“But it’s all right… in fact it’s a gas…” (The Stones, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash“)
It’s time for another orgy of graduation rites across the land…
… and, in honor of it all, I am re-posting my now globally-notorious big damn rant on the subject. This was one of the more popular posts I’ve ever written, so it deserves an annual rediscovery.
So, without further ado… here’s the annual redux of that post:
Nobody’s ever asked me to give the commencement speech for a graduating class.
That’s probably a good thing. I’m pretty pissed off at the education system these days, and I might cause a small riot with the rant I’d surely deliver.
See, I have a university “education”. A BA in psychology. (The BA stands for, I believe, “bullshit amassed”.) I earned it several decades ago…
… and while I had a good time in college (height of the sex revolution, you know, with a soundtrack that is now called “classic rock”), made some lifelong friends, and got a good look at higher learning from the inside…
… that degree provided zilch preparation for the real world. Didn’t beef me up for any job, didn’t give me insight to how things worked, didn’t do squat for me as an adult.
I waltzed off-campus and straight into the teeth of the worst recession since the Great Depression (offering us Nixon’s wage-freeze, record unemployment, an oil embargo, and near-total economic turmoil)…
… so, hey, I should have a little empathy for today’s grads, right?
While today’s graduates are facing similar grim economic times, there’s been a significant change in the concept behind a college education. Somehow, over the years, a bizarre mantra has taken hold in kids minds:
“Get a degree, and it’s a ticket to the Good Life.”
A job is expected to be offered to you before the ink is dry on your diploma.
And it really, really matters WHICH school you get that diploma from.
You know what I say?
Bullshit. Okay, maybe if you go to Yale or Harvard, you can make the connections on Wall Street and in Washington to get your game on. Maybe. (More likely, those connections are already available, if you’re gonna get ‘em, through family bloodlines… and the Ivy’s are just playing up their famous track records in a classic sleight-of-hand.)
Put aside the advancement opportunities offered to spawn of the oligarchy, though… and the realities of life-outside-of-academia do not jive at all with the propaganda doled out by the university systems.
Many of the richest guys I know are drop-outs. Some are HIGH SCHOOL drop-outs. The few friends who did go to the kind of school whose name causes eyebrows to rise…
… are ALL working far outside their major. To the point that nothing they learned has proven to be even remotely useful to their adult life. (Unless they stumble upon another over-educated dweeb at a cocktail party and get into a bare-knuckle Trivial Pursuit marathon.)
Too many people get all confused and bewildered about “education” as opposed to “going to college”.
It’s not the same thing, folks.
Some of the most clueless individuals I’ve ever met have impressive diplomas… while nearly all of the most savvy (and wealthy) individuals I know done got educated all on their lonesomes.
I learned more about history, business and psychology in 2 weeks of serious pre-Web library surfing (with a speed reading course under my belt) than I did in 4 years of college.
And I learned more about life in 3 months of hanging out with street-wise salesmen than I did from ANY source, anywhere, up to that time.
By all means, go to college if that’s part of your Master Plan to having a great life. You’ll meet interesting people, and it’s a Rite Of Passage for many Americans these days.
But don’t do it blindly. Just cuz The Man says it’s what you’re “supposed” to do.
Do some critical thinking before you jump in.
And if you really want that degree in Russian literature, or women’s studies, or political science, or whatever… then fine. Go get ‘em. Grrr.
Just KNOW that you can probably educate your own damn self on those subjects… and even get a deeper understanding of it all… by reading every book written about it, and interviewing a few experts. And if you can get private mentoring from someone, even better.
This can all take place during evenings and weekends, over the course of a few months, while you hold down a day job. Even if you buy the books, instead of hitting up libraries, you’ll have spent less on this specialized education than you’d pay for a single semester in “real” school.
And, unless you’re the laziest screw-up ever, you’ll actually learn MORE in those few months of intense immersion… than you would with a full-on degree.
You know how I can make this bold claim with a straight face?
Because this is what I’ve been doing as a freelancer for decades. Every time I wrote for a new market, I spent weeks immersing myself in it… learning everything I could about it from the inside-out. And this process often made me more of an expert than the client himself.
And I did it over and over and over again.
It was just part of the job. All top freelancers do this.
Once you lose your fear of self-education…
… you can finally let it sink in that WE LIVE IN THE FREAKIN’ INFORMATION AGE. The joint is crammed to bursting with books, ebooks, videos, websites, courses…
… the whole world is CRAZY well-stocked. There are teachers and coaches and mentors available if you need supervision. (I’ve partaken of this opportunity frequently over my life.) Boards and fan-zines and forums and membership sites abound (for bitching and moaning, as well as for networking with peers).
It’s a cornucopia of knowledge, experience and adventure out there.
Yes, there are blind alleys and pitfalls and wrong turns…
… but once you’re committed to learning something, these are just brief excursions off the main drag… and you can use even your failures as advanced learning tools as you gain expert status. (In fact, it’s really required that you screw up at least a little bit. Otherwise, you never get perspective.)
