Congratulations, graduates. At commencements like this one all across the nation this spring, former students just like you can expect to hear dignitaries of all stripes offer some quixotic advice. For example: Every commencement speaker is required (by law, I think) to summon the trite old saying that you should "do what you love, and you'll never work a day in your life."
This piece of advice is not exactly true. I'm a writer, and I consider it to be work, even if I do love it. It's work because you do it when you don't feel like doing it. Of course, it's not the same kind of work I experienced at Anders 40 West Amoco or at Watson's Restaurant, two now-defunct places I labored at in my Frederick, Md., youth.
And of course, working as a writer is easy compared to other jobs. My dad was a prison guard, for instance. He literally went to jail for decades so that his son could complain about having worked at a gas station. Still, because I experienced this sort of job, I now respect it more — which means I also avoid it like the plague.
Especially early in my career, fear of returning to a real job drove me to be more successful. It should drive you, too. If you haven't had this sort of work, I feel sorry for you. The best you can do is try to imagine what it's like.
This quote, from Studs Terkel's book Working might help:
This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence — to the spirit as well as to the body. It is about ulcers as well as accidents, about shouting matches as well as fistfights, about nervous breakdowns as well as kicking the dog around. It is, above all (or beneath all), about daily humiliations. To survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the great many of us.
So how do you avoid the sort of fate that Terkel describes? How do you leave college today and spend your life doing work — yes, it is work — but work that has meaning and purpose and is rewarding to you?
First, realize you are blessed to be in America — and to have a college degree. If you are smart — and keep your expenses low! — you have a real chance to pursue your dreams. But even with all your blessings, you can still screw it up.
Psychologist Angela Duckworth has a maxim that was unfortunately popularized by Jonah Lehrer but is true nonetheless, which says you should "choose easy" but "work hard."
Duckworth discovered this truism in the process of doing research on why some people stick with things, and others quit.
Her point is simple: Being successful is hard enough even if you're doing something you're naturally good at. The demands of success — the hours of time spent mastering a career — mean that you probably won't stick with something you don't enjoy doing long enough to achieve anything meaningful. Even if you do stick with it, your heart won't be in it.
But life is holistic, and while Duckworth's advice is really about choosing a career, the "choose easy, work hard" axiom is just as true when it comes to relationships. You can have a good career, but be miserable at home. And often your home life can infect your work life. (As Seinfeld predicted, if "independent George meets relationship George he will kill relationship George!")
If you're in need of "counseling" during the courting phase of your relationship (before kids and mortgages, etc.), then you're not really choosing easy. You're choosing hard. And that's stupid. It should be, as the song says, "easy like Sunday morning."
Choosing easy in your personal and work life is important because you really can't compartmentalize your life.
Now, if you're brilliant enough, this might not matter. A certain amount of drama might even be good for you. Going through a messy divorce (or two) might even make you a more colorful character.
But if you're like the rest of us, you can't afford too many distractions. Most of us aren't brilliant. In fact, most successful people aren't geniuses; they have what Dr. Duckworth calls "grit."
"A successful writer," the saying goes," is an amateur who didn't quit." Woody Allen put it another way: "Eighty percent of life is just showing up." This is true. But it's hard to show up day in and day out — year in and year out — if you're miserable.
And so, a successful career demands the absence of personal superfluous distractions (there will always be distractions, but you don't need to invite them). You need peace and harmony at home, precisely so you can fight battles at your job.
Or as Gustave Flaubert put it: "Be regular and ordinary in your life, like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work."
Of course, even if you do all these things, you'll never really finish learning. The people who become lifelong learners have a huge advantage in the marathon that is life. Most people think that breaking into a business is the hard part, but my experience has been that sustaining success is even more difficult.
The more you learn, the more you realize that you don't know very much. Dipping toes in the water leads one to discover there is a big ocean out there. And if you become a parent, this becomes even more startlingly obvious.
George Santayana observed that Americans don't solve their problems; they leave them behind. As I became a father, this really hit me hard. Naively, I had believed that I had mastered things that I had merely outgrown. But when you have kids, you rediscover (and relive) your weaknesses.
Here's a trivial example. For at least fifteen years of my life, I went to a building every day that had some sort of basketball court attached to it. Despite the fact that my dad had been a high school star, I've always been a lousy player. But there was no escaping this game, which seemed inexorably tied to my life. And then one day, I graduated. Since I didn't become a P.E. teacher or something, I have never had another occasion to play basketball. Until now.
Now I have a son. He will surely play basketball. I may have found a years-long respite from my hardcourt weakness, but in the form of my children, I will have to confront again the weakness I never mastered.
Joan Didion wrote: "I think we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind's door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends."
I am a work in progress. So are you. Many of the quotes I've referenced here were unfamiliar to me when I was at my college graduation ceremony. In the intervening years, I have discovered them. In some cases, it was a painful discovery, because their profundity didn't mean anything to me until after I could relate to them.
Mentors can be people you know, or they can be people you read about in books. We learn from mistakes and mentors. Here's hoping you'll mostly avoid the former, and cleave dearly to the latter.