An As-Yet-Undelivered College Graduation Speech

by Don Boudreaux on July 5, 2021

in Archived writings, Complexity & Emergence, Hubris and humility, Seen and Unseen

In my latest column for AIER, I share a draft of a speech that I would give to college graduates if I were ever invited to give a graduation address. A slice:

Pay close attention to your impartial spectator.

Note that this advice is quite different from that clichéd piece of graduation-day advice to “Go out and change the world.”

Please, don’t go out and change the world. Seriously, please don’t. At least, please don’t try to change the world in the way that such a challenge is typically understood.

Above all, our world – while of course infected with many correctable flaws – isn’t so awful that change for the sake of change is called for. Billions of people today are living longer, healthier lives than ever before. Markets are expanding and creating for ordinary men and women ever more widespread prosperity and opportunities that no one dared dream of before the Industrial Age. And so any individual’s efforts to “change the world” are far too likely to change the world for the worse.

Let me put the point differently: You don’t know how to change the world in any wholesale fashion, and you can’t possibly know.

No one knows. The world is too complicated to be changed for the better through any conscious effort at grand alteration.

Look at your graduation gown. Do you know where it was made? How it was made?

Do you know how matters are arranged such that every year at this time tens of thousands of graduates across America don for a few hours gowns that they will never again see?

Of course you don’t. (Don’t feel embarrassed. No one knows.)

And I guarantee that for you to learn all the relevant details of what it takes to bring that gown to you today would consume your entire working life.

You’re a long way from knowing enough even to change for the better the graduation-gown part of the world. So you can’t possibly know enough to tackle the task of changing for the better the larger world.

The best you can do is to change some of those tiny slices of reality that are within any one individual’s ability to understand. Start a new business if you sense unmet consumer demands. If your talents and tastes allow, become a physician because you know that illnesses still afflict people. Or become a lawyer to help people write better contracts or to provide needed assistance when legal disputes arise. Or teach, if that’s your calling, to help share knowledge.

Do something productive, of course, but not with the goal of altering history or of “changing the world.”

Instead, find your niche. Be creative in it. Excel in it. And know that, by doing so, you’ll almost certainly not change the world in any way that will make headlines or result in a statue of you being erected upon your death. But you’ll be part of a huge peaceful legion of people whose cooperation and peaceful competition within markets and civil society will change the world for the better, a little bit each and every day, and yet in ways that no one today can possibly foresee. Remember, open-endedness and unpredictability are good!

Happy graduation!

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