And best of all…
… you can engage with life as you go. And skip the jarring nonsense of the Ivory Tower bubble.
(One caveat to self-education: You must, early on, read up on how debates are actually taught. Or join a debate club.
I’m serious. Best thing I’ve ever done. As you sample debating, you should demand that you get to defend the OPPOSITE viewpoint that you currently hold for any subject. This forces you to look beyond your petty biases, and open your mind to other points of view.
This is a HUGE advantage to have in your toolkit throughout life. Everyone else will be hobbled with un-examined party-line nonsense and indoctrinated crap they can’t even begin to defend when challenged…
… while you — with your rare ability to walk in anyone’s shoes, and to feel the pain or glory of alien thought patterns — will forever more see beyond the sound bites and cliches. And be able to eloquently explain anything, to anyone.
You will actually begin to sense vestiges of “truth” in the wreckage of our modern culture.
I don’t have to tell you how that might apply to marketing, do I?)
Most people will not go this route of self-examination and immersion-learning, of course. The concept of taking control of your own education seems kinda threatening and foreign to the majority out there.
We spend the first years of our lives sitting quietly in classrooms, being brainwashed to believe we don’t know shit (and that Teacher knows everything). That’s excellent training for hitting a groove in college and post-grad pursuits…
… but it’s piss-poor preparation for Life In The Concrete Jungle.
Again, nothing wrong about going with the status quo. No shame.
Just don’t expect to learn much about the way the world works. You’re learning how academia works. Different animal.
Wanna hear my short speech on how to prepare yourself for life? (I’ve edited this from a recent post I wrote for the Simple Writing System coaching program. Lots of great stuff keeps coming out of that gig…)
Here’s my mini-rant: If I ran the world, everyone would get at least a taste of being an entrepreneur, during their formative years.
It will taste bitter to most people. And that’s fine. No harm, no foul. You found out it’s not for you, and you can move on to getting that job with The Man.
But for some… it will be sweet nectar. A thrill like nothing else they’ve ever experienced before.
Being an entrepreneur takes balls.
But you don’t have to “be” a ballsy kind of person.
You just have to understand how to implement your goals… which requires a little savvy about getting stuff done in the face of opposition and obstacles. Which is the definition of “ballsy”. Most folks who are successful at achieving goals were not born with the necessary attitude.
They learned the skill of living life with guts, just like they learned every other important skill associated with the gig.
I OFTEN intervene even with long-time professionals (like freelance writers, or veteran biz owners) who are screwing up their efforts to be successful.
My main advice: “Stop being a wuss. Everyone is scared. The successful ones acknowledge that fear, put it aside, and just get busy taking care of business.”
It really is that simple.
Life beyond childhood is for grown-ups. If you’re scared, you can take a regular job somewhere, and stay far away from the risks and realities of being your own boss.
On the other hand… if you’ve got entrepreneur’s blood in your veins… and you really DO want to be your own boss…
… then allow the reality of doing so to wash over you, and embrace it.
Everyone is unsure of themselves out there. There are no guarantees in life for anything… and getting into biz is among the riskiest things of all to do.
A tiny percentage of skydivers will die each year while jumping… but a vast chunk of rookie business owners will fail.
This is why you pursue the skills of salesmanship. Learning how to create a wicked-good sales message, how to close a deal, and how to bond with a target market is the PRIMARY weapon you want walking into ANY business environment.
Will you still fail? Maybe.
But you will NOT fail because you don’t know what the hell you’re doing. If knowing how to persuade and influence can make your business sizzle, then learning salesmanship means you’re armed to the teeth. Like everything else in life, having the right tools for the job at hand is the best way to put the odds in your favor.
MOST people are not meant to be their own boss. The world needs followers, too.
Here’s what I tell students in the Simple Writing System, for example, when doubts about their future bubble up: “Just by diving into a coaching program like this — or immersing yourself into any kind of intense entrepreneurial program — you have shown that there is something different burning inside you. No one held a gun to your head and forced you to come here to learn these skills. You decided to join all on your own.
“Even if you’re not yet sure why you’ve joined us here… you need to understand that MOST people would never even consider doing anything like this.
“Independence freaks most people out. The thought of standing up and taking responsibility for the birth and success of a business is terrifying… and most will refuse to even entertain the thought.
“This is, by the way, why you should always enter the entrepreneurial world WITHOUT relying on your current crop of friends for support.
“They will not applaud your efforts. They think you’re batshit crazy for daring to even consider being your own boss. They will (consciously or unconsciously) sabotage your progress if they can, and rejoice in your failures… because if you DO succeed, that kills their main excuse for not succeeding themselves. Most folks believe success is all about luck and magic. When you dig in and actually do the work necessary to succeed, you piss all over their world view that The Little Guy Can’t Win.
