Column: Grads, you are not victims

SAN DIEGO -- Commencement speeches are part lip service and part lip biting. You feel you should tell the graduates how great they are and how the future is full of bright sunny days. But you know that what you really should tell them is to carry...

SAN DIEGO -- Commencement speeches are part lip service and part lip biting. You feel you should tell the graduates how great they are and how the future is full of bright sunny days. But you know that what you really should tell them is to carry an umbrella.

Whether matriculating from high school or college, graduates don't need to hear about how they're going to take the world by storm. They need to be told that failures and disappointments are part of life. In fact, these things can be among the most valuable parts. If people get everything they want in life and mostly experience smooth sailing, chances are they're not setting their goals high enough.

When individuals fall short at something or suffer a personal or professional setback -- a broken marriage, a failed business, a lost job, a debilitating injury, loss of a loved one, etc. -- what matters is how they respond. Of course, they shouldn't give up. Perseverance is essential to success. But more than that, they also shouldn't point fingers, make excuses or duck responsibility for their actions. It's wasted energy, the kind that only sets the stage for more failure.

That's the message President Barack Obama recently brought to Kalamazoo Central High School in Michigan. He addressed graduates after the school was chosen as one of six finalists in the Race to the Top Commencement Challenge. The contest intends to highlight schools that promote academic excellence, teach personal responsibility and prepare students for college and careers. Part of this preparation, Obama told the graduates, is accepting that the "responsibility for your success is squarely on your shoulders." He contrasted that with how things work in Washington, where "everybody is always pointing a finger at somebody else" and making excuses for what doesn't get done.

Granted, this message could be much more persuasive if it wasn't coming from a president who, whenever he gets in a tight spot, can't wait to make excuses and point his finger at the news media, Republicans in Congress, or the Bush administration. But however imperfect the messenger, the message is exactly the right one: take responsibility for your actions and, when things don't go according to plan, don't offer up rationalizations or try to shift the blame. Just work that much harder.


If that sounds like what your grandparents used to call good common sense, it is. The trouble is that, these days, good sense isn't so common. Not when the national motto is: "Hey, it's not my fault."

We try to make sense of setbacks by cursing the heavens and depicting ourselves at the mercy of forces beyond our control. When we don't get what we want, the first thing many of us do is search out someone to blame. We've become a country of victims -- white firefighters who don't get promoted blame African-American firefighters who did, engineers who didn't get hired at high-tech companies blame the immigrants from India who did, and blue-collar workers without the education or skills to improve their prospects blame similarly low-skilled Mexican immigrants for taking their jobs.

In this economy, there are fewer jobs to take. With the national unemployment rate at 9.7 percent, and nearly half of those who are unemployed having been out of work for more than six months, college graduates are entering a work force that isn't all that welcoming. In fact, at times, it can be outright hostile.

Because of this, economists say, many of the unemployed will eventually throw in the towel and stop looking for work. And, sadly, that includes more and more young people, ages 21 to 35, the very group that one would assume would be the most resilient to hard times because they can take more risks and often have fewer responsibilities than older workers.

I have to ask the economists: How do you give up and stop looking for work? Do you also stop buying food, putting gas in your car, paying your electrical bill and providing shelter for your family? Even in a bad economy, or especially in a bad economy, there is no excuse for giving up. You should never stop looking for work. In fact, even when you have it, you should constantly be looking for more of it.

Newly minted college graduates probably don't want to hear this sort of thing. But it would serve them well. After all, things won't always go their way. And, when they stumble, it's up to them to get back on their feet.

Ruben Navarrette can be reached at .

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