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The politically incorrect commencement speech

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Dear 2020 graduates:

You already have gotten one slap in the face with all ceremonies and the following parties being canceled. Have your second cheek ready for further blows of reality. There will be a shortage of jobs for those of you who will seek them, and there will be fewer advanced education opportunities if you choose that path. But do not feel sorry for yourself; feel blessed. Why? Because hardships give you the benefit of experiencing life at its worst. On day one, you will face challenges that, reaching decades back, your predecessors did not need to fear.

For those of you who just graduated from high school, welcome to adulthood as it is, not as you wish it would be, or not as someone might promise it to you. In my native country of Poland, a high school diploma is called a certificate of maturity. The high school ends with a – considered harsh – maturity exam. When handing high school diplomas to their former pupils, instead of using first names as they might have done minutes before, teachers, for the first time, call them as Ms. Kowalska or Mr. Nowak. That little spectacle is to emphasize that you entered high school as kids but are leaving it as adults. Regardless of whether there is a formal maturity exam or not, the actual maturity test starts the first day after graduation.

You may look in the mirror, doubting who you are, and wondering what you want to do with your life. All of us had those moments, and it usually takes a few years to get some meaningful answers. You are lucky because stark reality will make your choices clearer. You will mature faster, which might be a daunting experience. But, if you overcome that hurdle, you will be like hardened steel when facing the next challenges.

blankAs the old saying goes, every cloud has a silver lining. You are fortunate that you are being forced to look for that silver lining in your very first adult decisions. The secret of becoming happy and prosperous is in finding something positive in whatever bad is happening to us. Try to see that silver lining in every obstacle you will ever encounter until your last day.

In your early teens, when entering high school, you already felt like almost adults and impatiently counted the days separating you from the formal recognition of your adulthood. Now, once you have achieved it, I have bad news for you: The next counting is to your last day. I hope all of you will be among the first, apparently already born, who will live until the age of 150. But we know that most of you will be gone much sooner – many too soon. Have this in mind when making your life choices. As none of us knows in advance how many days we have been given, do not waste any of them. Do not waste even one minute of your life. Every one of them is precious. Even in the smallest tasks, engage merely if you can see a superior purpose behind them. Whatever you do, do it the best you can. Life is too short to waste even one minute of it.

Do not get lured by today’s doubtful pleasures or conveniences that can be corrected tomorrow or next year. That next day or next year might not be there for you. Like many of us before, you soon will realize that with every year, birthdays seem to come more often than before. Do not get caught with regrets when because of age, illness, or economic conditions, it will be too late to mend your earlier mistakes. Live every minute of your life as if it is the one before your last. This way, when the final moment comes, you will be at peace with yourself. You will know that whatever you got, you lived it to its fullest. If you live your life this way, happiness will happen to you without you even trying.

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If you graduated from college, just by selecting the course of your education, you have some primary life decisions already behind you. What you have learned in your specialization will work for you. The additional few years you spent in school will work against you. Schools by design tell you how things should be in real life. Professors are like Catholic priests (those obeying the canonical law) teaching sex education. As the ones not practicing, they might have a valuable perspective. As the ones who read all the relevant books, they know about things that are better to learn in the classroom than in life’s school of hard knocks. But whatever you learned in school is like sex; you cannot master it unless you practice it. Also, usually, it is much more complicated than as seen in the movies.

Regardless of whether you have a diploma from high school or one with a doctorate title on it, do not get overwhelmed by what you know. It only defines the borders of what you still do not know. What you do not know is much more than you ever can learn. Knowledge is like an endless universe. You cannot conquer it all; the name of the game is in exploring it as much as you can endure.

Some may tell you that if you want to specialize in art history, you do not need math or biology; if you study math, you need not learn geography or literature; and so on. This approach assumes that you will be a tiny cog in the machine, the complexity of which you would never comprehend. If you want to be a fully developed human, you need to have a broad basic knowledge. You need to make sure your old-fashioned human intelligence is well advanced to survive in a world where artificial intelligence takes over many tasks that, until recently, had been done by humans. You will be fine if you follow the old rule that an intelligent person “tries to learn something about everything and everything about something.

blankCOVID-19 reminds you that we live in the global world now. Embrace it. We are all connected. Data tells us that education in the United States is not as good as in many other countries. You might be a part of this statistic. Do not be soothed that some might receive an even weaker education than you did. If you fall into complacency that some are still not as good as you are, one day there will be no one there; you will be the worst one. If you measure up to those who are better than you are, one day there will be no one there; you will be the best.

If you are an American, I have to confirm what you might already know, that now is not the best time for the United States for America. Foreigners have many jokes about Americans. In one of them, they ask what we call someone who fluently speaks one foreign language. It is a bilingual person. What do we call someone fluent in multiple foreign languages? It is a multilingual individual. What do we call someone speaking only one language? He or she is an American. Do not be an American who fits this joke. Learn at least one foreign language to the degree that you can connect with the culture behind it. The old saying is that one lives as many lives as the number of languages he or she masters. Also, knowing at least one distinct culture, you will always have one more perspective on whatever problems you tackle.

