Jayne: Insightful advice can be meaningful for any generation

By Greg Jayne, Columbian opinion editor

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After 25 years in journalism — honing my craft, interviewing governors and Hall of Famers, sharing stories both inspirational and tragic — it has come to this.

I am writing about Ashton Kutcher. Not exactly a Woodward and Bernstein moment, is it?

But Kutcher, you see, has been in the news this week. And it's probably not for the reasons you would expect from an actor who made a career portraying a dimwit on "That '70s Show," a half-wit in "Dude, Where's My Car?" and a numbskull on "Two and a Half Men."

In other words, the Vegas odds were pretty long against Ashton Kutcher delivering something profound. Yet deliver, he did. In being honored at the Teen Choice Awards, the 35-year-old said:

"I believe that opportunity looks a lot like hard work. When I was 13, I had my first job with my dad carrying shingles up to the roof, and then I got a job washing dishes at a restaurant, and then I got a job in a grocery store deli, and then I got a job at a factory sweeping Cheerio dust off the ground.

"And I've never had a job in my life that I was better than. I was always just lucky to have a job. Every job I had was a stepping stone to my next job, and I never quit my job until I had my next job. And so opportunities look a lot like work."

That's pretty insightful. Goodness knows, we don't do enough these days to promote the virtues of hard work. But Kutcher wasn't finished.

"The sexiest thing in the entire world is being really smart," he said. "And being thoughtful, and being generous. Everything else is crap, I promise you. It's just crap that people try to sell to you to make you feel like less. So don't buy it. Be smart, be thoughtful, and be generous."

And then:

"Everything around us that we call life was made up of people that are no smarter than you. And you can build your own things, you can build your own life that other people can live in. So build a life; don't live one, build one."

Good advice has no limits

That is pretty extraordinary advice, and the national pundits have suggested that it's important because teens aren't hearing those words from their parents or from society. The narrative is that teens these days are spoiled products of the entitlement generation.

I don't agree with that. My experience is that today's teens are smart and dedicated and compassionate. Maybe that's because my experience consists mostly of my 15-year-old daughter and interviews with high school athletes. My daughter is probably the greatest 15-year-old on the planet (OK, so I'm a little biased), and top-notch athletes tend to be high achievers, so my view might be a little skewed.

Yet I am convinced that teens these days are much more in tune with — and more concerned about — the world around them and the world outside their little cocoon than they were when I was that age. Just look at the number of teens involved in volunteer work or social-justice programs. Part of that is the fact that colleges look for those things when considering admission applications; but part of it is that today's young generation has a broader view of the world than ever before.

So, no, I don't think Kutcher's comments were particularly important for teens; I think they were important for people of all ages.

Kutcher's story about working his way up through menial jobs was profound, and the line about never having a job "that I was better than" should resonate across generations. His notion that being smart is the sexiest thing in the world probably caused heads to explode in the Kardashian household. His ideas about being thoughtful and generous are not constricted by age boundaries.

By nature of being at the Teen Choice Awards, Kutcher was speaking to an audience made up primarily of teens. But people of any age could find a lesson in his words, and perhaps the most important lesson was this: Sometimes sage advice can come from the most unexpected places.