05/08/2013 02:29 pm ET Updated Jul 08, 2013

My Imaginary Commencement Address

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On May 30, Lehman College-CUNY will hold its commencement exercises for the Class of 2013. Lehman is my alma mater, class of '72.

No one asked me but, nevertheless, I feel it's my duty to offer this commencement address to these hard-working men and women graduating in just a few short weeks.

Much has been written about the times we live in and the challenges we face, locally, nationally, and around the globe. In many ways, the words of William Faulkner never rang truer: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

I graduated from this school more than four decades ago and I remember graduation day perfectly. And that is because I was not there. Yes, I chose not to go to my own graduation.

You see, the real New Yorkers amongst us know first-hand, or at least understand, that 1972 was a time of great danger and tumult and stress, as is our world today. A cap-and-gown day was simply not my cup of tea, back in the day.

That year, Nixon -- who was reelected, and did not resign until two years later -- cut troop levels. But the Vietnam War was still on. Nixon's draft lottery still determined whether a young person went to war, or not. Many of us were on tenterhooks.

Our city was deeply troubled in 1972. The job situation was rapidly deteriorating. New York City shed 10 percent of its population from 1970-1980, and the economic storm clouds that led to the infamous 1975 Daily News headline Ford to City: Drop Dead! gathered. Fortune 500 companies fled. Half of our city's one million manufacturing jobs were lost from 1965-1975. The murder rate nearly doubled from 1965-1972. Neighborhoods tottered.

Even in this era, which pre-dated social media by more than 30 years, a whirlwind of bad news swept the airwaves, as we graduated.

As a bowed-but-not-broken survivor of those times, I stand here, today, to offer you these bits of advice:

  • Fight! Use your sharp elbows to muscle your way into the world. Yes, jobs are much harder to come by. But your tools -- your brains, your ability to think ahead, and your electronic platforms -- will enable you to clear a path to success. It will not be easy. But the opportunities will come to those who fight for them.
  • Rape Their Brains! Using your networking skills, find your mentors and, once you do, pull every bit of wisdom and knowledge from them. I once had a Parisian boss who had this advice for me, issued with a thick French accent: "Rape Their Brains!" It sounded more like "Rep Dare Brens!" but you get the idea.
  • Volunteer! Thankfully, so many of your generation volunteer for community service already. I sadly admit I came to volunteerism only later in life. Please: Continue your good works. New York needs you. And volunteer work is so good for your soul.
  • Read Everything! Do not limit your reading to job-related tools, or materials directly related to your chosen profession. Read fiction. Read poetry. Read the best stuff -- and read junk, as well. But please: Keep reading and don't stop.
  • See the World! People from all over the country -- all over the world -- come to New York City to visit, and to make their home. There is a darn good reason why so many New Yorkers stay in the tri-state area, for generations. You will be better served, however, to get out and see our great country and to travel abroad. New perspectives and experiences, opening a broad swath of people, places and things, will make you a very rich person.
  • Ask Tough Questions! Poke. Prod. Look under rocks. Push people out of their comfort zones. The more you question, the more you learn. Embrace the effort, avoid easy answers and, for heaven's sake, don't rely on Wikipedia. Be real New Yorkers. You know, pushy.
  • Vote! Not just presidential elections, but every election. Vote in primaries. Vote for City Council members. Vote, vote, vote -- and drag your friends, and their friends, with you.
  • Nurture Your You-Ness! The era of the lifetime job and the gold watch and guaranteed pension is long gone. As a result, you must be in business for yourself -- Jane or John Smith Inc. Continually work your contacts, keep your sneakers on and play the chess game of life several moves in advance. Proactively manage your career and never, ever, lean back and relax. Trust me -- just don't.
  • Have Some Fun! A Lehman literature professor once answered a student who bemoaned a four-hour break in his class schedule on Tuesdays. "Christ!" he bellowed at my classmate. "We're in New York City! We have the best museums, the best parks, dance, theater, the best houses of ill repute! Do you honestly mean to say you cannot figure out how to spend four hours in New York?"

Godspeed, good luck, and remember: Fight!