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The Commencement Speech I'd Give....Except No College Would Dare Let Me

By Marty Nemko

Four years ago, I gave the commencement speech at Columbia College (MO.)

To my disappointment, no one has asked me to give one since. Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that I've spent a lot of the last decade calling a college education America's most overrated product.

So next best thing, here's the commencement speech I'd give if someone were foolish enough to choose me.

Dear Graduates,

You've probably come here expecting a pat on the back for a job well done, encouragement that the world is your oyster, and an exhortation to follow your passion. But if I am to have integrity, I cannot give that speech.

You may have been singing "la la la la la la la" to drown out the warnings that you're at risk of joining the half of college graduates under 25 who are unemployed or doing work you could have done even if your parents hadn't spent a crazy amount of money for you to extend your childhood in that four-to-six-year summer camp they call college. And if you think I'm the only one saying that, check out Message to the 2013 Graduates in yesterday's Wall Street Journal.

What I'm about to say is not applicable to those of you who worked hard to learn enough of real-world value to justify all that money and time. To you, I'll simply say congratulations for a job well done.

This is for others among you who spent your parents' money doing a lot less, maybe even the least you could--honestly or less so--to get that piece of paper, that diploma, spending less time on studying or even on useful extracurriculars like working for student government or the student newspaper than on playing videogames, watching steroided Neanderthals throw a ball and each other around, and, ahem, hooking up. I've been out of college too long to know, but that Wall Street Journal op-ed said that today, tons of students seem to spend most of their time hooking up everywhere from the campus statue to the football field endzone.

Perhaps it's not surprising for you to hear, but unless you change your attitude toward time and how you spend it big-time, you're going to have a hard time being self-supporting because, unlike colleges that inflate grades and take your money and then come back at you for yet more money in donations, employers won't be eager to pay you thousands of dollars every month plus benefits, for you to continue your summer-camp ways. They'll want you to grow up. They'll be additional dubious about many of you because you may, overtly or covertly, show your disdain of business, of profit--That, you learned well in college. And employers won't exactly be orgasmic over your weak critical thinking and writing skills. Colleges didn't have time to teach you those because, in many cases, they were too busy radicalizing you and teaching you the esoterica that only ivory tower professors could care about. And lest you too confidently think that you were the exception, that you did improve your writing and critical thinking skills significantly, you may well be wrong. The definitive nationwide study, Academically Adrift, published by University of Chicago Press, found that 36% of college graduates grew not at all in critical thinking and writing. I'll repeat that again because it's so shocking and so important: The definitive nationwide study, Academically Adrift, published by University of Chicago Press, found that 36% of college graduates grew not at all in critical thinking and writing. Follow-up reports have been even more frightening.

Only two things can save you:

1. Append yourself to the smartest, most successful, most ethical human being you can dig up. It will be worth even a lot of effort to hook up with that person. You want to be closer than a Siamese twin. Get his coffee, do her laundry, do nearly anything in exchange for being at a master's elbow so you can learn something of value that could actually turn you into a person who can contribute to the world you claim to care so much about. You will likely learn far more of value about how to succeed in business or the nonprofit world than you could from those hide-bound, theory-obsessed, practicality-light professors, who so often are out of touch with the real world. You'll also learn how to deal with people professionally, including resolving conflicts more challenging than who gets to hold the video controller. And most important, you'll get to see a real work-ethic. Most people who are not limited to barista-level work, prioritize being as productive as possible over the vaunted work-life balance, even if it means they never get to watch Arrested Development, learn more yoga poses, or hike into environmental blitzedoutness.

2. Please, take the time to become expert at something. Dabbling is very risky. Yes, if you're a polymath, a genius at many things, you may achieve at high levels in multiple areas. But most not-genius, not-driven people truly do, by dabbling, risk becoming unable to maintain a middle-class income. Pick something--It can even be that recycling of algae into sustainable biodegradable soy-ink papers that your professor is so interested in. But laser-focus on getting to be an expert at something. As Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers found, you have to stay with something for 10 to 20,000 hours to get good enough at it. Don't think I'm just pontificating, unwilling to walk the talk. I've stayed with being a career counselor for 26 years and even now after 4,000 clients, I still spend considerable time at night and on weekends reading--still to this day-- how to get better. I believe that is time well spent, the way to have integrity and be successful. I ask you to consider doing not only what I, but the hundreds of experts Malcolm Gladwell researched say you must do to develop real expertise. I am not, however, telling you to run back to school---You already saw how much good that did for your 4 to 6 years and mountain of money. They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result. What I'm saying is to keep working at your focused goal, reading, attending workshops, volunteering, maybe even getting paid, ideally at the elbow of the aforementioned go-getter. But I do urge you to stop with the dabbling.

Okay, enough. Most people don't remember anything from their graduation speech so I might as well stop here. I certainly do wish you all the best.

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