A Speech I would Like To Give Undergrads
on slow rebellions + avoiding little leagues + doing better
I’ll be honest, I don’t really know what to make of this one. While I was writing it, it felt like an empty fluff piece that makes vague, unspecific demands from a mostly detached demographic. Like those calls for techno-optimism and societal change that end up achieving nothing useful at all. And I considered shelving it, and moving on to the next piece.
But then I decided to publish it anyway, not every post needs to be the most useful piece ever. It was worth writing it, even if all it does is exist as a reminder to myself of what to seek, and what to avoid.
College is a ridiculous time, huh? A time of luxuriously empty days and packed weeks. Of unpredictable romance and incredible foolishness. They weren't lying when they told you it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But then again, most things are, y'know? There’s only one of this particular moment in all of history and all that.
In particular though, never again will you be surrounded by this wide a variety of hormone-fueled peers in an environment of such freedom. It makes for interesting times, to say the least.
Yet one thing is constant, as it always is within groups of humans: despite the extremeness of some individual outcomes, the group variance as a whole remains oh-so-low.
Some of you will go through incredible transformation and joy, trials and times of intense sorrow. Stuff that changes you and molds you, etc. etc. -you know how that whole spiel goes. It's still true though, the early years are the messiest and young souls are the most moldable. As they should be.
But on the whole, this entire class will be just another X— cohort.
Another year of graduating youngins, proud-but-anxious freshers. Near-indistinguishable from those the year before and the one after, and they seem to be getting more similar with time. You'll have your reunions and sacred memories, just like every other year will too.
So if this speech is anything, it's a challenge, nay an entreaty, to prove this claim wrong. To raise the variance of outcomes high enough to surprise me. And everyone else who's watching. I ask this because now and always, we need more people out there at the frontier of things.
But I'm speaking to you specifically, because in many ways, you already are there.
I wouldn't like this to sound like a discussion about privilege. None of you chose your births, you took what you were handed. But here's an undeniable fact: You are, by definition of being in this classroom, the 1% of the 1%. Across the country, a mere 8% of your age cohort will attend and graduate from college. Any college, let alone one as prestigious as this. Chances are, more than 8% of this class will have two degrees in a couple years from now.
So yeah, we're extremely lucky, and none more so than I. Think about it, I just so happened to be born at the time when the internet really got big. In just the right conditions to let me access it. With just the right background to actually make use of it. I don't know how many of you believe in God, but to say I'm grateful to Him is putting it mildly.
So if you happen to be sad you weren't born in a different place, or a different body, what is it exactly that you bemoan?
The desire to have a "better" life? There lies a never-ending path, there will always be improvements you will wish for. And you can never escape the tyranny of trade-offs. Some people have a significant part of their personality attached to their desire to live in New York, that shining beacon of the have-made-its. I guess I can understand that, it's a magical place. Or so I've heard. But this speech is for them too, if they want it to be.
The ability to do great work? You have more of what's necessary for that than most other people do. It won't be enough, but the missing bits are not the things that could be handed to you anyway.
I don't deny that the world might be messed up in many ways for a lot of you. Your families, environment and bodies might place upon you limitations that you can barely tolerate. There's things around you so broken, survival is all you ask for.
But I will still tell you; straight up, in complete seriousness and sincerity; that we still need you to be the people who fix it.
No, I won't tell you it's your duty as "good citizens", or any of that nonsense. Or that your talents mean that you owe some kind of a debt to the world. I ask it of you only because you’re the ones who can.
I repeat, you have no obligations. To put it crudely: you owe nothing to nobody. But there is also no limit to the duties that you can assign yourself. Like the venerable Simon Sarris says "everything is your responsibility". If, and only if, you take them upon you willingly.
To quote another one of my internet friends: "You’ve been given the honor of the unique ability to bring about more blessings, to be a hand of God—to run from that is to abdicate everything you’ve both taken and given."
Make no mistake, this honor is a voluntary mantle. Abdication is well within your rights, even if it will be a squandering of your abilities.
One of the funny things about being human, and getting to live just the one life, is that we end up giving others the advice we wish we'd heard. So I have to remind myself that I do not want you to do what I think you should do. I must remember just how limited my own imagination is. "Every person takes the limits of their own field of vision for the limits of the world." That's Schopenhauer reminding me that sometimes, I cannot rely my own judgement.
But I do need you to build your own, ignoring the lenses that were foisted upon you. I implore you to use your imagination, but to not be limited by it. Surprise me, and yourself. Now is not the time to think in the ways that school asked you to think.
Because school sucks in a variety of ways. Scott has a graduation speech that tells you exactly how much it sucks. If, for some reason, you want to hear of even more ways it sucks, ask me out for coffee sometime. Or subscribe to my substack. Formal education is a popular whipping horse there.
