Opinion: In defense of brevity, pragmatism and self-criticism
I’m a middle-aged guy who analyzes politics for a living. My wife and I have two kids a little bit younger than you all. One is in college and one is supposed to start this fall (God willing). Since I’m an old codger who doesn’t use social media, I asked them for their thoughts on what makes a good graduation address. Their response: “Keep it short. Make it useful. Don’t be super cringey.”
Not exactly John Stuart Mill, but hey, that sounds like pretty solid advice for anyone at any stage of life.
► Keep it short. Politics is the worst field ever, except for the law, academics, business, government, the non-profit sector and basically any other professional endeavor you might be embarking on upon graduation. Politics is full of blowhards and know-it-alls who have opinions on every issue under the sun often built on shifting rationales and shaky empirical foundations. And they drone on forever using dodgy language.
Don’t be political in this sense.
Rather than piping off about things you know little about, using concepts and theories that no one understands, be a normal person. Speak clearly and concisely. Master details before offering opinions. Listen to others. Use regular terminology.
As my first boss in politics and ace speechwriter, Bob Boorstin, wisely proffered in response to my windy writing: “It’s not a long yellow fruit, John. It’s a banana.”
► Make it useful. Politics, like many professions, is filled with endless meetings, discussions and ideological debates. And reports. Lots of long, tedious and not particularly helpful reports. Reports can be enlightening and even invigorating if you’re into this sort of thing. But keep in mind that most normal people really aren’t, and just want to know what you’re proposing and how you propose to do it.
Clarity is an underrated virtue.
There’s no need to produce a five-page discussion on the labor theory of value and the sources of inequality if what you really mean to say is, “Everyone should have a job and health care.”
► Don’t be super cringey. A little cringey-ness is to be expected in politics.
Politicians and other professionals love cliches, mixed metaphors and corporate buzzwords. “A rising tide lifts all boats. But we can’t put all our eggs in one basket and then misfire. We must first kick-start innovation and take a holistic approach to get new ideas into the bloodstream.”
Don’t be this person. Limit yourselves to only one cliche or corporate buzzword per week, and you will go far in life.
Avoiding excessive cringey-ness also requires self-reflection and moderation.
If you don’t have something constructive to offer in a meeting or debate, keep quiet. Not every thought in your head needs to be said out loud. The world needs both introverts and extroverts, so be sure to ask the views of those who don’t always blurt out their opinions. And remember that in politics, as in many fields, experts are constantly getting things wrong. They miss housing bubbles. They launch wars based on bad intel. They tell people to go to restaurants during pandemics without a face mask.
► Be self-critical. Assume you’ve made a mistake somewhere in your work and double check everything. Don’t be afraid to ask people for feedback. And if your theory doesn’t fit the facts, update your theory rather than dismissing the facts or creating alternative ones.
Keep it short. Make it useful. Don’t be super cringey. Solid words to live by from the youth of today.
Just remember, you don’t want to end up a dollar late and day short.
Congratulations Class of 2020!
John Halpin is a senior fellow and co-director of the politics and elections program at the Center for American Progress.