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Opinion: Graduates, beware, bad advice ahead

Posted at 11:48 AM, Apr 28, 2016

The rites of the graduation are commencing. In gyms, auditoriums and grassy quads, high school and college graduates will be treated, or subjected, to the great tradition of oratorical advice.

The most popular advice nowadays, grads be warned, is lame.

I did an informal, perhaps biased, survey of last year’s college graduation speeches. The most common counsel to these educated young people was this: Follow your passion. Catch your star. Pursue your dream. You can do anything you want and so go do it.

This is wonderful for people who have discovered their true, authentic, enduring passion. Young people certain of their calling, who have the talent and drive to heed it, deserve to be cheered on.

But most of us don’t have an epic passion. That is just a simple fact of life.

For too many bright young things, the absence of that grand, life-legitimizing passion has become a new source of angst and pressure. Big Passion has become a required credential for a well-coiffed, healthy and successful life story.

Parents of my Baby Boom generation (sometimes I think we’re the Crybaby Boom) told our kids that everyone has a special gift; that everyone can be what they want (absurd); that happiness is the achievable goal of life.

“Me Generation” narcissism aside, this is fiction from the “self help” aisle. Lucky are the few who have a passionate calling, the gifts and drive to realize it and the temperament to be happy and healthy along the way. This existential trifecta is scarce.

Most of us are passionate about different things at different stages in life.

I believe most find true passion only in love.

Many people have enduring and fanatical devotion to the Chicago Bears, bass fishing, barbecue, gardening, hip-hop and a zillion other nooks and crannies of the cosmos. Sometimes we are passionate, devoted and fulfilled by work; a lucky few have that throughout long careers, but most won’t. Some have religion.

We are preaching a metaphysical view that every human soul is bound to a passion and every passion is bound to a role or job in society that will provide a living, stature, happiness and moral worth. It’s the latest fad in fantasy-based capitalist indoctrination. It is a confusion born from having so many options in life and so few commandments.

Last summer I wrote about my conversations with college students and young job seekers that turned into painful confessions: They didn’t have a real passion. Some were faking it, which made them feel like impostors. Some just want one and feel like losers.

The response to the column surprised me. It was mostly grandparents who wrote to me – lots of them.

They were upset over grandchildren stressed out about finding and forging “meaningful,” “passionate,” “worthwhile,” “fancy,” or “cool” careers. Often Granny and Gramps were irked at their own children for pressuring the grandkids, acting like they needed their kids to shine in order to justify their lives. So much pressure on these kids, they wrote, such unrealistic expectations.

This is a very modern and American notion, that a life ought be groomed, virtuous and terribly individual to be meaningful and satisfying; that a job must be a mission. The upper classes are buying into this perfectionist paradigm in the name of authenticity, individuality, fulfillment, health, meaningfulness and other post-1960s virtues.

It’s time to call off the Passion Police.

Let’s remind kids that the airbrushed, hip, happy lives displayed on Facebook, Instagram and all the celebrity-wealth-porn in the media are images, fiction. Social media encourages people to market themselves, but not their real selves.

Most of us muddle through life by grabbing what seems like the best opportunity at the time and then working at it. There are times when we are consumed by passion — romance, parenthood, caring for loved ones who are sick or dying; there are seasons where work is passionate and fun, where our role in an institution, a team, or a business is everything. And there are long stretches when we just try to get through the day.

These are parts of real lives – full, purposeful lives – not imagined lives.

Temperament, genetics and luck largely determine the rations of contentment, optimism, sadness and grumpiness we feel. I believe history, science, art and religion all reveal that the best measure of a life is our bonds with others. Intimate relationships and meaningful connections happen to be the most reliable sources of contentment and well-being.

The notes from grandparents got me thinking about advice I wish had been given at graduation.

I wish I had been told to think hard about leaving home, about living away from my family, from a place where I knew generations of families, pals from elementary school and enemies from high school.

I never gave that a moment’s thought until it was too late. I didn’t have any live plan or shining path. I just went after the best education and the best jobs I could luck into. I fell in love, married, stayed in Washington and raised our kids away from our families. We built a wonderful community here, mindfully, and have been blessed in every way.

Given a good prod, I would have thought hard about leaving my community, roots, family and lifelong friendships. I may have made different choices. Probably not: I was all hubris and impatience.

It would have been good advice, though. It still is. At the very least, call your grandparents more.