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Citizen Dave: My speech to UW Urban and Regional Planning graduates

A few years ago I was invited to give a commencement speech for Edgewood College graduates. I wasn't invited back. In fact, I was never again asked to give a commencement speech anywhere. I guess word got around.

But on Saturday night, I did give a "keynote address" to the graduates of the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at UW-Madison. Not officially a "commencement speech" and I didn't get to wear a robe or anything, but still close enough. So, I adapted my Edgewood address for that audience.

Here, for your inspiration, is that speech, delivered on May 19.

I noticed that my talk this evening has been described as a "keynote address" as opposed to a "commencement speech." I'm not sure why this is but I want to register my keen disappointment with the organizers.

During all the time I was mayor I was only asked to deliver one commencement speech. I thought it went over quite well, but I was never asked to deliver another one and since this is apparently, technically a "keynote" and not a "commencement," my pathetic record of one measly commencement speech remains intact. I am bitter about this.

But it doesn't much matter. How many of you grads or parents remember any commencement speech you ever heard? For that matter, for those of you who may have graduated in the '60s, how many of you remember your commencement?

The only thing I remember about my college graduation speaker is that he was the Lt. Governor of Wisconsin. If there is any key to the door of oblivion it's being Lt. Governor of Wisconsin. Lyndon Johnson once said that being Vice President wasn't worth a bowl of warm spit. If that's true of being Vice President of the United States, what does that mean for being Lt. Governor of Wisconsin? Anyway, I sat through the speech hoping that I would never become Lt. Governor. So far, I have gotten my wish.

So, on with the keynote.

My old press secretary, Melanie Conklin of good Irish stock, told me that the speaker at a commencement ceremony is like the deceased at a good Irish wake: they need you there to have the party but they don't necessarily expect you to say very much. Combined, you all no doubt have acres of cumulative sheet cake waiting for you someplace, so I'll be brief.

Here in no particular order are my ten observations on life 31 years after my own college graduation. I want to emphasize that this is not advice and I'm not suggesting that you live your life by any of it or even that you will arrive at the same conclusions when you reach my age -- I notice that some of you already have reached my age and you may not have come to the same conclusions. These are just some random observations that you might find useful down the line... or not.

One. Oscar Wilde was right: "There are only two tragedies in life. One is not getting what you want ... and the other is getting it." Many people discover this in relation to their relationships with the opposite sex ... or the same sex, depending on your preference. Others find it with regard to the acquisition of stuff. In any event, I've found that the pursuit of something ... a person, a thing, a job is usually more fascinating then the actual possession of it. Possession might be nine-tenths of the law, but it's only one-tenth of the fun. Success is over-rated. It's actually kind of boring. The trip is usually a better time than the destination.

Two. Most of you have maybe one more year to be cool. Coolness officially ends on your 23rd birthday. All attempts to be cool thereafter become increasingly pathetic with age.

Three. To quote Bob Newhart: "You should attempt to give the perception that you are intelligent. You don't actually have to be intelligent, if you can just create the perception. This can usually be accomplished by a reference to Kafka, even if you have never read any of his -- or her -- works."

Four. Do not get bogged down in a land war in Southeast Asia. You can substitute the Middle East for Southeast Asia. Enough said.

Five. Try to pay your credit card debts in full every month to avoid the high interest payments. Studies show that this will save you on average, approximately five million dollars over your lifetime.

Six. If you are bright, capable, charismatic and so well connected that you can raise money at the drop of a hat, do not, I repeat do NOT, consider running for Mayor of Madison any time soon. I'll let you know when you're ready. Wait. That was from my old commencement speech. Nah. Go ahead. Run for mayor!

Seven. Happiness is over-rated. This young college graduate goes to see a fortuneteller and she tells him that she's got some good news and some bad news. The young man asks for the bad news first and she says, "Well, you will be poor and unhappy until you're 30." He says, "That's terrible, but what's the good news?" She replies, "Then you'll get used to it."

Actually, I used to think that the goal in everybody's life was to be happy. And I was happy. I loved everything about my old life before I was mayor. I loved my wife and my friends and coworkers and my house and my neighborhood and the work I did. I had time to sleep and exercise regularly and eat hot meals off real plates with forks and knives. I had time to read books and listen to music and watch TV.

