(Setting: A podium at a decently respectable school, though its reputation is perhaps not what it once was. Your humble author, me, stands at the lectern, staring out at a sea of shiny, fresh-scrubbed faces. They asked for my worldly wisdom on this, their graduation day. They got it. I clear my throat and commence the commencement.)
“Don’t wear sunscreen. Or at least take it easy until the EPA sorts out which ones give you cancer.
As you graduates finish school and head toward whatever is next, it seems to raise the inevitable temptation from your elders to pass along their questionable wisdom. Like me. Right now.
I don’t have much wisdom to share, my career path is more crooked than a gerrymandered Congressional district.
But I do feel that the recent controversy over sunscreen provides some food for thought.
It seems like every few years much of our received wisdom is proven useless, obsolete or ridiculous. I talk about sunscreen because about 15 years ago it was alleged Kurt Vonnegut (he was a great writer, if you haven’t read him yet, please do so) wrote a commemoration speech where his first instruction, famously, was “wear sunscreen.” He then spun other words of wisdom to his young listeners, though he would periodically tell them, again, to wear sunscreen.
Well, the entire thing was a hoax. Vonnegut never wrote those words. And now it turns out the central refrain of the entire thing is also phony.
What are some other pieces of hand-me-down wisdom we’ve seen brutally dispelled in the past decade? I can list a few.
1. God ain’t making any more land: Used as an inducement to buy into the real estate bubble, this may actually, literally be true. But even if god ain’t making more land he sure seems to have a near endless appetite for McMansions that nobody needs or wants. The lesson here? Don’t buy something because somebody else told you something about god, I guess.
2. People will pay for quality content online: Due to the rise of the Internet the value of the written word, and writers, has been slashed more than Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween 1, 2 and that new one that just came out a few years ago. This tells me that while we have a market of ideas it is a market. And markets behave in ways that are hard to predict long term. The other lesson, I guess, is that, by and large, being a writer actually kind of sucks a little.
3. The Internet is unbelievably cool; ergo tech stocks are always cool too: Tell that to anyone who bought shares in pets.com, etoys.com, webvan.com or any of the million other now-forgotten tech stocks that went blammo. The lesson? By the time we learn about something cool it's almost certainly not really cool anymore.
4. We would never enter a war based entirely on lies: It’s long been whispered FDR knew about Pearl Harbor in advance and let it happen to draw us into war. If this is true, and I doubt it is, it still pales in comparison to the Iraq War, which was marketed, and sold completely on unreliable and un-provable assertions, aka lies, about the imminent danger of weapons of mass destruction. Then the lies were sold to us on TV by the highest members of The Bush Administration. The lesson? We are easily led, and make terrible decisions, when we are afraid. Like then voting Bush in a second time.
I could go on, and, believe me, I do. Ask my wife.
(Pause for polite, if predictable, laughs)
But that’s not the point of this speech. What I am trying to get at is the idea that the future, despite all received and conventional wisdom, remains stubbornly unknowable. Today’s truisms can become falsehoods before I’m even done with this sentence. And probably just did.
Knowing this you no longer have any good, logical reason to play it so safe, to do what is expected rather than what you want without even testing your wings on the unknown. Because in 10 years what is as yet unknown could be so commonplace as to become unremarkable, and what is known, and understood to be safe, could become completely discredited. Like banking! Seriously, remember when bankers were merely boring? And then they destroyed our economy. God, how I long for boring!
So take a risk on the unknown, which is really a risk on you. You don’t have to know how the story ends before you start writing the book. Which is something made out of paper that people read before Kindle.
So, thank you for allowing me to speak before you, but I’ve got to go. My broker is calling my iDroid, something about ePets.com shares on the cheap. He says it’s a bottom.
Oh, and, despite what I said before, yes, wear sunscreen. Just do your own research first instead of trusting me, Kurt Vonnegut, or someone imitating Kurt Vonnegut. I think the EPA’s website is a good place to start. Thank you, I hope you enjoy middle school and let's party!"
(Cheers, mortar boards thrown into the air, somewhere a baby cries from the heat.)