Saturday, June 01, 2013
A Message for the Class of 2013
Rob LaZebnik, a writer for “The Simpsons,” tells WSJ’s Gary Rosen what he would have said to the Class of 2013—if anyone had considered him remotely qualified to address smart, high-achieving, oversexed young people.
Thank you, President and Trustees.
I have to confess that coming here to speak today raised a question in my mind: Now that high-school students are so accomplished and work so hard, would I even be admitted today to this eminent liberal arts school, from which I graduated 25 years ago? I was curious enough about this that I contacted an admissions officer here. I asked her to dig up my old application and give me a quick opinion.
This turned out to be a grave mistake. Not only was her answer "absolutely not," but a few days later I received a letter informing me that I had been retroactively denied admission to my own alma mater. To make matters worse, they culled through the entire cabinet of applications from my year and decided to revoke admission for 73% of my classmates.
If that includes any parents here today, I'm really sorry. I've printed out the non-admit list, and after my speech I'll nail it to the door of our 300-year-old memorial church, which has recently been transformed into the student-run coffee shop Jitters and Beans.
If it happens that you're on the list, you will have the opportunity to reapply, so you'll probably want to work on bulking up your application right away. A good start would be to show up tomorrow at 8 a.m. for dorm cleaning crew. And maybe this summer you'll want to get an unpaid internship at the charity that you pretend to care about the most.
My own sudden lack of credentials caused me to reflect on the fact that I—and apparently most of your parents—couldn't hold a candle to you when we were applying to college. So I want to pay tribute to the spectacular collection of new graduates sitting here today.
In high school you were National Merit Scholars, student council presidents and captains of your fencing teams. You took dozens of practice SATs, practiced viola for thousands of hours (violinists are a dime a dozen) and French-braided the hair of homeless veterans.
You masterfully tied together a set of emotional symptoms that looked enough like attention deficit disorder to buy you extra time on all your finals and standardized tests. Plus, you got to take the exams in special quiet rooms, where a test facilitator would sharpen the pencils outside, because the grinding sound triggered your acute sensory overload. (Which somehow didn't preclude your part-time summer job at Blenders Juicery.)
You hired private college advisers to read your essays and hone your interview skills. Just think back to those valuable sessions where you learned to practically leap out of the chair talking about your passion for writing one-act plays in Cherokee, or how your heart raced that summer on the Mongolian steppes when you first spotted an ovoo monitor lizard, once thought to be extinct.
And you learned to deftly walk the college interviewer through your many achievements while still showing carefully modulated self-effacement: "Yes, I helped design the CO2 scrubber that will save humanity from global warming, but it was totally a team effort."
Then you arrived at this great institution, where you dabbled in a couple of your passions, only to quit them after freshman year because you found new ones: playing hundreds of rounds of "Settlers of Catan" and having long debates into the night over which Stark son is hotter on "Game of Thrones."
The keys of your $20,000 Powell flute became rusted shut after it was put to use as a bong for the last two years. Your Wilson Pro H22 tennis racquet quickly became a drying rack for your underwear once you found out that the college tennis team was filled with power-hitting recruits from Estonia and the Ukraine who could knock a flash drive off the top of your head with a backhand.
So you relaxed into college life—a well-deserved break after the exhausting race to get here. You've spent four years percolating in a warm stew of beer, gender studies and online pornography—which led to the subject of your senior thesis, "Jacobean Dramatic Tropes in Modern 'Massage Surprise' Videos."
Fortunately, your parents, who had become so accustomed to guiding you through the myriad decisions you had to make to get into this place, have been able to stay in constant smartphone contact. You've been able to call them when you were at the salad bar and couldn't remember which salad dressing you like. You were able to email them your sociology paper—and luckily, Dad's colleague Elliot at the firm had an M.A. in sociology and was able to make a few helpful suggestions, such as the central argument, supporting evidence and the pull-it-all-together conclusion.
Mostly, though, you've spent your last four years being ... well, at home.
When I said goodbye to my son at freshman drop-off day, I was thrown into a black despair over how much I'd miss him. But as it turned out, he had so few weeks of actually being at college that I never had time to miss him. Misty-eyed, when the rest of the family was having dinner, I'd say, "I wonder what Johnny's doing right now," and then I'd hear him call from the family room, "I'm watching 'Arrested Development.'"
But let's not understate the big achievements you've racked up during the 70 or so days you've actually spent on campus. The first, and perhaps finest accomplishment, is having persuaded your parents to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to extend your childhood for four years.