Then I became mayor and -- compared to that by any objective standard -- I was miserable. It wasn't unusual for me to sit down to a dinner of Taco John's tacos at 10 PM after a 14-hour day only to have to look forward to early morning the next day. But the thing is while I wasn't as purely happy as I was before or am now, I was more fulfilled.

There is no better feeling -- and it's not happiness exactly -- but there's no better feeling than that feeling of running on all cylinders. That feeling that you're stretched to your limit and using every ounce of talent you have. This is why people do all kinds of challenging things. It's why they run marathons and climb mountains and visit every major league ballpark. That's fulfillment and it trumps simple happiness any day.

Eight. The only truly unforgivable personal trait is a lack of a sense of humor. Carelessness? Who doesn't drop the ball sometimes. Untrustworthiness? Some of the most entertaining and enjoyable people around are scoundrels. But the people who really make the world a miserable place are those who take themselves or their causes too damn seriously. This is the reason I never voted for Ralph Nader.

Nine. If you hate your job, marry someone with health insurance and then quit. I actually did this. I didn't really hate my job; I just disagreed with the guy I was working for. So, a month after I got married, I offered my resignation. Unfortunately, I didn't get any time off as someone else had the gall to offer me a job before I actually obtained unemployment.

Nonetheless, I've been lucky. I've loved every job I've had since and I figure I'll enjoy whatever I do next. As a result, I didn't spend a lot of time trying to keep my job and worrying about reelection -- with the result that I achieved un-reelection. And that's okay because I love what I'm doing now. Point is that the greatest job security you'll ever have is enjoying your work

Ten. You get what you got coming. This has also been expressed as "you reap what you sow" and "do unto others as you would have them do unto you". Sometimes known as "The Golden Rule," it is maybe the world's most pervasive cliché and a staple in nearly all commencement addresses. I repeat it here for two reasons.

First, I didn't want you to be disappointed. It's kind of like watching It's a Wonderful Life for the hundredth time only to find that they changed the ending on you so that George Bailey is convicted of bank fraud and sent to prison for ten years. You've heard it before. You know it and still you might feel cheated if the speaker at your commencement didn't tell you to treat others as you'd like to be treated.

But the second reason to repeat this cliché is that it has the added advantage of being true. It's not true all the time, of course. There are injustices. But in the big picture when I step back and look at it, I'd say I've been about as well treated by others as I've treated them. You want to be treated with some degree of respect? Treat people with respect. You don't want to be hated? Don't hate. Pretty simple stuff.

When I lost my election a little over a year ago, I thought that part of my life was over. I wasn't bitter about it, but I felt that literally my very identity had died. But over time I sifted through the wreckage and started to ask myself, "if I can't be mayor, then what is it that I can do that I love doing?"

The answer was reading and writing, specifically about cities.

And this brings me to a few very brief remarks about the profession you've all chosen. I used to end all my campaign speeches with the hope that whatever our differences in Madison we would work together to create a community "worthy of the name 'home.'"

Home is a powerful concept. It conjures up connotations of family and dogs and meals around the kitchen table and backyard croquet games and a million other things. The concept of home is evocative of being rooted in a place. Of belonging to a physical spot on the planet as much as it belongs to you.

I hope you might think of planning as the important job of creating those kinds of places. Exciting places that stimulate the intellect. Fun places that give us pleasure and create good memories. Functional places that create the space for commerce and the creativity that stimulates it. The kind of places that, when citizens of those places travel the world, they get home sick for.

Your profession is one of the noblest there is because there is no place as special in our lives as the place we call home. Your job, I think, is to make or remake places worthy of the name.

You have reached a milestone in your lives. This is a good time for others to load you up with good wishes for an exciting future.

But my hope is not that you live a life free of disappointment and loss and heartache. That wouldn't be real. Instead, my hope is that you have what I've had so far: a life full of failures and successes and twists and turns and the indescribable fulfillment of using everything you've got.

Thank you and congratulations.

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