Oh, God. Grad season. THE WORST. Yes, it’s that time of year when colleges around the nation pay $50,000+ a pop for some celebrity or politician or (God help the children) author to come in and spray hot knowledge all over the senior class before the kids can finally stand in line for a diploma and get on with their miserable lives. You got President Bush at SMU (of course), Tim Cook at GW, Matthew McConaughey at Houston, Condi Rice at William & Mary … everyone gets in on the gravy train, even assholes like me who proffer advice without even bothering to ask you if you wanted it.
And all of these grad speakers will roll out the same spiel about how you’re gonna be able to poop out rainbows one day, but it won’t be EASY to poop out those rainbows, and some days, you won’t even WANT to poop out rainbows, but—-by God—a lifetime of pooping rainbows is there for the taking if you want it bad enough. And then all the kids clap and scan around for the nearest bro with a hip flask. (HINT: He is the one wearing funny sunglasses.)
Some of these speeches are excellent, mind you. You’ll probably see 5,000 links this week to that speech George Saunders gave about being kind to people. Seems like a reasonable concept. They probably play that thing on a loop in the Buzzfeed office atrium. You’re gonna get bombarded with snippets and quotes from that speech and others, and you will like them, and then you will go back to being a terrible person.
Before I graduated high school, they invited all of us to a Senior Banquet ($10 a ticket), which took place in the school dining hall. Only for this banquet, they made the dining hall FANCAY. They decked out the joint in white tablecloths, and they had place settings, and real stemware filled with ice water (not wine … unfair), and the kitchen staff waited on us (which made me feel bad and weird), and they had some kind of chicken dish that you would probably be served at a cheap wedding. They really gussied up the joint, even though it was the same dining hall we’d eaten in for years.
At the end of the meal, while we were polishing off the chocolate mousse (I scoured the table seeing if anyone didn’t want their portion, so that I could relieve them of it), one of our teachers got up and gave a motivational speech. And lemme tell you, it was a fucking GREAT speech. It was funny and eloquent and not terribly long. At the end of the speech, he said, “God be with you all,” and we stood up and CHEERED. We were going fucking nuts, the speech was so good.
And I would tell you what the man said, if I could remember a goddamn word of it. I don’t. In fact, I’m quite certain I didn’t follow the man’s advice at all. I probably went back to my room that night and masturbated four times. Within the confines of our retrofitted dining hall, I was supremely motivated. Spellbound! And then the speech was over, and I went back to being a shithead.
That’s because I am a deeply flawed and terrible person, but also because 99.9999 percent of the time, motivational speaking does nothing for its audience. It’s just a form of entertainment, one that has been commodified into oblivion by the American public. The grad-speech template has been extended to corporate outings, TED talks, media upfront presentations, new product launches, and any other place where a dude wearing a wireless mic can stand up and hold an audience hostage for 45 minutes. There’s a huge amount of talking, and motivating, and talking about that motivating. Meanwhile, somewhere close by, a fucking bridge collapses. The world remains a goddamn mess.
These speeches may give you a sugar rush of inspiration for a brief moment, but the real agents of change in life will usually come from within, or from the actions of people close to you … real people in your lives. They are the ones who hold power over you, and sometimes they use that power to motivate you. But other times, when they’ve gained enough influence over you to become your Personal Oprah, they can hurt you.
And I’m going to let you in on a terrible, terrible fact: The older you get, the more power you have to hurt others. It’s a not a good thing at all, but it’s true. The purpose of college—apart from taking all your money—is to give you the tools you need to succeed in life. But people rarely talk about the byproduct of that success, which is the fact that growing older means having more control over the fates of those around you. Middle-aged executives have the power to fire people, and do. Parents have absolute control over their children. Journalists who expose fantastic stories often end up fucking subjects over in the process, regardless of whether or not that fucking-over is justified. Government officials get to decide if your neighborhood will be bulldozed in order to build a new Cheesecake Factory. (SPOILER: It will!) I don’t think there’s a billionaire on Earth who hasn’t ruined a life or two in the process of collecting all that money. (NOTE: I would ruin a life to make a billion dollars, preferably Chris Brown’s.)