No, it isn't literal hell. I'd choose school every time over the other options. Most of them aren't pretty. But today I'm mad at school not because it's an inefficient, outdated system, but because of the subtle ways in which it ruins the future. Ways that hard to measure, and therefore easy to ignore.
So I will not tell you today what your work should be. Neither I, not anybody else, has the right to. At best, I can warn you of what the opposite looks like.
I shouldn't have to tell you how hollow academia often is. You can see that for yourselves, if you're paying attention. Remember when they told you high school was the most important time of your life? Remember when they said it was university entrance exams? Of course, this is college, and it's supposed to be different. This is the last one, the big one. Even if they've lied before, surely, nothing else is more important than these years of stud- I beg you, do not fall prey to this particularly insidious form of Gellman amnesia.
And as much as you can, avoid the little leagues. I'd much prefer that you simply hung out with your friends; in cafes, libraries or the street. Went on a hike. Formed a band. Anything but the soul-sucking minutiae of college clubs, honors courses, and silly, silly undergrad publications.
One, because they don't matter, at all. All across the world, thousands of college magazines and "entrepreneurship clubs" could shut down, and nobody would be the poorer for it. At most, it will mean a few crushed egos and the end of some Whatsapp groupchats. Like I said, net positive.
But secondly, because they're ambition traps, teaching kids that this is as good as it gets. And that they'll still be treated as a child, no matter how they handle themselves. Toy project and mandatory hand-holding. "University policy lad, no exceptions". And unfortunately enough, that lesson stays with people for far, far longer than it should.
Ambition was never about climbing the highest hill you can see. Or winning a place on the editorial board of your most prestigious journal. Or clawing your way into another internship. You know it isn’t, I know it isn’t. Yet we fall for it each time.
Ambition is about giving a shit. It's about seeing beyond the hills. Beyond what is asked of you. It involves that which Kierkegaard called the "Infinite", the part of you that yearns to transcend the current order of things. To bring into existence all that doesn’t necessarily exist but could possibly be.
And all I wish to do today is fulfill my Cowen-ist duty of raising those ambitions.
Neither you, nor I, have any clue of what the future holds, or your place in it. It's an unknown unknown of the most powerful sort. All do I know is that if you're sure of what it should be, you're wrong.
Especially with your ridiculous models of reality. What do you even know, children that you are? You think you know yourself, yet you spend half your day wrestling your shadow. You're worried about the job market, but you have no clue what it really is like. You see the narrow end of a cone, and spend your energies trying to fit through.
Thanks to the paternalism of schools, and the insulating effects of your environment at large, you know next to nothing of the world as it is. Or of what it can be. Perhaps even worse, you underestimate yourself. Yes, that's a cliché. But I've found that growing up is just the process of realizing all the clichés are true. Sue me.
Of course, they’ve already told you that you underestimate yourself, they tell you all the time. With the result that you're living in the guilt of the you you're supposed to be. The one you could be if only you applied yourself. But the more impressive version, the "possible-you" is the underestimate.
Because, as I keep repeating, our ideas of what's possible are so, so flawed. This is unavoidable, Amara’s Law rules everything around me. I'm not advising you to ignore reality, but I do implore you to see beyond it's worst parts. Especially when it tells a story that denies you hope.
Y'know, they love reminding you that your teens are the time for rebellion. They do it so that you know you're expected to stop eventually. And most people do stop, as soon as the novelty fades. You grow tired of raging, tired of fighting, maybe even tired of feeling. And that's when the Machine wins.
"The Machine wants conformity, efficiency, and productivity above all else. It wants you to bend the knee, to sell your soul, to sacrifice all that you hold dear in the name of faster and faster and more and more. It wants you to forget that bad incentives can and should be resisted, that rules are meant to be broken, that at all times you have the right to say fuck this shit, I’m out."
All the really important things change slowly, painfully slowly. So the Machine counts on you burning yourself out quickly. It needs to break your spirit when you're young and fairly powerless. Leave you thinking that this is, in fact, just a phase. But the truth is that you don't have to get boring or cynical, though you'll be forgiven if you occasionally do. The Machine does it's best to wear us down.
This is why any successful rebellion needs to be consciously maintained. Carefully planned. Intentionally followed through on. The eager young revolutionary must be replaced by a determined solider. The brash attempts at immediate transformation supplanted by a slow, thoughtful push-back that comes of a firm conviction in the kind of world you want to see.
I'm not asking you to drop-out, lead protests, start a cult or a world-changing company (those last two are often the same thing). It would be pretty incredible if you did, but nothing that difficult is strictly necessary. Listen to people who tell you to embrace foolhardy ventures the same way you would listen to a newly-minted lottery winner. And look at the ones that say those are the only ways to make a difference with pure skepticism.
For example, economists have a good, if self-serving, argument for what makes the world better: economic development. They're right, insofar as it's hard to have a good world in the absence of growth. But the argument is incorrect if it claims that everything else rounds down to zero.
