July 30, 2009

Long Live the Flying Leap!

Question: How are we supposed to make something of ourselves in a world that seems incredibly un-inviting of new employees?

As an answer to this one, I give you an excerpt from the commencement speech at Wesleyan University this past May, by the always inspiring author, Anna Quindlen. She talks about how even though this may be the most intimidating world to try to make something of ourselves in, perhaps it is the first time in a while where we really get to redefine what "make something of yourself" really means - and that's a good thing. In her words:

We are supposed to apologize to you because it seems that that is no longer how things work, that you will not inherit the SUV, the McMansion, the corner office really ought to mean that you will not do better than we did. But I suggest that maybe this is a moment to consider what “doing better” means.

If you become the first generation of Americans who genuinely see race and ethnicity as attributes, not stereotypes, will you not have done better than we did?

If you become the first generation of Americans with the clear understanding that gay men and lesbians are entitled to be full citizens of this nation, will you not have done better than we did?

If you become the first generation of Americans who accord women full equality instead of grudging acceptance, will you not have done better than we did?

And on a more personal level, if you become the generation that ditches the 80 hour work week and returns to a sane investment in your professional lives, if you become the first generation in which young women no longer agonize over how to balance work and family and young men stop thinking they will balance work and family by getting married, won’t you have done better than we did?

Believe me when I say that we have made a grave error in thinking doing better is merely mathematical, a matter of the number at the bottom of your tax returns. At the end of their lives people assess them, not in terms of their income but in terms of their spirit, and I beg you to do the same from the beginning even if we who came before often failed to do so.

Frankly, I already think of your generation as better than my own as a group. You’re more tolerant, more creative, less hidebound and uptight. You’ve done more community service than any other generation in the history of this country. It is no accident that as all of you finally became old enough to vote we finally became brave enough to have an election process in which Americans were really engaged.

And all this despite the fact that you’ve been bombarded by a culture that sends you so many confusing messages. Let’s see, you’re supposed to live clean, to drink Bud, to be Zen, to work tirelessly, to have sex without guilt but seek enduring love. And maybe because of that you have had to figure out for yourself what matters in a way past generations, with their bright lines of behavior, did not. In the first full sentences she ever uttered, Maggie Simpson took the pacifier out of her mouth and spoke of herself in the voice of all of you, “She did not live to earn approval stickers. She lived for herself.”

You’re the children of the new technology and the new tolerance, of gigabytes and gay marriage, the first generation of Americans who assume the secretary of state will be female, and the huggiest group of people who have ever lived. You are totally qualified to be and create the next great new thing.

To see the entire text visit the wesleyan website here.

"Long live the flying leap!"

-Anna Quindlen

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