Was Janet Yellen’s Advice to Grads Fair?

It’s graduation season, which means at least the following 2 things: 1, most parents are thinking about our kids and how we send them out into the world and the world we are sending them into, and 2, we hear a great many speeches by famous folks addressing those very questions. Whether you are the parent of a graduate or not (I am), questions regarding what the future holds for the next generation of American adults affect us all, so when one of those speeches is especially interesting, it makes me think and it makes we want to share it.

Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen spoke to the graduates of New York University, and raised the notion of celebrating technology, while also challenging its capacity not simply to fill our lives with more information, but that it often allows us to fill up on only those ideas with which we already agree and which never invite us to listen or discover. She sagely reminded her audience that a well lived life depends upon curiosity, love of discovery and the capacity to listen carefully to others. Smart stuff. In fact, I would say, sacred stuff.

Yellen went on to speak about the importance of grit – a topic close to my own heart and about which I have written previously. She stood in Yankee Stadium, where the commencement occurred and invoked the great names of Ruth, Gehrig and DiMaggio, all of whom she pointed out, “failed most of the time they stepped to the plate”.

She invoked their ability to absorb repeated failure as a model for the graduates, and while I appreciate the fact that failure is often a necessary part, and stand by both her and my own valuing of grit, this seems a bit too facile given the global realities into which we are launching our kids. I am not saying that they, as if there is a single they, have it so bad, but it’s not like it’s so easy either.

First, home run hitters are expected to strike out a lot, so it really can’t be considered a failure when they do so. Second, the three players she mentioned all became game-changing stars, and would not have been mentioned were it otherwise, so it’s kind of odd to simply speak about their failures. It’s easy to celebrate them now, but would we celebrate their grit if they had played three seasons and been forgotten soon thereafter, even if they were no less gritty than Ruth, Gehrig and DiMaggio?

So yeah, grit is great, and encouraging our kids to take risks, to fail, to get back up and do it again, is all quite important – as long as we, their parents, their peers, their nation, promise to stand by them through those processes, and not tell them that unless they become world-famous superstars, they will have done something wrong.

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