“Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” These are the words of the late tennis star and humanitarian, Arthur Ashe. I thought them apropos of the season for a number of reasons. It is, after all, graduation season. The colleges are out already and my son graduates high school today. Between myself, my wife and children, my family has a lot of experience with a lot of graduations and these words could seem quite useful to new graduates embarking upon the next phase of their lives. In fact, I wish someone had said them to me when I graduated high school in 1973.
We often tell our graduates that they must find their inner muse and pursue their passion. That’s pretty hard to do when the sum total of life experience is so small. I recently heard some good advice from an unlikely source in the NY Times: go find something that is broken, something that irks you and fix it. Your passion will find you. This is the best advice I’ve read in The Times in a long while.
There are few perfect moments in life when everything comes together in harmonious junction and the way forward lies clear and unambiguous. We usually cannot afford to wait for those precious moments lest we become paralyzed in our action. Most times, we are forced to cast our net into the deep and hope for the best. This is where faith meets opportunity.
And opportunity, or more accurately, the lack of it, brings me to the meat of this essay. The economy is in shambles and Congress and the Administration seem content to extract sound bytes and posture to create the most embarrassing voting records for the 2012 election cycle rather than confront the dilemma that is at our doorstep in 2011. Our dismal economy is robbing the Class of 2011 of its opportunity, just as it did for the Class of 2010 and 2009.
Our recent graduates are piling up along the shoreline waiting for the previous wave of graduates to advance inshore. Their ranks are being decimated of hope for the future with each pressing wave. College grads with freshly minted degrees are serving lattes at the local Starbucks and eating ramen noodles with little hope of paying down their college loans let alone following their muse. And, with each passing month, they are losing more hope that their future will bring a meaningful opportunity.
I have recently returned from a business trip to Asia. The hotels are full; the restaurants are full; the factories are full. The future for Asia seems incandescent. I know what hope and opportunity look like. I just saw it and I remember when that hope was here in America. Hope has become the principal US export. Long gone are growth rates in excess of 5%. We are mired in something less than 2%. And that is hardly enough growth to employ our latest graduates no less rehire any of our lost workforce that now numbers 13.6 million people.
You have read the dismal figures on the US economy this week. Unemployment up; factories down. In Washington, the monotonous political beat goes on. Political fundraising and K Street activity thrive unabated. They are fighting over the morsels on the floor when the real meat is on the table.
Start where you are. We know the score. Congressional policies that have pandered to special interests for the sake of campaign contributions has led to overly complex and heavily tailored tax breaks that have worked against our national best interests. We know this and with courageous leadership, we can remediate the situation. But the outlook for courageous leadership is bleak from most quadrants.
Use what you have. The United States is not without clout. Ours is still the largest and most creative economy in the world. Our currency is still the default currency. Our military is without a close second. We can project power anywhere in the world without significant opposition. Lead, damn it, lead. Lead, follow or get out of the way.
Do what you can. We may not be able to fix everything at once but surely we must be able to agree to fix something that is broken: the budget, the economy; long term taxation; capital investment; foreign policy, to name a few. Fix these and our passion will find us.
We are not what we once were, said Ulysses, but we are what we are: Strong in will; to find, to seek, to strive and not to yield. I would prefer that this great republic go down swinging having dared mighty things than to succumb to that gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat. And Washington, led by either party, is basking in twilight.