While talk of uncertainty is par for the course for Fed chairman Ben Bernanke, the former Princeton professor took that message to the Ivy League campus where he once taught economics in a commencement address to college graduates Sunday.
Speaking in a chapel, Bernanke offered 10 suggestions—life observations lacking the certitude of the Ten Commandments, but borne of his life experience.
His first piece of advice: “Don’t be afraid to let the drama” of life play out:
“Life is amazingly unpredictable,” Bernanke said. “any 22-year-old who thinks he or she knows where they will be in 10 years, much less in 30, is simply lacking imagination.”
Though plans can and will go awry, the Fed chairman’s second suggestion is to plan anyway. Citing the aphorism ‘Wherever you go, there you are,’ Bernanke urged graduates to take the initiative to develop themselves as human beings.
Bernanke’s third observation is that our notions of meritocracy aren’t as fair as people often assume, since those with the greatest health, intelligence, family support and income are luckier than those without those gifts. He called on graduates possessing those gifts “to work hard, to contribute to the betterment of the world, and to share their luck with others.”
The Fed chairman’s fourth point is that effort counts for more than inherited gifts. “Those most worthy of admiration are those who have made the best use of their advantages or, alternatively, coped most courageously with their adversities,” he said, noting such people are also “more fun to have a beer with.”
Bernanke’s fifth suggestion related to public policy: If you don’t like what you see in Washington and blame it on dark motives, “you are giving politicians and policymakers way too much credit for being effective.
“The greatest forces in Washington are ideas, and people prepared to act on those ideas,” he said, encouraging those so inclined to pursue public service.
The Fed chairman took a jab at his own profession (Suggestion No. 6), saying, “Economics is a highly sophisticated field of thought that is superb at explaining to policymakers precisely why the choices they made in the past were wrong. About the future, not so much.” But he offered that economics is good at killing “ideas that are completely logically inconsistent or wildly at variance with the data. This insight covers at least 90% of proposed economic policies.”
Bernanke observed (No. 7) that money is a means, not an end, and that career choices void of a desire to make a difference will lead to unhappiness.
He also advised graduates (No. 8) to prepare for failure. “If your uniform isn’t dirty, you haven’t been in the game.”
He noted (No. 9) that no decision is more consequential than one’s choice of life partner. “You will need each other’s support and sympathy more times than you can count.”
His final suggestion was to call home once in a while, noting graduates will want to hear from their own hyper-successful children one day.
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