Famous, Happy… and Making a Difference…

This is the season for high school and college graduations… and a time when the famous and semi-famous are often invited to provide inspiring graduation speeches.  I’ve never been asked to speak at any graduation, because I’m obviously not even semi-famous enough, but I’ve often thought about what I might say.

 Over the years, I’ve heard students, in responding to questions about what they intend to do, express sentiments such as “I want to be famous.” Or they want to be happy or rich.  The more idealistic among them want to do something meaningful or “make a difference.”  And, of course, all too often, graduation speakers talk about “these talented graduates” and how they can change the world.  They offer inspirational advice that implies close to instant achievement… and sometimes more.

 Now, perhaps I’ve been at the wrong graduations at the wrong time, but the ones I’ve attended, and there are more than a few, given the number of offspring we’ve had, often miss one of the most basic points.  I’m sure that some speaker, somewhere, has made this point, but I suspect that it’s fairly rare. 

 All the lofty aspirations too many students and speakers mouth are all results, and sometimes, as in the case of being happy or famous, they’re not even goals that anyone can attain directly.  There is no business and no profession that creates happiness or fame directly [Hollywood and the Internet notwithstanding], and there’s not a single profession entitled “make a difference.” To be happy, you have to take satisfaction in what you do in life and in the people with whom you associate.  That means acquiring significant expertise in a field, and that requires, usually, long and dedicated effort.  The same is true of relationships; they just don’t happen.

 As for doing something meaningful or making a difference, that generally requires even more education and years of effort.  In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell makes the point that in every field, to be successful takes not only innate talent but at least 10,000 hours of dedicated and focused high-level effort.  That’s 10,000 hours of practicing piano or singing, always trying to master more and more difficult pieces, not to mention needing a solid mentor and teacher. That’s 10,000 hours of writing computer codes, building your own hardware and programming it.  That’s generally a minimum of ten years of intensive application in a single field, most of it after finishing formal education.  Athletic success has to start earlier, of course, as does most musical performance, because muscles have to be trained as they develop… but it still takes 10,000 hours.

 So… all those lofty aspirations… those of you about to graduate can pretty much kick them aside unless you want to work with incredible dedication for the next ten years, and that’s just the beginning!  As for the less lofty aspirations, such as being happy, achieving them still requires an interest in and a dedication to something that you like doing that pays the bills, because, frankly put, no one stays happy long if you can’t put food on the table, clothes on your back, and a roof over your head.

 Talent, intelligence, and ideals are just the beginning of the beginning… and that’s something that’s not often emphasized enough.  Not that anyone’s going to ask me to give that speech.

5 thoughts on “Famous, Happy… and Making a Difference…”

  1. Ryan Jackson says:

    I would say that there’s one other step in this issue that educators are missing these days. Helping the students realize where their strengths are.

    As corny as “Job days” and such are presented, there are students, who may be very talented, who just don’t know where they want to go. A good teacher, or the effort of a good program can help get the student to see what’s out there.

    I left school in that lable of “gifted, talented, superior, etc” But really had no idea what I wanted to do. The only really emphasis given to me had been placed on generic ideas like “Tech jobs pay a lot” or even simpler “go to college”. Because of that I spent roughly a decade having various jobs, but never a carreer. It was literally luck and chance that I found my niche. I started at a company working collections and after a year posted for a Fraud Investigator spot because it looked interesting. Fast Forward 6 years and I have a carreer here, not a job, and I’ve found not only a passion for investigation work, but a knack and joy in helping teach others the job and how to excell at it.

    Back in Highschool the idea of criminal justice was never even brought up to me. Neither was the idea that I had a good ability with imparting knowledge to others. But looking back I can easily see signs of both those aspects of myself even in my teenage years.

    So maybe we need a new two pronged approach? Study the students better to help them find out what they want to do, then explain exactly how much hard work it’s going to take and get them started.

  2. Rebecca Jacobs says:

    Thank you for your blog. I have enjoyed it for quite a while but haven’t ventured to post before.

    I agree that success in life can require education, sacrifice and dedication. It’s true that this isn’t mentioned enough in today’s world.

    I also know that you can make a real difference without an extensive education. I recently lost a son with intellectual disabilities. I was amazed by how many people attended his funeral. Many have expressed to me how much of an impact our son made in thier lives. He helped many appreciate the simple joys of life. Although he could speak very little, he communicated his love and caring for those around him. His spirit could express what he couldn’t say in words.

    I believe that those of us without the challenges my son faced can learn from him and try to make small but real differences in the lives of others as we work toward our goals.

  3. R. Hamilton says:

    At least making a difference is still on the list, even if many have been willingly misled by the rarity with which it’s mentioned that it’s likely to require a lifetime of hard work and still have no guarantees.

  4. James Fargo says:

    I liked and understand the comments expressed in your Famous, Happy… and Making a Difference article. Two of your characters in the saga of Recluce series, Rahl, an apprentice scrivener and Kharl, a cooper, were not necessarly happy, certainly not famous but did end up making a difference in their stories. Both characters still have a story to be told with what they would accomplish with the responsibilities that have been giving to them at the end of book two of their two repective stories. They are now famous (a little, any way) and can do good and wonderful things. I hope you would consider writing one more book for their stories.

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