Yesterday we went to the Oberlin commencement exercises on the flat, glaciated landscape of northeastern Ohio, with the air unseasonably cold, giving way to a pelting rain that I feared would turn to hail. Pride sufficed as a source of heat. Big milestone for Daughter One. The commencement speaker, newly awarded an honorary doctorate, was Tracy Chevalier, the bestselling novelist (“Girl With a Pearl Earring”), and she was terrific, with sound advice ranging from how to write (eliminate those adverbs and adjectives!) to how to find your place in the world. (Note that in the “What I’m Reading” section of her website she mentions a favorite of mine, “The Trees,” by the recently under-appreciated Conrad Richter, my grandfather Achenbach’s brother-in-law.)
Chevalier assembled advice from her fellow members of the Oberlin class of 1984, and it was all sound stuff, some of it fairly obvious, like: Be kind. Travel. Take chances. Learn another language (because it will make you more marketable and also more human). Take care of your body because it’ll be your constant companion the rest of your life. Find something to do that you love doing every day. And so on.
Standing under a tree at that point, letting the leaves take the brunt of the rain, I kept wanting to interject, loudly, hollering across Tappan Square, my own piece of advice: “Work!”
I know that dates me.
I believe in work. I believe in getting up early and hitting the ground running. Admittedly, in recent years that belief has sometimes collided with a simultaneous and countermanding notion that perhaps it would be a good idea to go back to sleep. Believing in work is not the same thing as actually working. The corollary is that just because you don’t believe in dithering doesn’t mean you can’t get extraordinarily good at it.
My impression is that “work” is not a trendy word among the young, for the simple reason that there are no jobs anymore. At least there are no jobs for young people with a mere bachelor’s degree. For something as grandiose as a job you need further education or some kind of special training. (And a job with benefits? And a 401K and a pension plan? Get serious. Next you’ll want a reserved parking space.)
The economic situation has created a boom for graduate programs, internships, fellowships, part-time positions and various other ways to spend one’s time without actually possessing what someone in my generation would describe as a job. Pay is treated as an optional element of the occupation.
Also, for young people graduating from college, there is the freedom thing. The desire to light out for the territory. Did Huck Finn have a job?? Think about many of our cultural heroes. They don’t exactly punch a clock. I remember when reading the fantastic book “Hemingway’s Boat,” by my friend Paul Hendrickson, I kept thinking: Hemingway never had a job! And that created challenges for him, actually. Though it made it easier to go fishing.
No one ever dies regretting that he or she didn’t spend more time at the office. If you can’t be free, and self-actualizing, right out of college, when is that ever going to happen? So that’s a counter-current. That’s a crosswind at the very least.
But I’d argue that any kind of work, no matter how humble, no matter how inadequate to fulfilling one’s personal ambitious, is virtuous. Just getting up the morning and working at something is a great start at becoming a good citizen who contributes to the world and will surely be rewarded over time. Not everyone is going to be an Internet tycoon at the age of 22, nor would we want that (see the previously noted George Packer piece in the New Yorker). And before someone decides to write the Great American Novel, try writing a short story. Or better yet, doing some research. Find out something that no one knows. Chevalier said yesterday, don’t write what you know, write what you’re interested in (or something to that effect). And don’t write about yourself: You’re not as interesting as you think you are, she said.
The good news is that we live in a world in which it is easier than ever to be a lifelong learner, to maintain one’s educational stride even without the structures of a campus. And learning, like work, is its own reward. Learn constantly.
So, then: Get up early, work hard, learn a lot — and, oh yeah, be a great friend to lots of people — and everything else will fall into place quite splendidly, pardon the adverb.