In this season of commencement addresses, I remember the one I endured during my graduation from a university in Pennsylvania several years ago. “Endure” is the operative word. The guy (president of another university) was so earnest that he lost us within a minute of his harangue. It was worse than sitting through a boring class, of which there were plenty in the previous four years and which we were desperate to forget. He meant well, of course, but he was convinced that the only way we could master life’s tribulations was to be armed with his insight and wisdom. Every conceivable cliché was a paragraph in his text, every graduation-postcard sentiment worthy of a mention.
I think commencement speakers have wised up since then, particularly with celebrities working the circuit. Humor is prized. Even if the occasion demands reflection, at least some of them have learned that it is possible to be serious without being solemn. What also helps is to have one or two genuine laugh lines. But what really sets apart great commencement addresses from the merely good are those crafted around one of life's great mysteries: How to find a worthy aim in life? This goes back to what Robert Louis Stevenson said: “An aim in life is the only fortune worth finding.”
With this as the criterion, I find these four commencement addresses memorable. In their unique way, the speakers make us believe in their reflection of what makes life meaningful and joyous. Excerpts:
Barbara Kingsolver (Duke, May 2008): I am charged with postponing your diploma for about 15 more minutes, so I’ll proceed, with a caveat. The wisdom of each generation is necessarily new … You could walk out of here with an unconventionally communal sense of how your life may be. This could be your key to a new order: you don’t need so much stuff to fill your life, when you have people in it. You don’t need jet fuel to get food from a farmer’s market. You could invent a new kind of Success that includes children’s poetry, butterfly migrations, butterfly kisses, the Grand Canyon, eternity. If somebody says “Your money or your life,” you could say: Life. And mean it. You’ll see things collapse in your time, the big houses, the empires of glass. The new green things that sprout up through the wreck –- those will be yours.
Richard Russo (Colby College, Maine, May 2004): How does a person keep from living the wrong life? Well, here are Russo's Rules For A Good Life. Notice that I don't say "for a happy life." Keep in mind that Russo's Rules for a Good Life are specifically designed to be jettisoned without regret when they don't work. They've worked for me. Your mileage may vary.
Rule #1: Search out the kind of work that you would gladly do for free and then get somebody to pay you for it.
Rule # 2: Find a loving mate to share what life has in store, because the world can be a lonely place, and people who aren't lonely don't want to hear about it if you are.
Rule #3: Have children. After what you've put your parents through, you deserve children of your own.
Rule #4. If you have one, nurture your sense of humor. You're going to need it ... In an age as numbingly earnest as this one, where we're more often urged to be sensitive than just, where genuinely independent thought is equally unwelcome to fundamentalists on both the left and right, it's laughter that keeps us sane.
Bill Gates (Harvard, June 2007): I’ve been waiting more than 30 years to say this: “Dad, I always told you I’d come back and get my degree” … Humanity’s greatest advances are not in its discoveries – but in how those discoveries are applied to reduce inequity … If you believe that every life has equal value, it’s revolting to learn that some lives are seen as worth saving and others are not ... We can make market forces work better for the poor if we can develop a more creative capitalism – if we can stretch the reach of market forces so that more people can make a profit, or at least make a living, serving people who are suffering from the worst inequities ... The crucial thing is to never stop thinking and working – and never do what we did with malaria and tuberculosis in the 20th century – which is to surrender to complexity and quit … The defining and ongoing innovations of this age – biotechnology, the computer, the Internet – give us a chance we’ve never had before to end extreme poverty and end death from preventable disease … Don’t let complexity stop you. Be activists. Take on the big inequities. It will be one of the great experiences of your lives.
At the summit of commencement addresses, however, stands Apple’s Steve Jobs. You read his heart-felt words and realize that to make a conscious effort to find life’s calling is all that matters. Driven not by money or fame but by what your heart tells you and having the courage to follow through are what leads you to the only fortune in life worth finding.
Steve Jobs (Stanford, June 2005): I never graduated from college. Truth be told, this is the closest I've ever gotten to a college graduation ... I dropped out of Reed College after the first 6 months, but then stayed around as a drop-in for another 18 months or so before I really quit … I didn't have a dorm room, so I slept on the floor in friends' rooms, I returned coke bottles for the 5¢ deposits to buy food with, and I would walk the 7 miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week ... I loved it. And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on.
Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn't have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating.
None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts.
You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.
No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.
Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.