Commencement Address 2009

The Philalawyer

So you’re graduating from college, or maybe grad school. Perhaps you were even dumb enough to have gone to law school. And somewhere in the next three or four weeks, they’re going to put you in a cheap black robe, stick a flat, pointy hat on your skull and seat you in alphabetical order with a bunch of your peers, to listen to sage advice. Some captain of industry, shoestring Kennedy or fading middle-aged celebrity’s going to tell you where you’re headed, what you’ll see… what you ought to do. He’ll throw around words like “dare” and “strive,” and tell you to chase your passions. He’ll tell you life’s a “journey,” liken it to a trek up a mountain, a sea voyage or some historic Roman battle. You’ll sit there through a blinding hangover, stanching an urge to vomit, tuning out most of the words. You’ve heard it all before, the customary overtures and slogans, the charges to go out and “make a difference.” Yeah, yeah, yeah. Leave the world better than I found it. Check. Never lose a sense of wonder at the majesty of humanity. Indeed… And you’ll probably ask yourself, Why all the saccharine bullshit? Why not give me some real fucking advice?

I’m with you, kid. I thought exactly the same thing. The only interesting comment my university commencement speaker offered was, “Always be prepared to change professions. Try everything. Life’s short.” I never forgot that instruction; probably never will. Maybe that was a good thing, maybe not. But in the spirit of offering some similarly memorable advice, something that actually addresses the world you’re going to encounter, the people you’ll have to manipulate for the rest of your career, here’s the commencement address I’d give if I had the podium at your school. The one you’ll never, ever hear.

“Don’t Be the Punchline”

Good morning. I’d like to start by noting, you’re all fucked. The Market’s going to 6000 this summer, unemployment is headed to twenty percent and I think there’s a good chance we’re going to see widespread rioting in the streets before this thing is over. Mutant armies irradiated with dirty bomb fallout, dogs and cats living together… everything but the Rapture. My advice is buy a gun. Something automatic. And get some big dogs. You’ll need them to guard the compound. The good news is you won’t have to pay back those student loans. The bad news is you’ll have to turn tricks for Spam, candy corn and toilet paper, our new forms of currency. I know, I know… How bleak. But you can always look on the bright side. Speaking in the Confucian sense, you’re as wealthy as one can be. These are indeed interesting years. Here’s to surviving them.

Okay. Now that I have your attention, let’s get serious. I’m going to break this down to a series of discrete points, the only conceivable arrangement in which I could hope to impart advice on as general a subject as “How you ought to live your life.” Here we go:

1. Ignorance is bliss.

People will tell you to question, to look inside and underneath all the systems in our society and ask why do what we do. I say leave this to others. The inquiries will drive you mad. We’re a pack of shaved apes fighting to amass the biggest piles of green paper possible, so we can exchange them for cars with DVD players in the ceilings, Italian-tiled kitchens and the satisfaction of telling our neighbors we have a double-double-wide, a 140 inch television, a condo in Breckenridge or a gourmet turkey fryer. Leary said “Tune in, turn on, drop out” back in 1967. In 2009, it’s “Tune out, turn on the TV, pour a Guarana-infused green tea cola down your pie hole and stare at American Idol.” The less you think, the better, because the more you look, the more you’ll find of this – entropy, narrowness and intractable imbecility. Three hundred dollar olive oil, Labradoodle day care centers and sub prime rhinoplasty financing… Purebred $1000 hamsters, mountain bike detailing and platinum plated cell phones… Creationist nature museums, websites selling online gaming weapons for hundreds and thousands of real actual dollars and a whole industry of Ivy League nimrods pimping credit insurance without reserves and offering nothing but an Alfred E. Neuman grin when their “Second Life” economy was downgraded to “FAIL.” Once you pick up that rock, you’re never going to forget the bugs you see underneath it. Better to keep yourself clueless. Take a deep breath, pour a glass of Glenlivet, kiss your lovely wife and admire that gorgeous lawn. You need never think any deeper. Introspection never got anyone a top slot at the cracker factory.

