Best Commencement Speeches: David Foster Wallace

alex atkins bookshelf wisdomDavid Foster Wallace was an American novelist, best known for Infinite Jest and The Pale King, and a professor of English at Emerson College, Illinois State University, and Pomona College. Some literary critics consider Wallace one of the most innovative and influential writers in the last two decades. Sadly, after struggling with depression for many years, Wallace committed suicide in 2008, at the age of 46. His readers and the literary and academic communities experienced a great sense of loss; Wallace was acknowledged by many glowing tributes and four public memorial services.

In 2005, an English and Philosophy student from the commencement speaker committee from Kenyon College, a small prestigious liberal arts college located in Gambier, Ohio (with an enchanting Hogwarts School vibe), invited Wallace to deliver the commencement address to the school’s graduating class. He was told he could speak on any topic. His speech, delivered on May 21, 2005, is titled “This is Water” because Wallace uses water as a metaphor for the essential things in life that are hidden in plain sight, so easy to overlook. This mirrors one of the most famous lines in St. Exupery’s The Little Prince — “What is essential is invisible to the eye” (in the original French: “L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.”), spoken by the fox.

Wallace uses the opportunity of a college commencement speech to share the most important lessons he has learned in life. He addresses several important questions, including “How do we keep from going through adult life unconsciously, comfortably entrenched in habit (“the default setting”)? How do we remove ourselves from the foreground of our thoughts and achieve compassion? How do we think about our world and separate the truth from the lies? Ultimately, Wallace believes that the goal of education is to create individuals who think freely and critically and act compassionately. It is no wonder that “This is Water” is considered to be one of the best commencement speeches of all time.

Wallace’s speech was published four years later in a small book titled This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life. Inexplicably, however, Wallace’s speech was broken up into isolated paragraphs and sentences, each centered on their own page. Reading his eloquent and passionate speech this way is incredibly disjointed — not to mention, annoying. It’s like reading a long essay by piecing together dozens of tiny bits of paper from fortune cookies. It’s a good thing the editors of this small tome did not work on Infinite Jest — otherwise that lengthy novel, running 1,079 pages containing 577,608 words, would have been published in 60 volumes. Although Wallace committed suicide by hanging, the editors deleted the last two sentences of the original speech that refer to suicide by gunshot: “It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head. They shoot the terrible master.”

Here are some key excerpts from “This is Water”:

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”… The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance.

The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.

Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

Given the triumphant academic setting here, an obvious question is how much of this work of adjusting our default setting involves actual knowledge or intellect. This question gets very tricky. Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education–least in my own case–is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualise stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me.

As I’m sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotised by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). 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. Think of the old cliché about “the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.”

This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.

It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: “This is water… This is water.”

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.

I wish you way more than luck.”

The full text of the speech can be read here.

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. Cheers.

Read related post:
Best Commencement Speeches: Khaled Hosseini
Best Commencement Speeches: Ken Burns

Best Commencement Speeches: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Wear Sunscreen Commencement Speech
Best Books for Graduates
Best Books for Graduates 2015

Wisdom of a Grandmother
Wisdom of Tom Shadyac
Wisdom of Morrie Schwartz

For further reading:
The Legacy of David Foster Wallace by Samuel Cohen and Lee Konstantinou
Gesturing Toward Reality: David Foster Wallace and Philosophy by Robert Bolger and Scott Korb
https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/03/09/the-unfinished

 

