In defense of brevity, pragmatism and self-criticism

By John Halpin

I'm a middle-age guy who analyzes politics for a living. My wife and I have two kids a little bit younger than you all. One is in college and one is supposed to start this fall (God willing). Since I'm an old codger who doesn't use social media, I asked them for their thoughts on what makes a good graduation address. Their response: "Keep it short. Make it useful. Don't be super cringey."

Not exactly John Stuart Mill, but hey, that sounds like pretty solid advice for anyone at any stage of life.

Keep it short.

Politics is the worst field ever, except for the law, academics, business, government, the nonprofit sector and basically any other professional endeavor you might be embarking on upon graduation. Politics is full of blowhards and know-it-alls who have opinions on every issue under the sun often built on shifting rationales and shaky empirical foundations. And they drone on forever using dodgy language.

Don't be political in this sense.

Rather than piping off about things you know little about, using concepts and theories that no one understands, be a normal person. Speak clearly and concisely. Master details before offering opinions. Listen to others. Use regular terminology.

As my first boss in politics and ace speechwriter, Bob Boorstin, wisely proffered in response to my windy writing: "It's not a long yellow fruit, John. It's a banana."

Make it useful.

Politics, like many professions, is filled with endless meetings, discussions and ideological debates. And reports. Lots of long, tedious and not particularly helpful reports. Reports can be enlightening and even invigorating if you're into this sort of thing. But keep in mind that most normal people really aren't into it and just want to know what you're proposing and how you propose to do it.

Clarity is an underrated virtue.

There's no need to produce a five-page discussion on the labor theory of value and the sources of inequality if what you really mean to say is, "Everyone should have a job and health care."

Don't be super cringey.

A little cringey-ness is to be expected in politics.

Politicians and other professionals love cliches, mixed metaphors and corporate buzzwords. "A rising tide lifts all boats. But we can't put all our eggs in one basket and then misfire. We must first kickstart innovation and take a holistic approach to get new ideas into the bloodstream."

Don't be this person. Limit yourselves to only one cliche or corporate buzzword per week, and you will go far in life.

Avoiding excessive cringey-ness also requires self-reflection and moderation.

If you don't have something constructive to offer in a meeting or debate, keep quiet. Not every thought in your head needs to be said out loud. The world needs both introverts and extroverts, so be sure to ask the views of those who don't always blurt out their opinions. And remember that in politics, as in many fields, experts are constantly getting things wrong. They miss housing bubbles. They launch wars based on bad intel. They tell people to go to restaurants during pandemics without a face mask.

Be self-critical.

Assume you've made a mistake somewhere in your work and double check everything. Don't be afraid to ask people for feedback. And if your theory doesn't fit the facts, update your theory rather than dismissing the facts or creating alternative ones.

Keep it short. Make it useful. Don't be super cringey. Solid words to live by from the youth of today.

Just remember, you don't want to end up a dollar late and day short.

Congratulations class of 2020!

John Halpin is a senior fellow and co-director of the politics and elections program at the Center for American Progress. He wrote this for

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Montgomery: Tomorrow still holds the potential to be your 'year of wonders'

By Courtney Montgomery

"In 1665, the University of Cambridge temporarily closed due to the bubonic plague. Isaac Newton had to work from home, and he used this time to develop calculus and the theory of gravity." I'm sure your move to online instruction and remote learning has been just as productive.

Martin Kleppmann tweeted this out on March 9. After a little Googling, I found the actual quote from Newton about what historians call "annus mirabilis" or his "year of wonders." The budding 23-year-old scientist did indeed use this time outside of the classroom to discover many groundbreaking theories that went on to revolutionize science.

I tell you the Newton story to remind you that there's really "nothing new under the sun." From the bubonic plague to the influenza epidemic of 1918, time and again society has been forced to deal with inexplicable loss of life at alarming rates, widespread personal and financial turmoil, fear of the unknown and attempts to escape the effects of an invisible but deadly scourge.

Our technologically advanced and globally interconnected society faces unique challenges due to COVID-19. That same technology allows us to stay connected in ways our ancestors could never have imagined, but the sheer volume of conflicting information we receive can at times be paralyzing.

Against the backdrop of the novel coronavirus, you have persevered. You overcame the abrupt end to the senior year you had envisioned and the memories you expected to make.

You transitioned completely to online learning. The struggle was real for everyone, including your teachers and professors who reinvented the wheel all while balancing their own home lives.

Someday you can tell your grandkids about how you submitted your final group assignment at 11:59 p.m. even with bad Wi-Fi, a sibling on a sleep strike howling in the next room and never hearing from that one guy on your team even though he apparently had plenty of time to learn the latest dance on TikTok.

Some of you have had to face seemingly insurmountable obstacles — unexpected economic hardship, tough home situations, job loss or you or your loved one catching the virus.

We haven't all been quarantine and chilling.

By the way, even a genius like Isaac Newton had a troubled home life. His father passed away before he was born, his mother remarried a man he came to dislike and he was raised by his maternal grandmother. Like I said, there's nothing new.

Regardless of your personal situation, you've made it to this day. Take a moment to appreciate all you have accomplished and those who have supported you throughout this journey.

As you learned in your English literature classes, "no man is an island."

We don't know what the new normal is yet. We don't know when we are going to have a vaccine or effective treatment regimens.

Your summer plans may be up in the air. Like many, your job or internship opportunities may have drastically changed over the past few months.

The education you have received has empowered you with tools and honed your critical thinking skills. These skills will serve you well in whatever field you eventually find yourself.

More important than book knowledge and life skills is who you fundamentally are as a person.

The coronavirus crisis has exposed us.

We've seen the dark side of human nature. After the initial stories of toilet paper hoarders subsided, we've witnessed extremism on both sides of the "stay home" vs. "reopen now" crowds.

However, we have seen the front-line workers rise to the challenge. We have seen little kids sewing masks.

The pandemic has taken much from us, but what remains is who we truly are at our core.

As you start your next chapter, remember that humanity has been here before, but you have not: Tomorrow still holds the potential to be your "year of wonders."

Courtney Montgomery is a visiting fellow at the Independent Women's Forum. She wrote this for

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