Bad Advice for New Graduates

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff
by P. J. O’Rourke

Related Links


Mr. O'Rourke is a best-selling author and humorist. Change magazine reports on trends and issues in higher education. It is published by Heldref Publications, Washington DC.

Well, here you are at your college graduation. And I know what you're thinking: "Gimme the sheepskin and get me outta here!" Not so fast. First you have to listen to a commencement speech.

Don't moan. I'm not going to "pass the wisdom of one generation down to the next." I'm a member of the 1960s generation. We didn't have any wisdom.

We were the moron generation. We were the generation who believed we could stop the war in Vietnam by growing our hair long and dressing like circus clowns. We believed drugs would change everything—which they did, for John Belushi. We believed in free love. And the love was free, but we ended up paying a very high price for the sex.

My generation spoiled everything for you. It has always been the special prerogative of youth to look and act weird and shock the grown-ups. But my generation exhausted the earth's resources of weird. Weird clothes—we wore them. Weird beards—we grew them. Weird words and phrases—we said them. So, when it came your turn to look and act weird, you had to tattoo your faces and pierce your tongues.

Ouch. That must have hurt. I apologize.

True, my generation did have some good musicians. But those musicians are still out there touring. Therefore the only piece of good advice that I can give you is, don't start a rock band. You won't stand a chance against the Rolling Stones.

It's my job to give you advice. But all the rest of the advice I'm going to give you is bad advice. I figure it this way: You're finishing 16 years of education, and you've had all the good advice you can stand. Let me offer some relief.

1. Go out and make a bunch of money!

Here we are in the most prosperous country in the world, surrounded by all the comforts, conveniences, and security that money can provide, yet no American political, intellectual or cultural leader ever says to American young people, "Go out and make a bunch of money." They say money can't buy happiness. But it can rent it.

There's nothing the matter with honest money-making. Wealth is not a pizza where if I have too many slices you have to eat the Domino's box. In a free society, with the rule of law and property rights, no one loses when someone else gets rich.

2. Don't be an idealist!

Don't chain yourself to a redwood tree. Go be a corporate lawyer and make $500,000 a year. If you make $500,000 a year, no matter how much you try to cheat the IRS, you'll end up paying $100,000 in taxes—property taxes, sales taxes, excise taxes. That's $100,000 worth of schools and sewers, fire fighters and police. You'll be doing good for society. Does chaining yourself to a redwood tree do society $100,000 worth of good?

Idealists are also bullies. The idealist is saying, "I care more about the redwood trees than you do. Oh, I know you care. But you only care as much as you have to. I care and care and care. I care so much I can't eat, I can’t sleep, it broke up my marriage. And because I care more than you do, I'm a better person than you are. And because I'm a better person than you are, I have the right to boss you around."

Get a pair of bolt-cutters and unleash that tree from the idealist.

Who does more to save the redwoods anyway—the person who’s chained to a tree or the person who founds the "Green Travel Redwood Tree-Hug Tour Company" and makes a million by turning redwoods into a resource more valuable than backyard deck railings, a resource that people will pay hundreds of dollar just to go look at?

So get rich. Don't be an idealist. And . . .

3. Get politically uninvolved!

Politics stink—and not just bad politics. All politics stink. Even democracy stinks. Imagine if our clothes were selected by the majority of shoppers, which would be teenage girls. I'd be standing here with my midriff exposed. Imagine deciding what's for dinner by family secret ballot. I've got three kids and three dogs in my family. We'd be having Fruit Loops and rotten meat.

Think how we use the word politics. Are "office politics" ever a good thing? When somebody "plays politics" to get a promotion, does he or she deserve it? When we call a co-worker "a real politician," is that a compliment?

But let me make a distinction between politics and politicians. Some people are under the misapprehension that the problem is politicians—certain politicians who stink. Impeach George Bush, and everything will be fine. Nab Ted Kennedy on a DUI, and the nation’s problems will be solved.

But the problem isn't politicians—it's politics. Politicians are chefs, some good, some bad. The problem isn't the cook. The problem is the food. Or let me restate that: The problem isn't the cook. The problem is the cookbook. The key ingredient of politics is the belief that all of society's ills can be cured politically. This is like a cookbook where the recipe for everything is to fry it. The fruit cocktail is fried. The soup is fried. The salad is fried. So is the ice cream and cake. The pinot noir is rolled in bread crumbs and dunked in the deep-fat fryer. This is no way to cook up public policy.

Politics is greasy. Politics is slippery. Politics can't tell the truth. But we can't blame the politicians for that. Because just think what the truth would sound like on the campaign stump, even a little bitty bit of truth:

"No, I can't fix public education. The problem isn't funding or teachers' unions or a lack of vouchers or an absence of computer equipment in the classrooms. The problem is your kids!"

4. Forget about fairness!

We all get confused about what role politics should play in life. This is because politics and life send contradictory messages.

Life sends us the message, "I'd better not be poor. I'd better get rich. I'd better make more money than other people." Meanwhile politics sends us the message, "Some people make more money than other people. Some people are rich and others are poor. We'd better close that 'income disparity gap.' It's so unfair!”

Well, I'm here to speak in favor of unfairness. I've got a ten-year-old at home. And she's always saying, "That’s not fair." When she says that, I say, "Honey, you're cute. That's not fair. Your family is pretty well off. That's not fair. You were born in America. That's not fair. Darling, you had better pray to God that things don't start getting fair for you.”

To heck with the income disparity gap. What we need is more income, even if it means a bigger gap.

5. Be a religious extremist!

So don't get involved with politics if you can help it, but if you can't help it, read the Bible for political advice—even if you're a Buddhist or an atheist or whatever. Using politics to create fairness is a sin. The Bible is very clear about this.

"Oh, gosh," you're thinking, "this is the worst advice yet. We get federal funding here. And the commencement speaker has just violated Constitutional law about separation of church and state."

But hear me out. I am not, in fact, one of those people who believes that God is involved in politics. My attitude is: Observe politics in this country. Observe politics around the world. Observe politics down through history. Does it look like God's involved? No, that would be Other Fellow who’s the political activist.

However, in one sense I do get my politics from the Bible, specifically from the 10th Commandment. The first nine Commandments concern theological principles and social law: Thou shalt not make graven images, steal, kill, et cetera. Fair enough. But then there’s the 10th: "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbor's."

Here are God's basic rules about how we should live, a brief list of sacred obligations and solemn moral precepts. And right at the end of it is "Don't envy your buddy's cow." How did that make the top ten? Why would God, with just ten things to tell Moses, chose as one of them jealousy about livestock?

And yet think about how important this Commandment is to a community, to a nation, to a democracy. If you want a mule, if you want a pot roast, if you want a cleaning lady, don’t whine about what the people across the street have. Go get your own.

So do get rich. Don't be an idealist. Stay out of politics. Forget about fairness. And I have another piece of advice:

6. Whenever you're unsure about what course to take in life, ask yourself, "What would France do?"

You see, France is a treasure to mankind. French ideas, French beliefs, and French actions form a sort of loadstone for humanity. Because a moral compass needle needs a butt end. Whatever direction France is pointing in—toward Nazi collaboration, Communism, existentialism, Jerry Lewis movies, or President Sarkozy's personal life—you can go the other way with a clear conscience.

One last thing.

7. Don't listen to your elders!

After all, if the old person standing up here actually knew anything worth telling, he'd be charging you for it.

P. J. O'Rourke is the author of twelve books, most recently On The Wealth of Nations. He is a correspondent for The Weekly Standard and The Atlantic. He attended Miami University and Johns Hopkins and received his diplomas from both schools in the mail.

Sources +