Carl Hiaasen's pep talk for grads: Assume the worst


Novelist Carl Hiaasen shares some unconventional lessons about life this commencement season.

Illustration by Roz Chast, from "Assume the Worst"/Knopf

Time now for the graduation-season thoughts of author Carl Hiaasen, who's out with a new book with illustrations by cartoonist Roz Chast:

My youngest son is going to college this fall, and I feel pressured to give him one of those pep talks that aim to be profound and uplifting. That's the usual approach when we launch our kids into these epic life adventures, but it's not really what they need.

The world we're handing off to them isn't a peaceful, nurturing place – and we're the ones who've made it worse. Grownups are doing terrible things to the planet, and to each other, and it's happening almost everywhere.

Illustration by Roz Chast, from "Assume the Worst"/Knopf

If you don't want to see your son or daughter ambushed by reality, the best advice you can give them is to assume the worst. Greed, hate and corruption are thriving today. So is stupidity: Sub-idiotic behavior gets rewarded with instant YouTube fame. Look how many boneheads are still eating Tide Pods! This is like Darwin's worst-case scenario: evolution in reverse.

It's still possible for young people to prosper, do amazing things, and make a huge difference, but it's really hard.

Still, we feel obligated to tell our kids, "Hey, reach for your dreams. The sky's the limit!" That's ridiculous. The limit is actually much lower than the sky.


Your son might be a pretty good guitar player, but Springsteen is never going to ask him to join the E Street Band. Your daughter might do really cool back-flips on her snowboard, but she's got a better chance of winning the Ukraine national lottery than making the U.S. Olympic team. 

Of course we all want our kids to chase their dreams – just don't chase them over a cliff into oblivion (or worse, bankruptcy court). Time is precious. Knowing your own strengths and weaknesses is an essential life skill. Look at the chaos in Washington, much of it caused by people who are in way, way over their heads.

So, I'm advising my son to go out and get really good at something he enjoys – ideally, something that brings comfort, hope and a little happiness to others.

But along the way, I want him to stay alert, cautious and skeptical. And it's okay for him to worry about day-to-day stuff because, unless you're a Labrador retriever, there's no such thing as a truly carefree life.

I know that's not much of a pep talk … but Darwin wouldn't argue with a word of it.

Illustration by Roz Chast, from "Assume the Worst"/Knopf

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Story produced by Robbyn McFadden.