In late May of 1997, Mary Schmich, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, was walking along Lake Michigan one morning, in search of inspiration for the topic for her column that was due that day. Soon an unlikely muse appeared before her; Schmich recalls the event vividly: “Then I saw her, a young woman in her twenties sitting on the lakefront, her face turned toward the sun to catch the weak May rays. ‘I hope that woman’s wearing sunscreen,’ I clucked to myself. I realized in that moment that I’d reached a dangerous phase of life, the phase in which a person is seized by the desire to redeem her own mistakes by administering advice. I also realized it was graduation time when speakers everywhere could sow their words of wisdom without seeming like buffoons.” “If you had to give a graduation speech, what would you say?” she thought to herself. She then went to her office and typed out the pearls of wisdom that she would scatter onto some unknown, unsuspecting graduating class, somewhere beyond the confines of her cubicle. Her column, titled “Advice, Like Youth, Probably Just Wasted on the Young,” was published in the Sunday edition of the Chicago Tribune, on June 1, 1997 as well as the newspaper’s website.
Like dandelion seeds dispersed in the wind, her column spread quickly through the cyberworld, a petri dish for half-truths and complete fabrications. In this case, the urban legend that sprang up was that author Kurt Vonnegut (writer of Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Breakfast of Champions) had delivered this speech at the graduation ceremony at MIT. A little bit of time spent sleuthing on Google would have revealed that Vonnegut has never given a commencement speech at MIT; moreover, the graduation speaker at MIT that year was Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations. Schmich’s column eventually caught the attention of Australian director and producer Baz Luhrmann who obtained Schmich’s permission to include it in a song titled “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)” (also known as the “Sunscreen Song”) on his album, Something for Everybody, released in 1998. The song features a remix of a choral version of “Everybody’s Free (To Feel Good)” with voiceover work by Lee Perry, an Australian voice actor. In a short time, the song was a worldwide hit, reaching number one in Europe and number 45 on the Billboard Hot 100. Not bad for a mock commencement speech.
Almost twenty years later, Schmich’s “Wear Sunscreen” commencement speech, full of motherly insights and wisdom, continues to resonate with graduates — thanks to a nameless sunbather on the Chicago lakefront. Whether you listen to Luhrman’s version or read the original, graduates will be better off if they heed its key admonition that is backed indisputably by science…
Ladies and gentlemen of the class of [insert year here]: Wear sunscreen.
If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it. The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience. I will dispense this advice now.
Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth. Oh, never mind. You will not understand the power and beauty of your youth until they’ve faded. But trust me, in 20 years, you’ll look back at photos of yourself and recall in a way you can’t grasp now how much possibility lay before you and how fabulous you really looked. You are not as fat as you imagine.
Don’t worry about the future. Or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4:00 p.m. on some idle Tuesday.
Do one thing every day that scares you.
Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts. Don’t put up with people who are reckless with yours.
Don’t waste your time on jealousy. Sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind. The race is long and, in the end, it’s only with yourself.
Remember compliments you receive. Forget the insults. If you succeed in doing this, tell me how.
Keep your old love letters. Throw away your old bank statements.
Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what you want to do with your life. The most interesting people I know didn’t know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives. Some of the most interesting 40-year-olds I know still don’t.
Get plenty of calcium. Be kind to your knees. You’ll miss them when they’re gone.
Maybe you’ll marry, maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll have children, maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll divorce at 40, maybe you’ll dance the funky chicken on your 75th wedding anniversary. Whatever you do, don’t congratulate yourself too much, or berate yourself either. Your choices are half chance. So are everybody else’s.
Enjoy your body. Use it every way you can. Don’t be afraid of it or of what other people think of it. It’s the greatest instrument you’ll ever own.
Dance, even if you have nowhere to do it but your living room.
Read the directions, even if you don’t follow them.
Do not read beauty magazines. They will only make you feel ugly.
Get to know your parents. You never know when they’ll be gone for good. Be nice to your siblings. They’re your best link to your past and the people most likely to stick with you in the future.
Understand that friends come and go, but with a precious few you should hold on. Work hard to bridge the gaps in geography and lifestyle, because the older you get, the more you need the people who knew you when you were young.
Live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard. Live in Northern California once, but leave before it makes you soft. Travel.
Accept certain inalienable truths: Prices will rise. Politicians will philander. You, too, will get old. And when you do, you’ll fantasize that when you were young, prices were reasonable, politicians were noble and children respected their elders.
Respect your elders.
Don’t expect anyone else to support you. Maybe you have a trust fund. Maybe you’ll have a wealthy spouse. But you never know when either one might run out.
Don’t mess too much with your hair or by the time you’re 40 it will look 85.
Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it. Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.
But trust me on the sunscreen.
For further reading: Wear Sunscreen: A Primer for Real Life by Mary Schmich, Andrews McMeel (1998)