and failure.
Were such immunization possible, you’d wind up playing a role in some drama or comedy, but your experiences in that oh-so-safe world would not in any way be created by you.
The society that you’re about to enter as a working adult is dynamic, commercial, and entrepreneurial. Sure, it has plenty of imperfections that wouldn’t exist were our species closer to perfection. Reality could indeed be better. But it’s still great – in large part because it is open-ended, unpredictable, a work in progress, able to turn this way or that depending upon what you and others like you choose to do.
Here’s a basic rule of this society: It owes you nothing, for it is nothing more – or less! – than an astonishingly complicated web of ongoing interactions among billions of individuals. And only an individual can owe anything to anyone.
Unless you identify a flesh-and-blood person who received something from you in return for that person’s as-yet-unfulfilled promise to give you something in exchange, no one owes you anything.
You, who are now adults, are owed only what you earn from other individuals. Just as the love and kindness that you give to family and friends returns to you as love and kindness that you receive, the more goods and services that you make available to strangers, the more will be the goods and services that will return to you in the form of income that you earn.
And never be ashamed of this income if you earn it through honest dealings. Indeed, be proud of it. In the market, you earn income only if you improve the lives of others. After all, your employer will employ you only if you improve your employer’s life. Your customers will buy your products only if those products improve their lives. Your income is a measure of the outflow of your contributions to the material well-being of countless strangers.
And in earning income in the market, you’ll earn, in addition, something more profound and important: a sense of accomplishment and self-respect.
But your sense of accomplishment will be real, and your self-respect justified, only if you exercise your creative faculties and work effort in ways that are worthy of admiration – only if what you receive from others comes through just and voluntary exchange for what you contribute to others.
I cannot imagine a more nauseating feeling than the one I’d suffer if I found myself lavished by strangers with a prince’s ransom of material goods and luxuries, yet knew that I did nothing to earn such a bounty.
I’d feel poor because the part of me that matters most, my soul, would in fact be poor.
There’s no need to check your programs. I am indeed an economist – yet also one who did in fact suggest that your soul is more important than your wallet.
Ultimately, you’ll not measure your life’s achievements by consulting your bank or brokerage accounts. Instead, you’ll measure your achievements by consulting with what the founder of my discipline of economics, Adam Smith, called your “impartial spectator.”
The impartial spectator is you observing yourself as honestly and as fully – as impartially – as possible.
Your impartial spectator knows you better than does anyone else. And the approval you’ll seek above all is that of your impartial spectator.
The reason for the paramount importance of your impartial spectator’s approval is that he or she is far more difficult to fool than are even those family members and friends to whom you are closest.
Your impartial spectator knows if you stuck to, or violated, your principles in an effort to get ahead. Your impartial spectator knows just how much you sacrificed, or not, for some worthy cause. Your impartial spectator sees more fully than does anyone else the man or woman behind the mask which blocks others’ view of you.
Your impartial spectator will shame you while others praise you if the spectator knows that you are undeserving of the praise that is heaped on you.
And your impartial spectator will calm and fortify you while others mock you if the spectator knows that other people’s criticisms of you are based on misunderstandings or faulty or incomplete information.
You’ll want to please your impartial spectator above all.
In a trivial sense, this desire to satisfy your soul by pleasing your impartial spectator is selfish. You please your impartial spectator for your own peace of mind.
But recognize that the impartial spectator channels your selfishness into a desire to do what is right not only for you personally, but also for others.
By doing what is right for others I don’t mean what so many other graduation speakers have in mind when they insult you with facile pleas to “give back” or “sacrifice for your country” or “enter public service.”
Instead, I mean for you to be honest and hardworking and creative in all that you do, and to do all that you do with a generous spirit – generous in interpreting other people’s motives and capacities, and generous in always recognizing that their humanity and individuality are just as important as are your own.
Your selfishness (if you wish to call it that) in seeking the approval of your impartial spectator will push you to do and be all these unselfish things.
Pay close attention to your impartial spectator.
Note that this advice is quite different from that clichéd piece of graduation-day advice to “Go out and change the world.”
Please, don’t go out and change the world. Seriously, please don’t. At least, please don’t try to change the world in the way that such a challenge is typically understood.
Above all, our world – while of course infected with many correctable flaws – isn’t so awful that change for the sake of change is called for. Billions of people today are living longer, healthier lives than ever before. Markets are expanding and creating for ordinary men and women ever more widespread prosperity and opportunities that no one dared dream of before the Industrial Age. And so any individual’s efforts to “change the world” are far too likely to change the world for the worse.
Let me put the point differently: You don’t know how to change the world in any wholesale fashion, and you can’t possibly know.
No one knows. The world is too complicated to be changed for the better through any conscious effort at grand alteration.
Look at your graduation gown. Do you know where it was made? How it was made?
Do you know how matters are arranged such that every year at this time tens of thousands of graduates across America don for a few hours gowns that they will never again see?
Of course you don’t. (Don’t feel embarrassed. No one knows.)
And I guarantee that for you to learn all the relevant details of what it takes to bring that gown to you today would consume your entire working life.
You’re a long way from knowing enough even to change for the better the graduation-gown part of the world. So you can’t possibly know enough to tackle the task of changing for the better the larger world.
The best you can do is to change some of those tiny slices of reality that are within any one individual’s ability to understand. Start a new business if you sense unmet consumer demands. If your talents and tastes allow, become a physician because you know that illnesses still afflict people. Or become a lawyer to help people write better contracts or to provide needed assistance when legal disputes arise. Or teach, if that’s your calling, to help share knowledge.
Do something productive, of course, but not with the goal of altering history or of “changing the world.”
Instead, find your niche. Be creative in it. Excel in it. And know that, by doing so, you’ll almost certainly not change the world in any way that will make headlines or result in a statue of you being erected upon your death. But you’ll be part of a huge peaceful legion of people whose cooperation and peaceful competition within markets and civil society will change the world for the better, a little bit each and every day, and yet in ways that no one today can possibly foresee. Remember, open-endedness and unpredictability are good!