Tess Vigeland: Throughout the show we’ve heard from the cream of the crop of 2012’s commencement speakers. The term “soaring rhetoric” comes to mind.
Commentator Charles Wheelan offers up some alternative advice.
Charles Wheelan: I know that I’m supposed to tell you to aspire to greatness. But I’m going to lower the bar here for a minute. I’m going to ask first and foremost, that you do not use your prodigious talents to mess the world up. Too many smart people are doing that already. It’s true that high school dropouts are more likely to steal cars or go to prison or end up on welfare. But if you really want to cause social mayhem, it helps to have a college degree. And the Ivy Leaguers can be the worst of all. To make that point, I want to speak for a moment about an iconic photograph from 1994 that embodies the capacity of smart, highly educated people to do really nasty things.
In April of that year, the heads of seven major tobacco companies appeared before Congress. They were all sworn in. The famous photo I refer to is of the seven executives all taking the oath at the same time. All seven of them proceeded to testify before Congress and the nation that cigarettes are not addictive. As I said this was 1994, not 1924 or 1934. The surgeon general had already reported that tobacco is addictive as cocaine or heroin. In prepared testimony, William Campbell, president of Phillip Morris, stated unequivocally, “Cigarette smoking is not addictive.”
This is, by the way, after decades during which the same companies had deliberately obscured the causal relationship between smoking and cancer, despite plenty of research making that clear and compelling link. Among the seven who took the oath, who testified that day that cigarettes are not addictive, there were a lot of impressive degrees. Three of them were from Harvard.
You are smart and motivated and creative. Everyone will tell you that you can change the world. They are right. I’m going to remind you that “changing the world” also can include things like skirting financial regulations, obscuring climate change research, designing subprime mortgages that low-income families will not understand and selling unhealthy foods to increasingly obese children.
If you work hard and focus, you could probably be awesome at all of those dastardly deeds. Creative, innovative in a diabolically underhanded way. But, to paraphrase Nike, just don’t do it. I’m not asking you to cure cancer. I’m just asking you not to spread it — literally in the case of unapologetically dishonest tobacco executives, but figuratively in the rest of your life.
If that is not enough, let me add parenthetically that this too, will make you happy. All of the research I’ve ever seen on this topic is very clear: Leading a life with purpose, however you define that, is strongly associated with happiness and well-being.
Vigeland: Charles Wheelan is the author of “10 1/2 Things No Commencement Speaker has ever said.”
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