Because I've found, despite all my personal cynicism (and there’s a lot of it), that people really do matter. That the things that don’t scale count in ways that transcend estimation, and that the only efforts that go in vain are those which are not sustained. I do not want you as mere excited comrades in the small battles, but as determined allies throughout a long war.
To maintain this cheerful optimism, calls for you to be brave. A call that I hope is made to the right place; you're some of the few people that can actually afford to be courageous. Not the brashness of activism or self-righteous yelling, but the quiet courage of enduring optimism. Not the foolish interfering of professional do-gooders, but the unwavering willingness to do whatever you can.
The will to actively avoid the averages, to go beyond good enough. That's all there is to do, y'know? Doing what you can, and then just a little bit better. Do not rely on your neighbor to fill the gap. That’s how we got here in the first place.
I'll be honest. There are many days, when I look out into the world and all I see are immovable walls. A world with all the alpha priced out and absolutely nowhere where my chisel can make a dent. Even if comparitive advantage says it ain't so, it bloody well feels that way.
I f-ckin hate those days.
But this is the default state, for we’ve never been taught to see the gaps in the world. Maybe it’s because it’s an unteachable skill, and is something that has to be earned. But the step that must come before that, that makes the process of earning possible, is left out: you aren’t ever taught to embrace the possibility of being wrong. Not in any way that really matters.
Sure, there are the token encouragements to dream, to think different, to go against the grain. But one glance at the revealed preferences puts the lie to those statements. In almost all ways that matter, our society is chronically bad at producing and nurturing true elites, the individuals who are capable of creating and sustaining frontiers.”
So you’ll have to do it yourself, looking directly to the people you find admirable and impressive for inspiration. I promise you, when they started out, most of them were just some guy. They just happened to care very, very much. They cared enough that seeming like an idiot for a decade or so was nothing to be discouraged by.
And so I ask, nay I beg of you, do not let the big picture suffocate you. Do not let the seeming tininess of your effort be swallowed up by the specter of an unchanging enormity. Do not let hopelessness be your response to stifled progress. Again, and forever, I ask you to brave.
I've found that there will be people who belittle this kind of soft courage. Who call it the prerogative of privilege (like that's a dirty word), or deride it as a naïve foolishness. I do forgive those folk, but I also wish they'd shut up.
But simply telling you that you have nothing to lose will never be enough. You’re responsible of feeling out the bars of your own cage, and finding them more yielding than you could ever have hoped. And there will still be the possibility of loss, as there should be with anything that involves sacrifice. Yours will be the responsibility of judging when that price is worth paying.
From a few among you, I will ask for everything you can spare. These are the ones who might even be willing to offer it all. Who echo the sentiments of Jay Parthasarthy: “I don't care about my career at all. I don't want to be a VC or lecture at Stanford or have my name on some hospital. If I worked on five failed climate startups in a row, I’d be totally happy with that, as long as they were “good failures.” So I don't care about killing my career, it never mattered to me.” You who can give the most, can create the bulk of the improvements.
Some of you (lucky bastards!), know exactly what you want to do after this. And I commend you for it. But if you can find the time to go through those plans again, see if you can find the means to be a tiny bit more generous, a little more pragmatic, slightly more thoughtful.
I ask the same thing from the rest of, in whatever way you can provide it. Whether it be the simple act of loving your neighbor, or fixing your community. Do whatever it takes to be the human in the system. A multitude of oft-invisible people will thank you for it.
When I was halfway through writing this, I had my doubts. The main one being: is this entire speech too optimistic? Does it skip over all the reasons you should instead go out there and live a completely normal, comfortable life? Is it irresponsible of me to paint a picture that is idealistic instead of honest? Maybe. Possibly. Quite likely. Who knows?
Heck, I'll go ahead admit that the futures I envision are probably impossible. And that we'll be doomed to mimetic conflict, masquerading as Malthusian, simply by nature of being human. Fighting for status, thinking it to be survival. Stamping on our own faces for all eternity. Living in cages of our own making.
But I also believe that avoiding that cruel future is much more possible than it usually seems. For this, we do not need the world to change in unimaginable ways, for every man to be swept up in transformation. All it takes is a determined handful to build the sort of place that encourages a shared and growing prosperity.
But the beautiful thing is that each addition to that small group does not lead to diminishing returns, but the exact opposite. Every new comrade acts as a multiplier on the efforts of his tribe, as well as on the likelihood of the future they want. We need all the volunteers we can get, because that future cannot come fast enough.
And maybe this dream is, in fact, too pessimistic. Maybe my lack of imagination keeps me from seeing just how good things can really get. Who can really tell, either way? As a species, predictions are not our strong suit. If I am to make one, I might as well make it hopeful.
Y'know, speeches like these normally start (or end) with a congratulations. On your impending graduation, for making it this far. But in case it wasn't already obvious, I care far less for what you've achieved in these years than for what you can do from here on out. The frontier is as large as you believe it to be.
Good luck, everyone.