With age comes the awful burden of knowing that your actions no longer exist in a vacuum, that they can have dire consequences for those around you. And the ability to hurt people is only becoming more prevalent in the digital age. You can hurt people—physically and/or mentally—without leaving your chair. I know because I’ve done it. For example: Sometimes people send me goofy vanity license plates on Twitter, because goofy vanity license plates are funny. Well, last year, someone sent me a vanity plate that said DR YOLO. I found this amusing, so I retweeted it, and it was met with the usual “LOL what a dipshit” responses.
Well, now, turned out Dr. Yolo followed me on Twitter, and the guy I retweeted—who took the creepshot of the vanity plate—saw Dr. Yolo open up Twitter in whatever faraway coffee shop they had both arrived at, and watched as Dr. Yolo awkwardly put away his phone and then took off, likely feeling both ashamed and stalked. We shamed him right out of his morning coffee, all because he had a goofy license plate that said DR YOLO, which ain’t exactly a crime. In real life, Dr. Yolo might be a fucking badass who just happens to have bad taste in vanity plates. The guy who took the creepshot felt bad, and we both agreed that he should delete that tweet, which he did. But it hardly mattered at that point. Dr. Yolo’s day was ruined, and his feelings were probably hurt. And it’s real easy to say, “Fuck that guy”—again, I know this because I routinely do it as part of my job—but hey, maybe I should have let Dr. Yolo live. Once. He only lives once. Online, reaching out and hurting someone is a relative snap, and there is no peacemaking in a flame war. You don’t end the exchange hugging it out. Conflicts remain conflicted.
The Great Dr. Yolo Incident is a fairly piddly-shit example, but it’s a small demonstration of the detrimental effect you can wield over someone else if you’re too careless, or if you happen to be a dick. Even when you are a super-duper great person (I am not), you will find yourself caught in the position of having to inflict real consequences on someone else. If you work at a job, and someone there is shitty, and you HAVE to fire them because they’re shitty, and the whole factory will burn down if you don’t deprive them of their livelihood, you’re probably gonna fire that person. And you’re gonna feel bad because you hurt them, regardless of whether or not they DESERVED it. You gotta be a real Frank Underwood-style psychopath to get a kick out of such a situation, but there are people like that out there, and they were probably hired to speak at your graduation.
Even if you aren’t a manipulative, power-hungry shitbag, you will hurt people in this life. Sometimes hurting people is the correct choice. Never physically, of course. But I’m not gonna sit here like a smarmy dick and tell you, “Don’t hurt people!” because it’s not realistic. The biggest company in the U.S. started off with the mantra “Don’t Be Evil” and has done LOTS of evil shit in the wake of its founding, all of it they presumably deem justified. Getting out into the greater world—away from the relative shelter of your college, and the dipshit frat house that is perhaps your shelter within that shelter—means getting tied up in all of its petty bullshit.
That’s the warning. No advice. Just a warning. I got mad at my kid the other day and hurt her feelings. She was doing something stupid and needed to be corrected, so I corrected her, and then—as kids do—she didn’t hear a fucking word it. So I got pissed and chewed her out, and then her feelings were hurt. Despite my best efforts, this is not exactly an uncommon occurrence when you have three children. But no one warned me. No one told me, when I was 22, that one day I would be a 38-year-old deranged loon who gets mad at very small children and publicly shames people with vanity license plates.
So someone should warn you. Someone should warn you that your days of carefree living and funneling Mixxtails are OVER, and soon you’ll be chewed up by the powers that be, or worse, you’ll BECOME the powers that be. You’ll become the authority that you despise. You’ll become that crusty old dean that wants keg parties banned. You’ll end up hurting others for the greater good, or perhaps for no reason at all. That’s you! AND SOON! So brace yourself. Coat yourself in ironic armor. Surround yourself with loved ones and friends who will help you make sense of a universe that forces you to make horrible, horrible choices. Because this shit only gets messier. I suggest you turn to hard liquor if you need to.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.