It's that time of the year when graduates are sent off into the world with boring platitudes ringing in their ears. I was asked to give a graduation speech just once, at Edgewood College the year after I was first elected. I was never invited back. Below is the speech in its entirety, which explains I suppose why I was never invited back.
How many of the graduates remember anything your high school commencement speaker said? How many of you parents and relatives remember what the speaker said at your college graduation? For that matter, how many of you remember who your college commencement speaker was? For that matter, for those of you who graduated in the ‘60s, how many of you remember college?
The only thing I remember about the speaker at my high school graduation is that he didn’t wear a tie. I thought, for cryin’ out loud, at least look like you put some effort into this speech -- even if I’m not paying attention to a word you’re saying. The only thing I remember about my college graduation speaker is that he basically told all of us soon-to-be holders of bachelors degrees that bachelors degrees were worthless and that we needed to go on to graduate school if we were going to amount to anything.
So, I was happy to get a chance to give a commencement address – this is my first and likely my last – so that I could expunge those demons that have haunted me ever since. I’m here – wearing a tie – to tell you that I only dabbled in graduate school – apologies to those of you receiving advanced degrees today -- and I still ended up more or less successful by some accounts.
My press secretary, Melanie Conklin of good Irish stock, told me that the speaker at a commencement ceremony is like the deceased at a good Irish wake: they need you there to have the party but they don’t necessarily expect you to say very much. Combined, you all no doubt have acres of cumulative sheet cake waiting for you someplace, so I’ll be brief.
Here in no particular order are my ten observations on life 22 years after my own college graduation. I want to emphasize that this is not advice and I’m not suggesting that you live your life by any of it or even that you will arrive at the same conclusions when you reach my age – I notice that some of you already have reached my age and you may not have come to the same conclusions. These are just some random observations that you might find useful down the line... or not.
One. Oscar Wilde was right: “There are only two tragedies in life. One is not getting what you want... and the other is getting it.” Many people discover this in relation to their relationships with the opposite sex... or the same sex, depending on your preference. Others find it with regard to the acquisition of stuff. In any event, I’ve found that the pursuit of something... a person, a thing, a job is usually more fascinating then the actual possession of it. Possession might be nine-tenths of the law, but it’s only one-tenth of the fun. Success is over-rated. It’s actually kind of boring. The trip is usually a better time than the destination.
Two. Most of you have maybe one more year to be cool. Coolness officially ends on your 23rd birthday. All attempts to be cool thereafter become increasingly pathetic with age.
Three. To quote Bob Newhart: “You should attempt to give the perception that you are intelligent. You don’t actually have to be intelligent, if you can just create the perception. This can usually be accomplished by a reference to Kafka, even if you have never read any of his – or her – works.
Four. Do not get bogged down in a land war in Southeast Asia. You can substitute the Middle East for Southeast Asia. Enough said.
Five. Try to pay your credit card debts in full every month to avoid the high interest payments. Studies show that this will save you on average, approximately five million dollars over your life time.
Six. If you are bright, capable, charismatic and so well connected that you can raise money at the drop of a hat, do not, I repeat do NOT, consider running for Mayor of Madison any time soon. I’ll let you know when you’re ready.
Seven. Happiness is over-rated. This young college graduate goes to see a fortune teller and she tells him that she’s got some good news and some bad news.
The young man asks for the bad news first and she says, “Well, you will be poor and unhappy until you’re 30.” He says, “That’s terrible, but what’s the good news?” She replies, “Then you’ll get used to it.” Actually, I used to think that the goal in everybody’s life was to be happy. And I was happy. I loved everything about my old life before I was mayor. I loved my wife and my friends and coworkers and my house and my neighborhood and the work I did. I had time to sleep and exercise regularly and eat hot meals off real plates with forks and knives. I had time to read books and listen to music and watch tv. Today --compared to that by any objective standard -- I’m miserable. It’s not unusual for me to sit down to a dinner of Taco John’s tacos at 10 PM after a 14 hour day only to have to look forward to early morning the next day. But the thing is while I’m not as purely happy as I once was I’m more fulfilled. There is no better feeling – and it’s not happiness exactly – but there’s no better feeling than that feeling of running on all cylinders. That feeling that you’re stretched to your limit and using every ounce of talent you have. That’s fulfillment and it trumps simple happiness any day.
Eight. The only truly unforgivable personal trait is a lack of a sense of humor. Carelessness? Who’s doesn’t drop the ball sometimes. Untrustworthiness? Some of the most entertaining and enjoyable people to be around are scoundrels. But the people who really make the world a miserable place are those who take themselves or their causes too damn seriously. This is the reason I did not vote for Ralph Nader. Sure, the guy’s right a lot of the time, but he’s just annoying.
Nine. If you hate your job, marry someone with health insurance and then quit. I actually did this. I didn’t really hate my job, I just disagreed with the guy I was working for. So, a month after I got married, I offered my resignation. Unfortunately, I didn’t get any time off as someone else had the gaul to offer me a job before I actually obtained unemployment. Nonetheless, I’ve been lucky. I’ve loved every job I’ve had since and I figure I’ll enjoy whatever I do next. As a result, I don’t spend a lot of time trying to keep my job and worrying about reelection. The greatest job security you’ll ever have is enjoying your work.
Ten. You get what you got coming. This has also been expressed as “you reap what you sow” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. Sometimes known as “The Golden Rule”, it is maybe the world’s most pervasive cliche and a staple in nearly all commencement addresses. I repeat it here for two reasons. First, I didn’t want you to be disappointed. It’s kind of like watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” for the hundredth time only to find that they changed the ending on you so that George Bailey is convicted of bank fraud and sent to prison for ten years. You’ve heard it before. You know it and still you might feel cheated if the speaker at your commencement didn’t tell you to treat others as you’d like to be treated. But the second reason to repeat this cliche is that it has the added advantage of being true. It’s not true all the time, of course. There are injustices. But in the big picture when I step back and look at it, I’d say I’ve been about as well treated by others as I’ve treated them. You want to be treated with some degree of respect? Treat people with respect. You don’t want to be hated? Don’t hate. Pretty simple stuff.
When I lost a run for the State Assembly in 1992, I thought that part of my life was over. I wasn’t bitter about it. I just went on to do other things and didn’t give politics another thought until ten years later when people started suggesting I run for mayor. Then, after awhile sober people and people who weren’t laughing started to suggest I run for mayor. And I started to think about politics again.
You have reached a milestone in your lives, so it’s a good time to stop and think about what you want to do next. It’s also a good time for others to load you up with good wishes for whatever that next thing is. My hope is not that you live a life free of disappointment and loss and heartache. That wouldn’t be real. Instead, my hope is that you have what I’ve had so far: a life full of failures and successes and twists and turns and the indescribable fulfillment of using everything you’ve got. Thank you and congratulations.