Commencement speeches

Today is graduation day for the school where I teach. I know it’s unusual to have graduations in December, but we have an unusual school. In honor of my students, I’m posting a selection of excerpts from great commencement speeches I’ve read online. Enjoy!

Joss Whedon at Wesleyan, May 2013

The only way, really, to understand your position and its worth is to understand the opposite. That doesn’t mean the crazy guy on the radio who’s spewing hate, it means the decent human truths of all the people who feel the need to listen to that guy. You are connected to those people. They’re connected to him. You can’t get away from it.

This connection is part of contradiction. It is the tension I was talking about. Because tension isn’t about two opposite points, it’s about the line being stretched in between them. And we need to acknowledge and honor that tension and the connection that that tension is a part of. Our connection, not just to the people we love, but to everybody, including people we can’t stand and wish weren’t around.

Julianna Baggott at Florida State University, 2013

I understood that if I sacrificed having children for my career, I’d resent my writing. If I gave up writing to have kids, I’d resent my kids. Those were my issues, yours will be your own. But this should still stand – Living a resentment-free life requires awareness of what you might regret. Be vigilant for the onset of resentment and create a life that defies it.

George Saunders at Syracuse, 2013 

What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. 

Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly.  Reservedly.  Mildly.

Or, to look at it from the other end of the telescope:  Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth?

Those who were kindest to you, I bet.

It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.

Jon Lovett at Pitzer College, May 2013

…this earnestness, this authenticity, will help you succeed in a society that is demanding those qualities with both hands.

All you have to do is avoid BSing yourself — in whatever you choose to do. To avoid the path of the sad gay judge filled with regret. To go forward with confidence and an eagerness to learn. And to be honest with yourselves, and others — to reject a culture of insincerity by virtue of the example you set in your own lives.

Neil Gaiman, University of the Arts, 2012

Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do.

Make good art.

I’m serious. Husband runs off with a politician? Make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by mutated boa constrictor? Make good art. IRS on your trail? Make good art. Cat exploded? Make good art. Somebody on the Internet thinks what you do is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before? Make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, and eventually time will take the sting away, but that doesn’t matter. Do what only you do best. Make good art.

David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College, 2005

Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.


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