What Nobody Tells You When You Graduate College

alex atkins bookshelf wisdomIf you wrote a commencement speech, what wisdom would you want to impart to a sea of bright, eager, in-debt-up-to-their-eyeballs college graduates? What should college graduates need to know about the competitive business world? Jon Acuff, an author of five bestselling books (his most recent: Do Over: Rescue Monday, Reinvent Your Work & Never Get Stuck), did not let not the lack of an invitation to deliver a commencement speech get in the way of reflecting on his business experience. Although Acuff does not fit the description of the wise, silver-haired octogenarian sage that typically delivers a bombastic, protracted commencement oration, at the cusp of middle age (39) Acuff believes he is up to the task to address college graduates half his age; he explains, “[I] have spent 17 years in the workforce. I’ve worked at big companies and small ones. I’ve been promoted and fired. I’ve started my own business. I found and left my dream job. I’ve learned a lot, mostly the wrong way (and would prefer you didn’t). So before you throw your cap in the air… allow me to share some things nobody will tell you.” Here are the 21 things nobody tells you when you graduate college:

The real world is more fun than grumpy adults have ever told you.

One of your friends will be instantly successful.

Your first job might not involve your major in a major way.

Your 20s are lonelier than you think they’ll be.

Being an adult comes with an obscene amount of paperwork.

Your generation gets unfairly labeled for entitlement. Don’t accept that.

Pay attention in meetings.

Treat email like it matters.

Take risks.

Don’t put off your college loans.

Hold your money with an open hand.

If you move home, make sure you bring an exit strategy with you.

Don’t spend all your time with idiots and then wonder why it’s hard to meet someone great to date.

Don’t ask to work from home the first week of your new job.

Jump into the wild west of side jobs.

Figure out which part of your career needs the most work.

Don’t become a dinosaur.

Don’t burn many bridges.

Put your phone down when you’re talking to someone.

Remember, it’s all an audition.

You are going to start at the bottom. That’s OK.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

Read related post: Best Commencement Speeches: Khaled Hosseini
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Best Books for Graduates
Best Books for Graduates 2015

Wisdom of a Grandmother
Wisdom of Tom Shadyac
Wisdom of Morrie Schwartz

For further reading: http://time.com/3849142/life-after-college-graduation/
Do Over: Rescue Monday, Reinvent Your Work & Never Get Stuck by Jon Acuff
Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done
by Jon Acuff
Quitter: Closing the Gap Between Your Day Job and Your Dream Job by Jon Acuff

Best Commencement Speeches: George Saunders

alex atkins bookshelf wisdomGeorge Saunders is an award-winning short-story author and a professor of creative writing at Syracuse University. A few years ago, Saunders delivered the convocation speech to the graduating class of 2013 at Syracuse University. Among the many honors he has received are the National Magazine Award, the O. Henry Award, The Story Prize, the PEN/Malamud Award, and the Folio Prize. Below are excerpts from his speech, titled “Congratulations, by the Way: Some Thoughts on Kindness,” delivered on July 31, 2013:

Down through the ages, a traditional form has evolved for this type of speech, which is: Some old fart, his best years behind him, who, over the course of his life, has made a series of dreadful mistakes (that would be me), gives heartfelt advice to a group of shining, energetic young people, with all of their best years ahead of them (that would be you)… Now, one useful thing you can do with an old person, in addition to borrowing money from them [is] ask: “Looking back, what do you regret?”

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.

Now, the million-dollar question: What’s our problem? Why aren’t we kinder?

Each of us is born with a series of built-in confusions that are probably somehow Darwinian. These are: (1) we’re central to the universe (that is, our personal story is the main and most interesting story, the only story, really); (2) we’re separate from the universe (there’s US and then, out there, all that other junk – dogs and swing-sets, and the State of Nebraska and low-hanging clouds and, you know, other people), and (3) we’re permanent (death is real, o.k., sure – for you, but not for me).

Now, we don’t really believe these things – intellectually we know better – but we believe them viscerally, and live by them, and they cause us to prioritize our own needs over the needs of others, even though what we really want, in our hearts, is to be less selfish, more aware of what’s actually happening in the present moment, more open, and more loving.

So, the second million-dollar question: How might we DO this? How might we become more loving, more open, less selfish, more present, less delusional, etc., etc?..

