Beware the city dolls

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Commencement season is upon us again. In a tenuous economic recovery, many of the 1.6 million graduates at American colleges and universities will be listening intently for a bit of practical wisdom from their commencement speakers.

My own graduation was devoid of this rite. I dropped out of college at 19 and spent my 20s as a traveling musician. I finally finished my degree by correspondence just before my 30th birthday. On graduation day, instead of marching across a stage, I marched out to the mailbox to pick up my diploma. My commencement address was a reminder, muttered to myself, to take my car in for inspection.

In the years that followed, after a great deal of traditional graduate school, I became a university professor. Between delivering a few commencement addresses and listening to many more, here is what I believe graduates need to hear today.

1. Earn everything.

It’s true that graduates today face a rough economy. Americans in their early 20s have to contend with a 10.6 percent unemployment rate — that’s twice the rate among people age 25 and up. If still searching for a job, you might envy your classmates whose wealthy or well-connected parents can give them a comfortable life.

That’s a mistake. The best research shows that unearned resources can be toxic for well-being. One well-known study from Northwestern University tracked lottery winners. They found that while winners described hitting the jackpot as a positive event, they were not actually any happier than a control group of non-winners. Furthermore, the windfall came at a cost: The lottery winners derived significantly less happiness from everyday activities than did ordinary men and women.

What was their problem? It wasn’t the money per se. Researchers agree that wealth buys less and less happiness beyond middle-class levels, but nobody finds that more money reduces well-being. The size of the fortune is not the key variable; rather, it is whether it is earned. Joseph Schumpeter, the intellectual godfather of modern entrepreneurship, called money a “secondary consideration” and merely “an index of success.” And work I have done using data from the Ohio State University shows that people who do not feel responsible for their own successes spend 25 percent more time feeling sad than those who feel they are responsible, even controlling for income.

2. Don’t be a “city doll.”

In his magnificent 1841 essay “Self-Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson scorned elite college graduates — he called them “city dolls” — who wallowed in self-pity if they didn’t immediately land the prestigious job to which they felt entitled. Emerson contrasted them with the “sturdy lads” who hailed from remote civilizations — such as New Hampshire.

As Emerson wrote, “A sturdy lad from New Hampshire or Vermont, who in turn tries all the professions, who teams it, farms it, peddles, keeps a school, preaches, edits a newspaper, goes to Congress, buys a township, and so forth, in successive years, and always like a cat falls on his feet, is worth a hundred of these city dolls.”

Failures, false starts and midcourse corrections are part and parcel of a life well lived. Early setbacks may even prove to be a lucrative investment: A growing business literature shows that failures offer invaluable chances to learn and improve. Steven Rogers of Harvard University has written that the average entrepreneur fails almost four times before succeeding.

The Roman philosopher Seneca wrote that “difficulties strengthen the mind, as labor does the body.” Don’t meet obstacles with victimhood and self-pity. Welcome them, especially early in life, as opportunities to grow in resilience and virtue.

3. Fight for people who have less than you.

In John Bunyan’s classic “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” the character Old Honest poses this riddle to the innkeeper Gaius:

A man there was, though some did count him mad
The more he cast away, the more he had.

Gaius interprets the verse as follows:

He who bestows his goods upon the poor
Shall have as much again, and ten times more.

This insight is more than wishful thinking. There is abundant evidence that helping those in need is a powerful secret to happiness, health and even material prosperity. More important, it is the right thing to do.

In the case of charitable giving, taking this advice is straightforward: Get out your checkbook (even if you can write only a little check). In many other areas, such as one’s work, it is less clear. In my work today, I promote the free enterprise system, because I believe it has created more opportunity for the poor than any other system in history.

Examine your conscience each night by asking not what others say about your work, but rather by asking yourself whether you believe your work today benefited those with less than you. Make sure your honest answer is yes.

4. Think for yourself.

For many graduates, life after college feels like the first time your destiny has been entirely in your own hands. Unfortunately, other people will immediately start trying to force you into a new script. Some will measure your worth by the money you earn. Others will label you a victim of inequality because you earn less than someone else.

Don’t let yourself be defined in these materialistic ways. Measure your life’s value as you see fit. You might choose to feed the hungry, manage a firm, coach a team, or front a band. But whatever the life, boldly live it on your own terms. Put aside envy and resentment and pursue happiness.

A sturdy lad “walks abreast with his days,” to quote Emerson once more. “He does not postpone his life, but lives already.”

There you have it. Earn everything, fail well, fight for others, and think for yourself. Live already.

And don’t forget to take your car in for inspection.

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Arthur C.
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