So, there’s this kid who was born in Hell’s Kitchen in the 1940s, and this kid makes it out of high school but doesn’t make it to college, because, well, back then few kids from Hell’s Kitchen made it out of high school alive, much less with a college acceptance letter in their fists. And this kid, he wants to be in pictures, which is to say the movies, and so he does some acting, all nothing parts, thug, bouncer, tough guy, he’s not much of an actor to tell the truth, and so he decides to write a script. The kid from Hell’s Kitchen writes the script in a single day but the fact is the kid’s been thinking about this script since he was 13. So after he dots his I’s, crosses his T’s, the kid starts shopping the script around, going from door to door of every movie producer he can get to in the entire country. And this kid from Hell’s Kitchen gets nothing but No’s. No one wants to make his movie, which, by the way, is about a boxer down on his luck, not to mention over the hill, who risks his life to do what he loves. Which is to box. At the end of the movie the boxer loses. So, you can imagine, nobody wants to make this movie that this kid from Hell’s Kitchen is shopping around. But the kid won’t take no for an answer (much like, not incidentally, the hero of his script) and goes to five, ten, more than 100 movie execs to pitch his movie. Nothing. Nada. But the kid keeps going. This takes a couple years, mind you. It’s not like today when you can just email everyone your script. Back then, you couldn’t even fax it. You had to travel by foot to these execs’ offices, with a stack of pages in your hand to boot.
Point is, finally, on the 141st try, the kid gets a Yes. And the exec who gives him the greenlight says, “I must be crazy, but okay, kid, let’s do this, now we just need to find a star to play your hero. I’m thinking Redford, maybe Newman.” And the kid looks at the exec and says, “It’s me.” “How’s that?” says the exec. “Come again.” “I’m starring in this movie,” says the kid. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” says the exec, only he doesn’t say “kidding” but something else.
Point is, finally the exec says: okay, sure, kid, get the gloves on. And two years later “Rocky” hits the theaters, and a year after that the kid from Hell’s Kitchen wins an Oscar for Best Picture.
So, what’s the moral of this story? Never give up? Have faith? Keep fighting even if everyone tells you you’re going to lose and perhaps die? Find someone you love to inspire you to near victory? Hire Francis Ford Coppola’s sister to play your love interest? Make sure your film includes an iconic, sentimental scene in which your hero ascends a set of stairs, scores of cute kids trailing behind him like the rats of Hamelin, while a piano jingle no one can get out of their heads for a decade hits a crescendo?
I don’t know.
In any case, before I continue, I’d like to note, in order to fully disclose my intentions on this fine, spring, ninety-nine-degree day in Fairbanks, the magnificent Arctic ice caps so close you can almost reach out and drink them, that the sole reason I’m here standing before you is that it was strongly recommended to me by my agent (who’s sitting in the second row) that I land one of these so-called commencement speech gigs, in order to turn said speech into a book, a short book with plenty of white space, but a book nevertheless, a book that will retail for approximately nine dollars and ninety-five cents, which, if I sell enough copies, should cover my back taxes and two recent critical darlings but box office bombs. According to my agent, man can’t live, or put three kids through private school, on bread and art house alone.
So, here’s where, in any commencement speech worthy to be printed on the pulp of a poplar, the commencement speaker shares a personal anecdote from his or her youth that’s somewhat humorous but mostly instructional, showing that, before amassing wild fame and somewhat of a fortune (if only tied up in real estate and underperforming tech stocks) he or she held at least one menial job paying at or below the minimum wage and engaged in, if not quite unsavory acts, then not quite exemplary ones. So, for the sake of brevity, let’s just say: I screwed up, screwed over, messed up, and messed around.
Luckily, though, this was all pre-Interwebs. So there’s no online proof of my indiscretions. I certainly pity you all here today, and truly have no idea how any adventurous and spirited young person gets a job these days, what with your entire high school and college antics on display for any and all employer to see. And trust me, they do see. At least here in the so-called Land of the Free they do. Across the shining sea (shining these days due to all that oil floating atop it) it’s apparently a different story.
That said, here’s the part of the speech where you’re meant to understand that you’re not to worry if you act like a schmuck and find yourself wallowing in misery and/or your parents’ unfinished basement along with your unemployable, overweight, but very well educated Uncle Tony, because you, too, with a little luck (okay, a HELLUVA LOT of a luck) could someday be as successful, famous, and wealthy as me. And, who knows, you might also someday end up behind this very walnut podium, hoping to turn your speech into a book in order to supplement your so-called primary source of income.