There are ways. You already know that because, in your life, there have been High Kindness periods and Low Kindness periods, and you know what inclined you toward the former and away from the latter. Education is good; immersing ourselves in a work of art: good; prayer is good; meditation’s good; a frank talk with a dear friend; establishing ourselves in some kind of spiritual tradition — recognizing that there have been countless really smart people before us who have asked these same questions and left behind answers for us.

Because kindness, it turns out, is hard — it starts out all rainbows and puppy dogs, and expands to include . . . well, everything.

One thing in our favor: some of this “becoming kinder” happens naturally, with age. It might be a simple matter of attrition: as we get older, we come to see how useless it is to be selfish — how illogical, really. We come to love other people and are thereby counter-instructed in our own centrality. We get our butts kicked by real life, and people come to our defense, and help us, and we learn that we’re not separate, and don’t want to be. We see people near and dear to us dropping away, and are gradually convinced that maybe we too will drop away (someday, a long time from now). Most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving. I think this is true. The great Syracuse poet, Hayden Carruth, said, in a poem written near the end of his life, that he was “mostly Love, now.”

And so, a prediction, and my heartfelt wish for you: as you get older, your self will diminish and you will grow in love. YOU will gradually be replaced by LOVE. If you have kids, that will be a huge moment in your process of self-diminishment. You really won’t care what happens to YOU, as long as they benefit. That’s one reason your parents are so proud and happy today. One of their fondest dreams has come true: you have accomplished something difficult and tangible that has enlarged you as a person and will make your life better, from here on in, forever…

If we’re going to become kinder, that process has to include taking ourselves seriously — as doers, as accomplishers, as dreamers. We have to do that, to be our best selves.

Still, accomplishment is unreliable. “Succeeding,” whatever that might mean to you, is hard, and the need to do so constantly renews itself (success is like a mountain that keeps growing ahead of you as you hike it), and there’s the very real danger that “succeeding” will take up your whole life, while the big questions go untended…

[Since] your life is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving: Hurry up. Speed it along. Start right now. There’s a confusion in each of us, a sickness, really: selfishness. But there’s also a cure. So be a good and proactive and even somewhat desperate patient on your own behalf — seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicines, energetically, for the rest of your life.

Do all the other things, the ambitious things… but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality — your soul, if you will — is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Teresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place. Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.

Read related post: Best Commencement Speeches: Khaled Hosseini
Best Commencement Speeches: Ken Burns
Best Commencement Speeches: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Wear Sunscreen Commencement Speech
Best Books for Graduates
Best Books for Graduates 2015
Wisdom of a Grandmother
Wisdom of Tom Shadyac
Wisdom of Morrie Schwartz

For further reading: https://6thfloor.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/07/31/george-saunderss-advice-to-graduates/
Congratulations, by the Way: Some Thoughts on Kindness by George Saunders
Way More Than Luck by the editors of Chronicle Books (2015)

Best Commencement Speeches: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

alex atkins bookshelf wisdomChimamanda Negozi Adichie (born 1977) is a novelist and short story writer, born in Enugu, Nigeria. She is a recipient of the MacArthur Genius Grant (2008). She is best known for her first novel, Puple Hibiscus, published in 2006. Her TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story” (October 2009), about the underrepresentation of cultural differences, is one of the top ten most viewed TED Talks of all time.

Below is an excerpt from her commencement speech to Kalamazoo College (Kalamazoo, Michigan) in 2009:

I’ve noticed that people who give commencement addresses are usually people who are supposed to have it all figured out. I’m afraid I haven’t. And so instead of giving you the secret formula to a perfect life – which I really wish I had because I certainly need it myself – I’d like to end with some random suggestions I have accumulated at the grand age of almost 32.

Suggestion 1: Please think about what you want to value.
Now, money is of course very important and can change the world for the better, but now that you have that diploma, think about creating a society, an organization, a company that values the things that you want to value rather than the things that you are supposed to value.