“If you’ve made friends or started a network of fellow travelers here in the SWS, great. Most entrepreneurs have to operate alone (until they find places like this, where they can find help, advice and coaching). That loneliness just intensifies the fear and sense of risk.
“But I’ll tell you the truth: As scary as being independent is…
“… once you’ve tasted it, you’ll be hooked.”
Most entrepreneurs who enjoy even a little success instantly become “unemployable”. After thinking for yourself, after taking responsibility for your success or failure, after engaging the world fully aware and experiencing the thrill of living large…
… you’re worthless to a boss. He can’t use anyone who thinks for themselves.
Are you wracked with doubt?
That voice you hear — the one knocking you down, digging a knife into your gut and highlighting your worst fears — is JUST A VOICE.
In psychoanalytic talk, it’s your “Super Ego”… the scolding parent’s voice, the doubter of your abilities, the whiny little bastard bent on keeping you down.
And it can easily be sent packing.
Most people allow others to write the script for their lives. Rules and bad advice and grim experiences dating back to childhood somehow become “the way it is”…
… and regardless of any proof otherwise, they will obey that voice until they die.
And yet, all you have to do…
… is acknowledge the voice (“Yes, I hear you, you little shit“), realize it’s not your friend… and lock it in a dungeon deep in your brain, where you can’t hear it anymore.
I speak from experience on this subject. I was ruled by The Voice Of Doom for the first half of my life. I didn’t even try to take responsibility for my success, because The Voice told me it was hopeless. That I was hopeless. That Fate had nothing but failure in store for me.
Then, I realized that The Voice was actually full of it. I proved it, slowly at first, by setting a goal outside The Voice’s warnings… and then achieving it. And then doing it again.
It’s like superstition. I used to be the most superstitious guy you’ve ever met. Literally, my life was dominated by superstitions.
Then, one day, I just decided to see how real those superstitions were. So I violated every single one of them. On purpose. If I had previously thought some action was “bad luck”, I would do it, blatantly, just to see what kind of bad luck occurred.
And, of course, no bad luck ever appeared.
The human brain is crammed with nonsense like this. Superstitions, bad rules, dumb beliefs, unfounded fears and ridiculous feelings of guilt and shame.
Especially guilt and shame.
You know what a fully functioning adult does? They don’t approach life believing it should be a certain way, or wish that life was a certain way.
No. They engage with life the way it really is. You make your own luck. Rules sometimes make good sense, but deserve to be broken when they’re clearly stupid. Belief systems often have nothing to do with reality. (You can “believe” you’re gonna win the lottery with all your heart and soul… and it won’t change reality one tiny bit.)
Fear is a natural part of our defense system… and it can get out of hand in modern times.
So you need to dig in and get to know your fears. Some are fine — don’t walk down that dark alley if you’re not prepared to deal with the things that happen in dark alleys.
Others are counter-productive — you had a bad experience once when you were 12, and so what? Get over it, put on your Big Boy or Big Girl Pants, and re-engage with life.
And shame? Guilt and shame are useless. On the road of life, feeling guilty about something is like setting up camp and refusing to move or progress any further.
Instead, try “remorse” — recognize when you’ve done something wrong, clean up the mess, fix what you’ve broken as best you can, and make amends to people you’ve hurt.
And don’t “vow” to do better next time.
Instead, actually DO something to change your behavior or habits. Promises are bullshit. Action is the only way to move through life in a positive way.
Don’t promise to do better. Just do better. This will probably involve learning something new — a new skill, a new way of dealing with life, a new set of behaviors.
Doing this will set you apart from the majority of other people out there, too.
The modern Renaissance Man or Woman is something awesome to behold. While the rest of the world increasingly sinks into a snoozing Zombie-state — indoctrinated, fooled, manipulated and played– you have the option of becoming MORE aware, more awake, more alert and ready to live life with gusto.
However, no one is going to force you to do this.
If you want to join the Feast of Life, you have to step up and earn your seat at the table. You will not be invited in. You will not stumble in by accident, or stroke of luck.
Nope. You must take responsibility for your own life… figure out what you want… and then go get it.
It’s a daunting task for most folks… too daunting to even contemplate.
For the few who know it’s what they want, however… it’s all just a matter of movement and action.
Yes, it can be scary. Life is terrifying, at times.
It’s also only worth living, for many people, when you go after it with all your heart.
There are no replays on this game. No second tickets for the ride.
You’re allowed to sleep through all of it. Most folks do.
If that’s not good enough for you any more, then welcome to the rarefied air of the entrepreneur world.
It’s fun, it’s thrilling, it’s scary, and there’s no safety net below you.
I wouldn’t have it any other way.
And that’s the commencement speech I’d give.
Put you to sleep, didn’t it.
Okay, my work is done here.
What would YOU tell new grads? Lay it out in the comments, below…
John “The Prof” Carlton