It took me watching a whole lot of 2023 college commencement addresses lately to find one worthy of sharing with you, all the beloved members of the Baby Boomer Brotherhood.
I wasn’t going to blog about just a good speech. It had to stand out, strike me as different, authentic, not repetitive, or predictable but a speech that delivered those new wrinkles on ideas that I had never heard before.
I found that gem. It was given last month by the governor of Illinois, J.B. Pritzker, for the graduates of Northwestern University.
Sprinkled with light humor, self-deprecation, storytelling, and blunt truth-sharing, the speech soars above the rest for its simple, valuable, and rarely mentioned insights on life after college and what it means to know when you’re in the good old days.
This speech is a well-crafted piece of original oratory power that I’ve now I’ve listened to three times and each time picked up something valuable to understand about the progression of life, how to live well, what to know, and what college means in the context of parenthood and professional life.
What first drew me in were the comments the governor made about the word cheugy, which I had never heard before but maybe you have. The Urban Dictionary defines this quirky word as “not trendy, out of fashion, and trying to be cool without succeeding.”
The governor talks about the perception college students have that their parents are cheugy but points out something I’ve felt often dealing with my own kids but haven’t articulated in such a blunt and accurate way.
“You may think I’m uncool or just trying too hard. Well, that’s fine. I don’t care. I’m a Dad. We try too hard every day. We don’t care if you don’t think that we’re cool. We are determined to plunge ahead anyway. We, Dads, didn’t start out cheugy. You made us that way. If you think your parents are crazy, it’s important you understand that you made us this way.”
My kids have never thought I’m cool. But I don’t care. I’m fine not being cool; cool isn’t that important to me and certainly not whether my kids see me as cool or not.
I also like to tell myself that they just don’t realize I’m cool because they’re not old enough nor wise enough to understand what coolness actually is.
What a cool thought by me.
Idiots and cruelty
The governor then shifted to other insights about how people behave and what the graduates should know about this.
“The best way to spot an idiot. Look for the person who is cruel. Somewhere along the way in the last few years, our society has come to believe that weaponized cruelty is part of some well-thought-out master plan. Cruel is seen by some as an adroit cudgel to gain power. Empathy and kindness are considered weak. I’m here to tell you that when someone’s path through this world is marked with acts of cruelty, they have failed the first test of an advanced society.”
You and I have dealt with cruel people in our lives and this year’s graduates will also. Cruel people are always wrong to be that way, and none of us should be cruel. Ever.
In contrast and in one of the most powerful and thought-provoking lines in the entire speech, the governor talks about people on the opposite end of the spectrum, those who are kind.
“Over my many years in politics and business, I have found one thing to be universally true. The kindest person in the room is often the smartest.”
Something to think about, this line.
Rings true, doesn’t it?
We tend to think smart people aren’t the most kind. They can be mean, condescending, and arrogant. Being this way, however, they show how unintelligent they are. The smartest people know the importance of being nice and considerate and are smart enough to know that being cruel is counter-productive and wrong.
Your Parents Don’t Want to Be Kids Again
The governor then turns to the subject of being in college and living a full life and becoming a parent or grandparent. The assumption among college graduates, he points out, is that college is the best time in life and afterward it’s just never as great.
“I think a lot of the parents and grandparents who are here traveling back half a century of life looking at their lives would tell you that there are plenty of things about being young that we don’t miss at all.”
On the day I graduated from college I thought life would never be as fun or fulfilling because, well, working life sounded like a grind and hassle. But that’s just not how life after college is. It becomes better in many ways than a college party. It gets more meaningful, more substantive, and more profound. Raising kids, teaching them how to read, and sharing what you’ve learned with them — post-college life is full of good feelings, satisfying emotions, and joys in seeing others flourish.
Life gets bumpy. Things don’t work out every time. You lose a job, struggle financially, a friend dies, and your parents pass on.
But life after college is still, for the most part, the good old days and the governor eloquently talks about them.
“The path of your life will have peaks and valleys and the good times are defined less by how old you are and more by the people you have around you. So I assure you that your nostalgia for certain times in your life won’t be defined by when the thing happened but by who you were in it with. If there are people around you who love you who can make you smile when times are hard and make you laugh when the world seems lost, then you are in the good old days. Always try to appreciate the good old days when you’re actually in them.”
These are, at least for me, the good old days. My wish is these are the good old days for you also.