Suggestion 2: Read books.
Books are still the best ways to truly come close to understanding complexity in our very complex world. When we read… we become alive in bodies not our own. It seems to me that we live in a world where is has become increasingly important to try and live in bodies not our own, to embrace empathy, to constantly be reminded that we share, with everybody in every part of the world, a common and equal humanity.

Suggestion 3: Please remember that there is never a single story about anything.
Please try as much as you can to have as many stories about the world as you can.

Suggestion 4: Please think about how little you know.
Leave room in your mind to revise opinions, to avoid smugness… I hope that your diploma will remind you of what you still don’t know.

Suggestion 5: Please leave room for hope and for fear.
I’ve often imagined that fiction and faith are very alike – faith in God, faith in humanism, faith in the power of goodness. To write fiction is to jump into this journey not knowing where it will end but wanting to go on the journey anyway. To write fiction is to start a long walk knowing you will trip and fall down but still keen to take the walk… It seems to me that this is not a bad way to look at the rest of your life. You will trip many times. Don’t be surprised when you fall. Maybe even lounge in the dirt for a little while. And then, get up!

Congratulations again. I wish you a life filled with meaning and with laughter. Thank you.

Read related post: Best Commencement Speeches: Khaled Hosseini
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Best Books for Graduates 2015

Wisdom of a Grandmother
Wisdom of Tom Shadyac
Wisdom of Morrie Schwartz

For further reading: The World Is Waiting For You by Tara Grove and Isable Ostrer

Best Books for Graduates

atkins-bookshelf-booksIn late Spring, millions of graduates, cloaked in black gowns, sit patiently in neat rows of folding metal chairs, like penguins basking in the hot sun. It is commencement in America — an important milestone in the life of young people who, having earned a degree in the hallowed halls of the academe, are now yearning to embark on life’s journey to destinations known and unknown. They sit eagerly awaiting some notable guest speaker (although not always the university’s first choice for commencement speaker) to walk up to the podium and cast pearls of wisdom onto this massive patchquilt of mortarboards. 

Unfortunately, there is no direct correlation between fame and wisdom. Nor is a speaker’s celebrity status any guarantee that the talk will be compelling or interesting. As Garry Trudeau, creator of the Doonesbury comic strip, once quipped, “[Commencment speeches] were invented largely in the belief that outgoing college students should never be released into the world until they have been properly sedated.” Indeed, some guest speakers rise to the occasion and bare their souls, sharing thoughtful words of wisdom, while others do not appreciate the solemness of this rite of passage and use this precious opportunity to toss out tired platitudes or glib observations.

To illuminate the horizon for these aspiring young men and women, “the leaders of tomorrow” to use a hackneyed phrase, Bookshelf presents some of the best books for graduates that actually have something meaningful to say. These books, like a great teacher or mentor, can provide valuable insight, inspiration, encouragement, and guidance for many years after graduation.  

Onward! edited by Peter Smith, Scribner (2000)
Here We Stand edited by Randy How, Lyons Press (2009)
The Quotable Graduate edited by Heidi Reinholdt and John Ross, Lyons Press (2003)
The Best Advice I Ever Got: Lessons from Extraordinary Lives by Katie Couric, Random House (2011)
Everyday Greatness: Inspiration for a Meaningful Life edited by David Hatch, commentary by Stephen Covey, Reader’s Digest (2006)
The Gigantic Book of Teachers’ Wisdom edited by Erin Gruwell, Skyhorse Publishing (2007)
Words that Matter: Everyday Truths to Guide and Inspire edited by Michelle Burford, HarperStudio (2010)
The Best Advice Ever Given: Life Lessons for Success in the Real World edited by Steven Price, Lyons Press (2006)
The Wisdom of the Ancient Greeks: Timeless Advice on the Senses, Society, and the Soul edited by Steven Stavropoulos, Barnes and Noble (2003)

Read related post: The Best Books for Graduates: 2015
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Education or Indoctrination?
I Am What Libraries Have Made Me
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