“Chancellor Leavitt, Provost Earns, Representative Schraa, deans, faculty, alumni, families, friends, and, of course, graduates.
“Hello to you all, and congratulations to the class of 2017.
“It’s an honor to be here. My insecure young self, born to modest means, could never have imagined that I would someday address a crowd this large on a day this important.
“Preparing this speech was difficult. I didn’t know where to begin. And even after many restless nights of obsessive drafting, I still had nothing. What could I possibly say in seven minutes to inspire you? This question haunted me for weeks. And the obsessing didn’t end until about… 30 seconds ago.
“I will say this: While you may never give a commencement speech, you should write one. It will compel you to reckon with your own story and find your own voice. It’s not as easy as you might think. What would YOU say if these seven minutes and this audience were yours?
“1. Higher Ed
- a. “People often joke that economists (dismal scientists, as we’re called) don’t agree on much; President Reagan once said that if Trivial Pursuit had been designed by economists, it would have 100 questions and 3,000 answers. We dismal scientists do, however, agree on many things. Here are few that may brighten your graduation day:
- i. “Compared to high school grads, college grads earn, on average, about $800k more over their lifetime; they have much lower unemployment rates; better health outcomes; and better non-wage benefits.
- ii. “If you’re worried about student loans, note that the average student loan debt is about 28k whereas the average new car loan is about 31k. With the car loan you can buy one car, whereas student loans you will afford you 26 new cars over the course of your lifetime. Higher education is an investment, not a cost.
- b. “Be proud of your higher education. Phones, trucks, bridges, schools, healthcare, legal protections, insurance, military power, fuels, paper products, computers, highways, internet, movies, music, pet health, clean water, clean food, clean air, cultural identity, great jobs, social mobility, and nearly every form of technological progress all stem from professorial knowledge and higher education. These “real world” contributions are tremendous and absolutely everywhere. The WI Idea has not forsaken this great state. You worked hard to become one of these contributors. You owe no one an apology.
- i. “But do thank the taxpayers of WI. It’s their dollars that subsidize public higher education. Without this support, college would be less accessible, student debt would be much higher, the economy would be less prosperous, and the American Dream of Success would be less obtainable.
“2. Capitalism… Some will tell you that the lesson from Adam Smith, Father of Capitalism, is that ‘greed is good.’ However, this is an incomplete and distorted interpretation of his work. In fact, Smith advocated point blank against monopoly power, business-dominated political systems, consumer vulnerability, and he warned that admiring the rich while neglecting the poor was a corruption of moral sentiments such as sympathy, fairness, benevolence, propriety, and altruism. So make sure to balance your self-interest with your humanity. Hearts of stone were not part of Adam Smith’s design.
“3. Carpe Diem: You’ve probably heard it before in inspirational TV shows or movies. I’m not too sure what it means, because I don’t speak Japanese, but you can look it up on your phone in a second when I get more boring. I do suggest you look it up today though–not tomorrow–today.
“4. Narcissists aside, self-doubt and self-limitation quietly predate most of us, leaving opportunity and aspiration adrift. I have a confession. There were moments when I wanted to back out of this speech. I was afraid I would offend, or falter, or fail in any of 1,000 ways. I’m here because of a coping mechanism–homemade, as they often are. It was forged years ago when I logged the frozen hardwoods of northern WI to pay my tuition. I felled trees in knee-deep snow, tree-popping cold, and snowsqualls so dense at times I could barely see the tree tops. It was man vs. nature; an epic adventure doing the world’s most dangerous job. Logging gave me countless bumps and bruises and several good scares, but it also instilled an earthy poise; a faith that I could hold the helm in the roughest of seas. To this day, I use those memories to club haul my confidence to windward, empowering me to face insecurity. Self-doubt, my friends, is an insidious form of personal mutiny. Find a way to unfurl its spell, and your life will be more your own.
“5. Love and Marriage. You don’t see this in commencement speeches much, but there’s really no one more qualified to give you marriage advice than a dismal scientist. Marriage is a wonderful institution. In fact, I have been institutionalized for 17 years now. Seriously though, my wedding vows were the lyrics from a Bruce Springsteen song called ‘If I Should Fall Behind.’ I often marvel at how the words of a blue-collar musician from Freehold, NJ–a man I will never know or meet–could reach into the recesses of my marriage, my identity as a father, and my social conscience. This is but one example of how the best poetry, music, art and cinema can be significant in a person’s life.
- a. “Relatedly, learn to play a musical instrument. Making music is one of the most enduring and rewarding aspects of being human; it helps ease the pain and express the joy that living brings. I chose to fill my home with piano music. I’m not great, but I play Chopin well enough to put a peaceful smile on my wife’s face. And the boogie woogie I play has brought more joy to my young children than opening presents ever will (granted, we buy them really crummy presents).
“6. Aspire to INspire before you EXpire. Help others maximize their best qualities and minimize their worst; there is greatness and there is shadow in each of you. Strive to be a local hero to those around you, especially kids and young folks working hard at growin’ up. If you ever think you’re too small to make a difference, think about the times you’ve tried to sleep with a mosquito in your bedroom.
“7. Work Hard, but not so hard that your work-family balance suffers. Your family/friends need you. Be wary of obsessive over-achieving at work, because it has a curious way of becoming its own punishment. In some cases, it can even lead to commencement speaking.
“Thank you for letting me share this day with you, and once again, congratulations to you all.”