Greg Mankiw's Story
By David Henderson
I don’t remember what I said next. But I kept talking, and she was polite enough to keep responding. When the train pulled into the station, we boarded, and I sat next to her. We chatted for the next few hours.
I am not sure what this young girl thought of me at the time. As far as I know, she might have thought I was a creep. But for the past 30 years, she has called me her husband. And we have had three wonderful children together, one of whom is graduating here today.
So this is my final lesson for you: Random stuff happens. Life is not completely in your control. To be sure, some of the random stuff is bad. But some of the random stuff is awesome.
Everyone in life is dealt a different hand. If you want to be happy and successful, don’t complain about the hand you are dealt. That takes too much energy, which only ends up being wasted. Do your best to play the hand you’ve got.
These are some of the closing words that Greg Mankiw spoke at a graduation ceremony last week. The full speech is here. It’s short. I recommend it as a nice blend of humor, economics (very lightly done), and personal growth stories.
It is an honor to be able to speak to you today. When Mr. Conrad invited me, he suggested that maybe, as a professional economist, I could talk with you about the future economy that you will soon be entering and in which you will be spending your lives.
It is true that as an economist, I know precisely what the future holds. But union rules prevent me from sharing that knowledge with the general public. So we economists usually just make stuff up, and it often turns out to be wrong. I won’t burden you with those made-up stories today.
When I went to college the next fall, I started off as a math major, thinking I would end up being a professional mathematician. I was doing what economists call pursuing your comparative advantage, which means doing what you are good at compared with other people. I thought if I was so good at math compared with my high school classmates, it would make sense to turn that talent into a career.
But then something happened: I met some other students who were really good in math. And I mean really good. These were the kind of kids who not only took hard math courses in high school and did well in them, but they spent their free time competing in the international math Olympiad. They were in an entirely different league than I was. I felt like I was the most valuable player on my little league team, and all of a sudden I was practicing with the Red Sox.
His discovery of economics:
During my freshman year, I started dating a young woman, who happened to be on the same dorm floor as Richard and I. She also happened to be taking a freshman course in introductory economics. Those coincidences changed my life.
She used to come back from her economics class and tell me what she was learning. To my surprise, I found it fascinating. I entered college with little idea what economics was, and little intention to study it. But from what she told me, it seemed that what she was learning was far more interesting than anything I was learning in any of my classes.
So the next semester I started taking economics classes. And I really liked them. And, it turned out that I was pretty good at it.
This left me wanting more: what textbook was she using? I’ve known of textbooks that, used the wrong way, kill students’ interest in economics. Fortunately, Greg’s text, used the right way, can kindle it, although my favorite is still Heyne, Boettke, and Prychitko, The Economic Way of Thinking.
Personal Growth by Getting the Hell Out of the Government School:
I am sure the school worked well for many of the kids there. But it did not work for me. I was relatively shy. I usually sat in the back of the classroom. My main goal was to make it through the day without getting noticed. Most of the time, I succeeded.
One day, the teacher called my mother and asked her to come in and meet with her. So my mother came to school after class. The teacher explained that they had given the entire class some kind of standardized aptitude test.
“Mrs. Mankiw,” the teacher said. “Greg did well. We were very surprised.”
Until then, the teacher had thought that I just wasn’t very bright. Given my lackluster performance in class, that was a reasonable inference. But it wasn’t a correct one.
It was then that my parents realized that I was in the wrong place. They understood that the teachers there barely knew me, and that while I could survive there, I wouldn’t thrive. Soon thereafter, they pulled me out and sent me to an independent school, where I stayed through high school.
Confession (by me, not Greg):
One reason I liked this talk is that the final story, about how he met his wife, is similar to my story about how I met the love of my life: waiting for a train and then visiting on the train.
UPDATE: Here is a video of the talk.