Tag Archives: best commencement speeches

Best Commencement Speeches: George Saunders

atkins-bookshelf-educationGeorge 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
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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)

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Best Commencement Speeches: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

alex atkins bookshelf educationChimamanda 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.

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Wisdom of a Grandmother
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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)

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