Saving the World

Thanks to two wonderful young men, I had a great weekend. My nephew, Jack, graduated from Middlebury College and I went to share the moment with him.  His soon-to-be brother-in-law, Sean, made a comment the night before the ceremony that made the speeches at the ceremony more interesting.

Sean is a newly-minted MBA. He was discussing his life goal with me and said, “I want to create jobs.” I found that a very exciting idea and one that would help a lot of people. The class of 2010 knows all too well how difficult life can be when jobs are in short supply.

During the commencement ceremony, there was some mention of the job market and the difficult times. The main address was given jointly by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn.  They gave an interesting talk encouraging the graduates to get out of their comfort zones and work to help the world. They commented that it would be great if someone could save the world “all at once”, but there are times when we just have to concentrate on those we can help and not try to fix everything.

In normal commencement form, the kinds of help they discussed involved correcting major wrongs and making the world a better place in a way which would make an interesting story, TV show, or movie. It is appropriate for new graduates to be encouraged that way.

Still, I was a little sad that Sean’s goal of creating jobs got no mention. Most of the graduates will not right great wrongs. They are, through their education and the connections they have made at college, capable of helping many people in other ways.

I am using computer software and I have a number of gadgets on my desk. The people who designed those created jobs and the tools help others create jobs. This is a definite service to their neighbors and society.

I was also troubled by a phrase used during the commencement that the graduates should strive to be part of something greater than themselves. This is a noble idea, but, in truth, it applies to almost everyone.  We are part of a family, a business, various social organizations and even the economy in general.

The need to be part of something grand can be as dangerous as it is helpful. Eric Hoffer, in his classic study of cult behavior, The True Believer, discusses the fact that many of the most ardent Nazis had lost all self-esteem and gave themselves to Nazism to have “something bigger than themselves.”

It is fine to do noble work, if that is your calling, but it is more important to realize that any work which provides a good or service that others find useful is noble. Perhaps commencement day should be about high goals, but, in the midst of an economic stumble, the person who can create jobs is performing a very noble task.

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