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An Open Letter to Graduation Speakers

06/13/2014 04:22 pm 16:22:04 | Updated Aug 13, 2014
Paul Bradbury via Getty Images

Stop telling lies.

Yes, dreams come true. But just because somebody's do, doesn't mean that everybody's can. The "pursue your passion" message so much in vogue is being taken as a game plan: and many in the graduating classes you are speaking to are not only thinking they will be the next Steve Jobs or Oprah Winfrey or Jim Carrey, but are convinced that wanting it badly enough is the most essential component to getting it. In fact wanting it "badly enough" is probably the least important reason people succeed.

Youth is by nature ambitious. Every college graduate pretty much wants to be rich, successful, a visionary. They're not going to stop wanting those things because you don't encourage them hard enough. However, they are also getting the message that smaller, more obtainable dreams are somehow too small, too secondary, not capable of being the scaffolding to a deep happiness of smaller pleasures. They're full of fears that if they don't aim high right away, they'll be compromising, and many of them have expectations of leapfrogging to heights that they aren't prepared for, either professionally or psychologically.

When I had a choice in the '70s of transferring from a state school to a private school, I could have gone to Yale or to NYU. At Yale I would have probably gotten a degree in French Languages and Literature, and gone on to get a PhD. I imagine I would now be a professor in some leafy university. I chose NYU, because the film school was starting to gain prominence; I thought I was a good writer -- I should do things the "right" way. At first it looked liked I had -- the screenplay of my first film won a few awards. I wrote another. That film was hopelessly miscast by a collaborator turned asshole, and the third ran out of money. Still, by far my biggest roadblock was that my Manhattan social life was far more interesting to me than making the connections and doing the writing I needed to be doing. I had a dream that required more self-discipline than I had.

AIDS didn't help. Right in the middle of my 20s it was like a bomb going off. It started killing my friends, my brother, threatening me. It completely screwed with my sense of future possibilities -- and when it killed the director of my first big Hollywood project, I decided to put screenwriting aside, go on disability, and live like I was going to die tomorrow. As you can imagine, the mix of impending death and recreational drugs only led to the "fun "of addiction; by the time the miracle drugs gave me a new lease on life, I was 44 and had a prison record.

Ten years after reconstructing my life I finally have a masters and hopefully will be working at a private school soon. I owe considerable debt. I have discovered a love of teaching that could have been mine all of these years. Those on whom I model the alternative past I might have lived have written fantastic books, and their screenplays have just as good chance selling as my new ones do. But I'm not where they are -- with a comfortable income, interesting work, and a pension, because I wanted to go for the big dream, instead of the small dream that got bigger. Perhaps I would have left academia to move to Hollywood, who knows? But I surely should not have held such a less glamorous route in contempt.

I didn't want to be like my Mom, a high school French teacher -- a job I would kill for now. She started out with bigger dreams, but the war altered hers. The practical choices she made as a result ended up making her the family breadwinner, (my father was the impractical dreamer) and put five of us through college. Her tenderness, commitment, and kindness as a parent never felt like part of a compromise to her. She was a working Mom when the idea of wanting to "have it all" would have made her laugh. You worked hard because a job well done was always satisfying and you needed the money. You had children because there is nothing that can ever make you happier than love them. She didn't read that in a book, she lived it as her truth.

We are shaming a whole generation into thinking there is something wrong with wanting a steady job, a good marriage, and perhaps some children, as if doing all those things and only making a modest living doing it somehow constitutes being a failure. This is bullshit. If you have a particular passion or talent, you should pursue it, but if your band doesn't make it or your screenplay doesn't sell, you can still guarantee your daughter will be able to say you were the most loving and present Dad anyone could ever ask for. Maybe that restaurant will succeed and you'll discover you don't want to open a second one -- it's too much work. Maybe you'll let your husband make all the money because you find incredible satisfaction giving free art classes to poor children, or visiting nursing homes where too many old people lay abandoned. This is what some dreams end up looking like, and why not?

There's only one thing that only ever comes true: the future. If you want routine and job security and a steady paycheck you shouldn't have to apologize to anyone. And if you want to build water pipelines across the nation under high-speed rail lines, and make a bazillion dollars, then go for it. But no one dream is better than any other, and some of the very happiest people you'll ever meet have only one dream in common: they choose to be present to their experience and do the next indicated thing.

Everybody needs to feel their dream is no worse than anybody else's, that they can even have no dream at all.