Okay, now that that’s out of the way, we’ve come to the point where the speaker utters something that you’re meant to be able to [holds up airquotes] takeaway from the speech and perhaps Tweet or Instagram (get my good side, please), and that your parents will pay good money for when my book does come out. So, here goes, here’s my advice, which, to be frank, for some of you doesn’t matter, because you were born rich and you’re going to stay rich, but my advice to the rest of you is this: Take dead aim on the rich kids. Get them in the crosshairs and take them down. Remember, they can buy anything, but they can't buy backbone …
No, that’s not what I meant to say. That’s from Paul Krugman’s latest New York Times column on income inequality. Kidding. It’s from the shooting script of Wes Anderson’s film “Rushmore.” Which, incidentally, you should definitely see if you haven’t. It came out in 1998 when you (and Anderson) were still in Huggies. In any case, it’s Anderson’s best work. And there’s a lot to learn in “Rushmore.” Not the least of which is it’s about 1,000 times easier to get a job in Hollywood if you’re in the Coppola family. (And apparently, a little nepotism goes a long way on Wall Street as well.)
Which brings us to the part of the commencement speech where the speaker gets [holds up airquotes] serious, and if the speaker wants to get very serious, he or she talks about the most serious of subjects: mortality. That is, Death with a capital D. And this year, I believe it’s even more important than ever to talk about the Big D because, unlike in years past, when two things in life were certain, now, thanks to a sizable Swiss bank that, in exchange for a nominal fee and ultra-light settlement with the Feds, will hide your fortune so you don’t have to pay taxes, there’s only one thing that’s certain.
In any case, what I want to say is this: I know there have been several fine commencement speeches in recent years spreading the message that you never know when the life of the device inside your rib cage will end (even if we do know for sure that the life of the device inside our back pockets will end in exactly 15.4 months, in order that we upgrade often, in order to keep the manufacturer of said device afloat).
As I was saying—oh, look [holds up smartphone] the dean of the business school just de-friended me—in recent years, some very fine commencement speeches have spread the very important message that young people like yourselves should take each day by the cajones because it could be their last. These speeches, at least some of them, or perhaps one, recommended something to the effect of looking into the mirror each day to remind yourself that, some day, in the not so distant future, you will be, as they say, or at least as I say, punting the pail. Which is no doubt true, and what I’d like to do today is raise the stakes a bit. I’d like see your [holds up airquotes] man in the mirror statement and raise you this: Next time you find yourself glancing at your reflection—say, in the window of a rush-hour L train in mid-August, your car’s A/C inoperative, your perspiring body smashed against scores of other perspiring bodies, the thought racing through your mind: Why the hell didn’t I just CitiBike to work?—remember that it’s not just you who are going to be kicking the bucket but all of your fellow passengers as well.
Or, say, the next time you catch your mug in the smoky screen of your computer after it crashes and you’re rebooting, remember that it’s not just you who are going to be visited by Mr. G. Reaper in due time but all your coworkers as well (that is, all your open-office-planned coworkers whose Skullcandy earbuds will likely be stuffed so deep into their skulls that they won’t be able to hear your cries for help when you’re unable to reboot).
Which is to say: Don’t forget that your fellow man, woman, and person that identifies as neither are going to experience capital D Death someday, too, just like you. In other words: think of others as well as/or in place of yourself once in a while. Give, don’t just take. Search for meaning occasionally, not just for personal happiness. More specifically: Hold your coworker's stare a little bit longer as you tell them you’ll [holds up airquotes] circle back with the bottom line on that value proposition next Thursday. Perhaps even grab their hand once in a while and say, “I know you’re suffering, too. Life … is … hard.” Okay, maybe don’t do that, that’s a little weird. But maybe now and again ask yourself: not what you can do for you, but what you can do for others.
Anyway, lastly, and perhaps most important, as the great Greek philosopher Socrates recommended, the most noble aim is not the pursuit of happiness, or the gaining of riches, or even the search for meaning, but this: knowing thyself. Which all the greats in history knew. Even Rocky Balboa.
As you might recall, midway through “Rocky,” Adrian Balboa asks the Italian Stallion: “Why do you wanna fight?” And the Italian Stallion—who, despite his lower class, low income, wrong-side-of-the-tracks upbringing, knows himself very well—replies: “Because I can’t sing or dance.”
And so, in closing (my agent just nodded, signaling that we now have enough for an entire book), let me add one final word:
Follow me @VaultFinance.
The 21 Greatest Graduation Speeches of the Past 50 Years (Vox)
Graduation time: Skip 'Congratulations, by the way' by George Saunders and try David Foster Wallace instead (CSMonitor)
A Life Beyond ‘Do What You Love’ (NYT)
The Rise of Supersalaries, Income Inequality, and Thomas Piketty's 'Capital' (Vault)