Let's also not forget how hard you've worked to find something to protest against. In my day, it was apartheid in South Africa. In yours, it's championing people who wanted the God-given right to use a gender-neutral bathroom. Thrillingly, you petitioned the President and Trustees and won: Now guys can make both bathrooms on every dorm floor equally disgusting.
But there is another huge achievement that your generation will take away from college. A great stroke of genius that you have collectively devised, marshaling all of the intelligence and drive that got you admitted here in the first place: the hookup culture.
You've had vast amounts of sex—weekends upon weekends of bed-swapping that began on Thursday nights. There is not a single bed, couch, lab counter, library desk, football end zone, university founder's statue, Henry Moore sculpture or monkey research cage on top of which you, the outstanding class of 2013, haven't copulated.
And you young straight men, in particular, have had amazing advantages. This school, like every other liberal arts institution today, is 60% women. Factor in a gay population of 8% to 10%, and the odds were massively, groaningly in your favor.
In my day, the male/female ratio was 50-50. Sadly, it was decades before women saw "The Social Network" and realized that by inviting the awkward kid next to them at the cafeteria's gluten-free station to bed, they could get in on the ground floor of a Zuckerberg or even a Winklevoss.
We didn't have a hookup culture. We had a dating culture. And even that was a culture I was on the periphery of, much like Jane Goodall watching chimpanzees through binoculars—hopeful that the chimps would invite her over but more terrified that they would rip her face off.
So I stand here, looking at this beautiful, 60% female crowd, and wonder what the hookup culture would have meant to me if I'd been in school today. I suspect it would have given me many more opportunities to be the only person not having sex.
I want all of you to take a moment and honor yourselves for this signature sexual revolution. Take heart in the idea that no matter how hard things get, no matter what failures you endure, you will always have the memories of the night when you and a drunk sophomore did it on top of two passed-out lacrosse players.
Unfortunately, those are memories you'll have to cling to a lot, because here is your dilemma: You, the best-prepared college generation ever, have just spent four of the most formative years of your lives in an environment that's the exact opposite of the real world. Every room you've walked into here was filled with ambitious, fascinating people who shared your interests in which pizza places took online orders and what your zombie kill count was in "Call of Duty: Black Ops II."
Your life has been a nonstop ride of work, study and fun. Now, though, you're about to walk out of those iron gates and … what? You're headed into the most challenging labor market of the last 80 years.
Because you're driven and have been told over and over in speeches like this one to follow your passion, you're going to write eye-catching job query letters and send them with bulging resumes to the heads of Greenpeace, the Aspen Music Festival, ESPN, the Clinton Global Initiative, "The Colbert Report" and Tesla Motors TSLA -6.85% .
That will take three days. Then you're going to have months and possibly years of free time ahead of you. Free time that you won't know how to fill, because you've never really had any before.
Here's where I'd like to give you some concrete suggestions. One: Write a movie or graphic novel (six months, minimum) and then put it on Kickstarter, asking for $25,000 to put it into production. That will give you another t30 days to track the progress of your contributions from friends and relatives, who secretly hope your goal won't be reached so they won't have to fork over the money, read your book or see your film.
Idea two: On the social media app Foursquare, a person who spends the most time in a venue becomes its "mayor." Achieve this distinction at your local Starbucks, SBUX -0.52% beating out the guy who's constantly on his cellphone trying to sell medical office furniture and the woman in the corner who makes doll house furniture out of wooden coffee stirrers.
Idea three: Constantly monitor news sites for breaking stories and then try to be the first to tweet an edgy joke about what's happening. Speed is of the essence here, because within minutes others will carpet bomb the same territory with comedy, but if you're first out of the gate, you'll get the retweets. This won't land you a job or get you paid, but you can't underestimate bragging rights at friends' engagement parties.
A final idea is to go to the least expensive graduate school you can find and just hunker down. You'll want to look as young as possible when actual good jobs come in three to seven years and you're competing against new grads, so try not to get any wrinkles—stay out of the sun and don't smoke or react facially to anything, even if the Cubs win the World Series or if they find out that Amelia Earhart ate her navigator Fred Noonan.
I know that I haven't given you the keys to happiness in this speech today, but what more can you expect from someone who's just lost his B.A.? I believe that because most commencement speakers have been so successful, they think they can identify the ingredients that led them to success. But they tend to discount the major role that simple good fortune and timing played in their prosperity. So I advise you to ignore all the clichés of the typical commencement speech and do what your generation does best: get lucky.