2. Cynics are the only honest people.

Which is why you should always avoid them. It’s hard enough stopping yourself from asking “Why?” The last thing you need is someone else doing it for you, and worse than any of that, actually providing the answer. Unless you make enough money to look down on the whole of it from your helicopter, the trees are the forest. The office, your career, everything you do for money – it’s all make believe, a patchwork of polite systems we’ve constructed wherein we can compete as we did in the days of the Crusades without having to gore each other with swords and maces. The cynic’s like a bad manager. He tells you to hold out for a better title fight that’s never going to come. In the end, he’s right. It’s all a game of diversion, deferment and delusion. But you’re stuck in it either way, so you might as well play along, see if you can cruise through the thing in a fancy car, a big house and maybe a time-share somewhere sunny.

3. Numbers trump words.

Math is the language the one percent of society amassing eighty percent of the nation’s wealth uses to bullshit the other ninety nine percent. Have a talent for writing pop songs? Playing tennis? Painting expensive pictures of nude women in your greenhouse? You can be the best damned artist, tradesman, marketer, religious icon, etc… in the world, but if you don’t know numbers, you’re going to wind up a debt slave of some kind, caught in a bad deal with a middle-man of some sort who’ll take you for your bank. Numbers are the language of power. A 600 math score on your SATs = 800 verbal. The millions of different socioeconomic groups milling about in this country can be boiled down to two simple classes: People who use finance and people who get used by it. Pundits like to say Wall Street types “got lucky” – that they got a break in an industry that minted millionaires by the hundreds. Maybe. Or maybe they put themselves in the position to get lucky. If you want to make millions by thirty five, you have to work in a place where there are millions of dollars floating around you all day, and the only way to do that is to understand numbers. Or at least have enough facility with them to pretend you do.

4. People live in narratives.

First thing you have to realize in the work world is that Americans don’t live in reality. We live in what we want reality to be – a mash-up of skewed perceptions we take from our ingrained biases, accepted myths and cultural reinforcements. And there’s no correcting our vision. A union steward and a banker will almost always see the same closing of a factory as two entirely distinct events, with different actors and forces at fault. And their social networks and the places where they get their news buffer their conclusions, which isn’t by happenstance. Few of the people you’ll meet in the work world will have any interest in seeing things from an angle other than the one they’ve already acquired, and with which they’ve become quite comfortable. The want to be told they’re right by things like Fox News or MSNBC, be assured by Newsmax or Mother Jones. If you want to get along with these people and have them eating from your hand, watch them for a while before you talk, and shift your views to fit theirs. They’ll buy into anything that reinforces their “reality” because they desperately need to believe it’s accurate, and they’re usually the sorts who think the number of people believing in something bears a relationship to its veracity. Stay near these knuckleheads. You can make a lot of money selling things to them.

5. What you know only matters in real work like medicine or engineering. Everywhere else it’s who you know.

Hope you got loaded with the right people while you were in school here. Don’t shake your head. You heard me. When you’re building bridges or doing heart valve replacements, yes, your skill is paramount. But in every profession outside the “real,” or “hard” trades, it inevitably comes down to sales, and sales comes down to connections. Being able to shoot sixty nine on a decent PGA rated course or get clients into an exclusive nightclub is worth twice the value of your class rank or merit scholar awards. You can be three IQ points above retarded and still make partner in a consulting or law firm if your uncle owns a business using seven figures worth of services a year. You know that guy in your fraternity house whose family came over on the Mayflower? The one whose house on the Cape had a name instead of a street address? He’s got connections, and every door’s going to be open to him from day one. If you don’t have that, and most of us don’t, you’d better find a way to get yourself wired. Smile, shake the right hands and get the cash crowd to like you. And no, it’s not an excuse that you’re working too hard to take the time. Slamming you with work is how management creates “lifers,” the employees who’ll never be anything but hands. A book of business is the only leverage you’ll ever have, and the only hope you have to get rich. If you don’t have the personality to sell, go work for the government. That or move to a cottage in the woods right now, save yourself the frustration.

You want to better yourself, better our political system? Turn off the junk and lock up your wallet. Starve the beast until it chokes on its swollen tongue.

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