An open letter to college seniors from a proud parent of one
You guys got a raw deal. The final semester of college is supposed to be one of the most memorable times of your life. You worked hard and deserved a chance to celebrate the final days of youthful freedom with your families and friends.
The coronoavirus took it all away. Social distancing means closed campuses, empty dorms and off-campus housing, online learning, no parties, no bars, no sports, and, in all likelihood, no senior week or graduation ceremonies.
Moreover I know many of you are scared about your job prospects as the virus wrecks the economy and we seem to be on a crash course with a recession.
There’s no sugar coating it – the whole thing sucks.
But I’m not writing this letter to wallow in your understandable sadness. It may be hard to see but there are silver linings in the dark clouds now hovering above your class.
Let’s start with your career prospects. Entering the professional world in this unique time will give you a chance to develop invaluable skills not taught in school: flexibility and resiliency.
I realize this may be hard to imagine after 10+ years of economic growth, but you’re not the first class to graduate into a recession. Many of your parents (like me) either entered or were in the workforce in the late 80s or early 90s when it was hard to find a job. In my case, I couldn’t find work so I volunteered as a literacy tutor at a halfway house for ex-convicts. It wasn’t what I or my parents had in mind, but it exposed me to people, issues and perspectives that I never would have gained otherwise.
What this experience can teach you is that whatever plans you may have made for your future, sometimes the world doesn’t care. Planning is essential, but plans themselves can be and often are rendered useless by circumstances beyond our control. You can’t always bend the universe to your will so you must be adaptable and learn to roll with the punches.
In the short term it may be hard to see the benefits when things don’t go as planned. Often it takes time and distance to appreciate the meaning of events. In my case, while I didn’t know it at the time, being a literacy tutor made me interesting and different to my first boss in what was an otherwise horrible job interview. But he took a chance on me. And more than 20 years later my early experiences helped me forge a connection with the boss who gave me my first CMO role, who took an even bigger chance on me.
These are uncommon skills, difficult to develop during our youth. The linear nature of education certainly doesn’t foster it. Think about it, up until now if you did reasonably well and showed up you got to advance to the next grade. But your career and life, unless you’re incredibly lucky, won’t be a straight line to the top. It will be messy, with bumps and wrong turns along the way. And thanks to the coronavirus you have a chance to develop these invaluable character building skills now.
Second, the coronavirus is providing you with a powerful communal experience that over the long term can bond your class together in ways that even the best senior week never could.
The world in which you came of age demands that your smart phone becomes almost a permanent appendage and fractures you, and frankly all of us, into micro tribes on social media. It’s no wonder that the idea of true communal experiences is practically extinct. Billions of views on YouTube or millions of followers on Instagram may sound impressive, but they create like minded tribes, not true communal experiences including broad, diverse cross sections of people.
Communal experiences are essential to forging a cohesive culture. Something our society, and you, desperately needs right now. Ask your grandparents about their memories of life during the Great Depression or World War II. Like the rest of his generation, my father never forgot where he was the day Pearl Harbor was bombed. For later generations the Vietnam War, Apollo moon landings, Space Shuttle missions (and disasters) as well as 9/11 bound together people from all walks of life.
Shared experiences give you a starting point for forging a connection with a person who you otherwise may not share anything in common. Maybe 20 years from now you’ll be asked to collaborate on a project with a peer who may seem different, unlikeable or even strange. But I guarantee you can engage that person in a conversation by asking about their experience during the coronavirus pandemic. That’s powerful. Cultures improve one positive connection at a time.
And finally, this experience hopefully will teach you, and all of us, how to make social media a more consistent force for good in the world. I’ll spare you the typical parental rant about how much time kids waste on smart phones and Snapchat. You don’t want to hear it and it doesn’t matter because there’s no going back to a world without them.
Social media at its worst divides, fractures and separates. It creates a haven for cowards and mean spirited people to bring down others. Many of you, unlike the rest of us, are true natives to this world and navigate it expertly despite the dangers. But you wouldn’t have had to if the rest of us, the adults in the room, took the potential dangers more seriously when these technologies launched.
Now, thanks to the coronavirus, you are getting a rare opportunity to see how social media and always connected technology can bring people together, ease the pain of social distancing and provide comfort and hope to those in need. That was the original promise of the technology. Yes, bad actors remain even in times of crisis, but this class will be uniquely poised to correct the mistakes of the rest of us and create a better, more meaningful future for social media because of your native talents and the impact of this experience.
In closing I think you will find that over the course of your life the universe has a way of balancing the scales. For all that you’ve lost these past few weeks, much greater things lie ahead. Just like the saplings that emerge after scorching forest fires, I believe your class will be the first signs of our renewal. It may not be the destiny you imagined, but it has the potential to be infinitely more powerful.
Congratulations, Class of 2020. Take heart, the world needs you now more than ever. The best is yet to come.