Riots on the streets reveal that the United States has fundamental problems. The bad news is that there is no vision anywhere on how to get out of it. The good news for you is that there is no vision anywhere on how to get out of it. You need to get America out of the current trouble. No one will do it for you. This is a challenge and an opportunity for your generation.

Your ability to act will be limited because, within the last few decades, we experienced an accumulation of wealth. As you heard it, the rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer. If you are among the 99.99% financially, you are likely in a worse position than your parents or grandparents were at your age. Your only way of correcting this is by getting rich. Yes, you have heard that there are more important things in life than money. You probably heard that when chasing a dollar, many lose their moral compass. They did not tell you that money demoralizes people, equally those who have it as those who do not. The looting we see everywhere confirms this.

blank Many of the billionaires were talked into signing a so-called “giving pledge.” They committed to give away most of their wealth to philanthropic causes. The giving pledge illustrates the crux of our problem: making money is morally dubious, living off charity is acceptable. In a healthy society, most people earn enough to support themselves. Only a few live off charity. In the United States, too many Americans do not earn enough to support a decent life. Instead of finding ways for Americans to make more by diligence, skills improvement, and entrepreneurship, our leaders went an easy way by giving alms to low-income people. Regardless of how generous that food stamps, housing support, tax income credits, and all other handouts are, they cannot make your life dignified. Dignity, like satisfaction and happiness in life, cannot be given; they have to be earned. The easiest way to get satisfaction in life is from the job well done; happiness comes from the paycheck earned, even if it is not much higher than the check handed out.

The giving pledge is just one more idea of making even more Americans dependent on charity. Behind the giving pledge is an unexpressed assumption that even if given the same opportunity that many of our self-made billionaires were fortunate to have, other Americans are not capable of succeeding. Reject this handout as contemptuous and ask for that money to be invested in start-ups. With the diminishing middle class, your chances that between you, your family, and friends, you can find the seed money needed to start a business have shrunk. The only way of rebuilding the middle class is by giving money to industrious people, with ideas and entrepreneurial drive. If only a tiny percent of them succeed, it will be enough to reverse the weakening of America. Only the billionaires have the money needed to do it. Many of them have already agreed to give their money just to keep more Americans dependent on charities. Convince them that instead, this money should go to Americans who have ideas and the drive to enrich themselves and others. That seed money should make many of you into millionaires and billionaires.  I do not know how you will convince billionaires, but if you do not ask for that money, you certainly will not get it.

For the generation of your grandparents, John Wayne was an icon portraying the romanticized characters of American frontiers. The idols were people of a strong personality, with a firm sense of right and wrong. Hard work, family, and respect for others were in high esteem. Those were values that young people were taught to follow; despite that, in real life, things were not much different from now. About 30 years ago, Homer Simpson came into existence, showing the satire of that idealized America. Critics claim that after the first 10 seasons, The Simpsons declined in quality. Perhaps it is a matter of perception. After enjoying the value of a good parody, gradually, Americans embraced the Simpsons, not as their caricatures but as their authentic portraits. There is nothing laughable when Homer Simpson is our boss, a politician, or a media personality.

Those of you who already have an account at LinkedIn may receive emails with the subject line: “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” In the world, as portrayed by John Wayne characters, it is about who you are and what you know. It is the same in every respectable organization. In the world of Homer Simpson, it is about whom you know. LinkedIn is just one example; you will face that “simpsonization” all over America. Do not accept it. Do not become a caricature of yourself.

blankWhen seeking solutions to problems that America is facing, do not listen to people who have answers, listen to people who have questions. You can figure out the answers. Do not listen to doomsayers that nothing can be done because of this or that. Everything we can do better than before. But the first step is in understanding that any deficiency can be corrected by clearly defining its essence. Focus on that one and dismiss ideologues pushing their solutions in abstraction from the facts. Because, if you define the problem properly, you are already halfway to the right solution.

Dear graduates, you have a rough start. But you are blessed with challenges of epic proportions. Start working on them today. The future is yours to enjoy. Live your life in a way that, at the moment of your last breath, your last thought will be that you contributed to making the world around you better than it was when you started.

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Henryk A. Kowalczyk
An engineer by training, an argumentative writer by calling, and an entrepreneur by necessity. In my youth, I was among those Polish political writers who paved the road to the peaceful system transformation that took place in 1989. Since 1985, I have lived in the Chicago area. Working in the service business, I have experienced an America not known to most politicians and political writers. I have built from zero a few successful businesses, both in Poland and in the United States. I write whenever I see that the prevailing voices in the political arena are misleading or erroneous. I write to tell it like it is.

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