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OPINION - For the Class of 2014; "The End of Short Cuts"

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU) Each year I write a commencement speech to the year's graduates.

While I've never been invited to be a commencement speaker (and probably never will), I've enjoyed writing a once-a-year send off message. It's also one of my most-read blogs of the year.

Congratulations to everyone who is graduating this year.

"To travel hopefully is better thing than to arrive." Robert Lewis Stevenson's quote was sometimes used on advertising posters for the great passenger trains across our country. The journey travelling though the Rockies in the early morning or seeing the mighty Hudson River at sunset is much better than waiting at the baggage claim for your suitcase.

Today you arrive at the end of your educational journey. When you look back at your time in school, you won't remember much of what's said at this graduation ceremony. You will remember the teachers, the friends, the activities, and, hopefully, the lessons you've learned on this journey.

But as you enter the real world, there's a trend that I find troubling. It isn't new. Its been building up for many years. And it's accelerating. We are much more of a right-now, instant-gratification society. We go for the quick-and-dirty, faster-than-life affirmation instead of taking the long view. Patience and perseverance almost never win out. That's unfortunate. Because things that are lasting, things that are achieved over time, things that force you to reach, and strive, and improve, are ultimately the things that are most rewarding.

Consider the role drugs play in our society. I know a young person - a little older than you - who told me all of their friends are marijuana users. 100-percent. Some also use harder drugs, some don't. And trends in society are moving towards people with that bad habit. Recreational use is already legal in Colorado. It's decriminalized in other states. And others have questionable medical dispensaries. People use drugs (and alcohol) for a reason. Sometimes to get an easy thrill; more often to escape something that's wrong in their lives. Which is easier? Hitting a joint or a bottle to make yourself feel better in the here-and-now? Or confronting the things in your life that need to change? Making life changes is hard. It takes time. But the change is lasting. And, unfortunately, for many people the quick fix wins out.

We used to be a society of savers. Very few people still remember the saying, "10-percent for the Lord, 10-percent for the Bank, and spend the rest with joy and Thanksgiving." That's how people used to manage their paychecks: a tithe to their house of worship, a deposit in their savings account, and 80-percent of what they earn to live on. Today we save less than 1-percent of our earnings. We put fast-food on our credit cards. Imagine - today's lunch will be financed out over a decade! Modern consumerism is to buy things now and finance them out. The old idea of saving for the things we want is forgotten. And today very few adults know the self-assurance of leading a debt-free life.

Look at the world of business and entertainment; we're mesmerized by people who make a quick rise to the top. We barely notice the long, hard, steady worker who slowly climbs the ladder of success over the years. Celebrity is valued over competence. Image wins out over skills. Want proof: look at the number of people playing video games instead of competitive sports. X Box can be mastered in a week. Learning to hit a ball or training for peak athletic performance can take years. But beating a video game is nothing like the feeling of leaving it all on the field and winning.

Look at our work ethic. We have record numbers of people on disability, on food stamps, and not in the active work force. Not being able to support yourself used to be something to be ashamed of. Now it's the new reality. People can scrape together enough to get by but not get ahead. I hope you're not satisfied with getting by. Do not settle for a life of leisure on the public dole. You'll find yourself empty and unfulfilled. But getting ahead requires work and perseverance.

I have good news. Because these common values are less common, if you have them you will stand out. You will climb the ladder of success faster if you are a hard worker and others around you aren't. And the rewards won't be just in your portfolio of your standard of living. The benefits of an industrious life build up inside you, not around you.

My father started his own company when I was a child. It was a small financial services firm. He had a partner and three workers. He built it up to 10 employees. He earned enough money to send me and my sister to college. He paid his mortgage and saved for retirement. And he worked very hard. One day I came home from college and met my dad at his office. It was at night, after-hours. He was scrubbing the toilets. Business wasn't as good as he'd like, and he fired his cleaning company. His employees never knew that the garbage pails under the desks, or the carpet they walked on, or the urinals they used were cleaned by the president of their company who stayed late two nights a week to straighten up the office. Dad sold his business and retired a few years ago. He didn't get rich. And he said "no" to many shortcuts in the business world that could have made him a fast-buck. He wondered if he was a success. Well, yes, anyone who keeps the doors open of a small business for 25-years is a success. Anyone who teaches the values of hard work to their children often by example is a success. I hope you have someone like that in your life. And I hope you learn things from them.

Today your school journey comes to an end. Let's not fool ourselves; you had to make this journey. We insist that everyone goes to school until they're an adult. You get to choose the next journey be it college, or service in our armed forces, or volunteerism, or entering the work force. I hope your generation stops taking short cuts. Having a more-industrious society will benefit all of us. And it will benefit you most of all. My wish for all of you is that you travel hopefully, and that your journey be a rewarding one.

Chris Conley