Thoughts on graduation, nihilism and Wal-Mart

by Kenneth Leonard

As this semester concludes and the majority of you shuffle off to your respective homes to enjoy winter break, some of us are graduating. I’m leaving San Diego State for what I can only assume are greener pastures in law school, and I’ve spent the last few days thinking about what my final column in my beloved student newspaper would say.

In retrospect, most of the truly significant things I’ve learned at SDSU had nothing to do with anything that happened in a classroom. The most fundamentally important lessons all took place interpersonally among my friends and classmates.

My status hasn’t been shaped by the curriculum at SDSU, but through the experiences I’ve had. These experiences have changed the way I approach the world, so here’s what I’ve decided to do: On this page, I’m going to clue you in on the most essential things you need to know to be successful both here at SDSU and in your postgrad endeavors. You’re welcome.

In the film adaptation of David Mamet’s play “Glengarry Glen Ross,” there is a scene featuring Alec Baldwin, who mercilessly taunts a roomful of pathetic, do-nothing salesmen. He looks at one and says, “This watch costs more than your car. I made $970,000 last year; how much you make? You see pal, that’s who I am, and you’re nothing. Nice guy? I don’t give a s—. Good father. F— you, go home and play with your kids. You want to work here, close.”

Baldwin’s character pushes past all the nonsense and baggage the salesmen brought with them to work and directs their attention to one critical fact—the world is only interested in what a person can do.

In the real world, nobody cares about how kind or polite you are. It’s considered rude to actually speak about this semi-obvious truth, but at the end of the day I think it’s much nicer to remind people of this fact rather than watch them fail. After hearing this, you can become bitter, or you can become motivated. Guess which attitude leads to success?

You know how Wal-Mart is essentially the worst corporation in the U.S. and its practices destroy people’s lives and leave astounding numbers of people living in poverty with little opportunity for advancement? People still shop there. They’re still the No. 1 retailer in the country. The people who shop there know they’re supporting the worst embodiment of capitalistic excess and corporate bullying in the world, but they keep on shopping because Wal-Mart offers low prices and consistent services. All that matters is what Wal-Mart can do, not what it is. Likewise, the sum total of your abilities is all that matters in the real world, and not who you are on the inside. You have the option to be frustrated because Wal-Mart exists, or you can get off your butt and create a viable competitor.

So the question is, what can you offer the world? Keep this in mind as you venture into the job market, and don’t ever ask how you can get a job. Instead, ask yourself if you’re the kind of person who benefits an employer. This essential shift in perspective can unlock your potential for growth. Remember, the world owes you nothing. The list of individuals who owe you nothing includes all people—even those who conduct job interviews—who inhabit Earth at any given time.

Above all, remember to be honest with yourself. If you can build your approach toward life on habitually establishing standards—internal judgments about what you demand of yourself—as opposed to expectations about what you want from other people, your life will be awesome. It’s perspective that differentiates between successes and failures.

All of this leads to the most useful piece of advice I can offer: Perspective has taught me life is utterly meaningless. I’m sure you didn’t pick up the newspaper today thinking you’d have a close encounter with existential nihilism, but that’s what’s happening. It’s true—life is meaningless. As people living in San Diego in the 21st century, all of our material needs are probably being met, so as we approach graduation there’s less and less to distract us from existential voids and ennui, but it’s OK. Realizing that life has no intrinsic meaning can be a tremendous gift.

We are free to assign meaning wherever we want, and having the freedom to determine subjective significance is an overwhelming blessing. Think about how beautiful it is to exist freely in a world where nobody can impose value or take it away from you without your consent. You are free to carve a path where the things that are most important to you are all that matter.

So go forth with confidence. You’ve got the freedom to be whoever or whatever you want to be. You can literally do whatever the hell you want. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for all of us as we venture out into this malleable world. Let’s make big things happen, and let’s not let anyone tell us how things should be done.

Thanks for everything, Aztecs.

Photo courtesy of Thinkstock