By Theo Winter
Life’s most important lessons.
That is what we expect from — and repeatedly fail to see delivered by — graduation speeches.
Okay, I take that back. Sometimes I do question why advice-giving is a widely accepted social custom and think advice-givers (myself included) could make a clearer distinction between “this is My Truth” and “brothers and sisters rejoice, this is THE GREAT TRUTH,” but on the whole graduation speeches can be said to contain much of humanity’s ultimate, final stage, boss-level wisdom.
If you’re like me and work a full-time job, it’s going to be hard to find time for the multitude of thoughtful and inspiring speeches out there, so I’ve rounded up my best arguments.
Why these five?
The first talk is, to my mind, the greatest graduation speech ever recorded, no contest. David Foster Wallace was an influential, talented, and troubled American writer who took his life in 2008. This talk appears in TIME’s top 10 commencement speeches and is one of the few (only?) speeches of its kind to have been turned into a best-selling book (This is Water).
The next three talks — by Jobs, Rowling, and Carrey — are classics. While popularity clearly doesn’t always equate to quality, something about these talks appears to have tapped into a part of the collective psyche, enough for them to appear on nearly every similar list of top speeches, which doesn’t guarantee but certainly increases the likelihood of there being some powerful or positive takeaway message.
The last speech had the strongest impact on me personally. Peter Dinklage (of Game of Thrones fame) shares an epic battle story as a long-time struggling actor that takes place “way off off off Broadway.”
Below are my favourite quotes.
1) David Foster Wallace - Kenyon College - “This is Water” (2005)
The fact is in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life-or-death importance…
[Significant education in thinking] isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about.
There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking about.
By way of example, let’s say it’s an average adult day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate job, and you work hard for eight or ten hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired and somewhat stressed and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for an hour, and then hit the sack early because, of course, you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there’s no food at home. You haven’t had time to shop this week because of your challenging job, and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of the work day and the traffic is apt to be very bad. So getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping. And the store is hideously fluorescently lit and infused with soul-killing muzak or corporate pop and it’s pretty much the last place you want to be, but you can’t just get in and quickly out... So the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating. But you can’t take your frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college…
Everyone here has done this, of course. But it hasn’t yet been part of your graduates’ actual life routine, day after week after month after year. But it will be. And many more dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless routines besides. But that is not the point. The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in.
But if you really learn how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.
Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it.
2) J.K. Rowling - Harvard - “The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination” (2008)
Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. So I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears that my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.
You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.
You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.
And tomorrow, I hope that even if you remember not a single word of mine, you remember those of Seneca, another of those old Romans I met when I fled down the Classics corridor, in retreat from career ladders, in search of ancient wisdom: As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.
3) Steve Jobs - Stanford - "How to Live Before You Die" (2005)
You can’t connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backwards.
When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.
Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
4) Jim Carrey - Maharishi University of Management (2014)
So many of us choose our path out of fear disguised as practicality. What we really want seems impossibly out of reach and ridiculous to expect so we never dared the universe for it. I'm saying I'm the proof that you can ask the universe for it. My father could have been a great comedian, but he didn't believe that that was possible for him and so he made a conservative choice instead. He got a safe job as an accountant and when I was 12 years old he was let go from that safe job and our family had to do whatever we could do to survive. I learned many great lessons from my father, not the least of which was that you could fail at what you don't want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love.
5) Peter Dinklage - Bennington College (2012)
What did Beckett say? 'I can’t go on. I’ll go on.' So even if I don’t burn in your hearts and minds long after this speech is over, even if I don’t inspire you to reach for the stars and beyond, even if I am erased from your memory after one glass of wine tonight — where am I going with this? — 'I can’t go on. I’ll go on.'
What I didn’t have was cash, a bank account, a credit card, or an apartment. I just had debt… I slept on couch after couch after couch after couch at friends’ apartments in New York until I wore out the rent-paying room mate’s welcome… I had to get a day job. I dusted pianos at a piano store for five months. I worked on the property of a Shakespeare scholar for a year pulling weeds and removing bees nests. I went on unemployment once but not for long. I couldn’t handle the guilt… I helped hang paintings at galleries, paintings that inspired you to think ‘I could do that.’ And then, finally, after two years of job and couch surfing, I got a job… in application processing, as a data enterer, at a place called Professional Examination Services. And I stayed for six years… I hated that job and I clung to that job… it had only the one window. I myself could not look out the window. It was quite high. So I had no heat, no girlfriend — what are you kidding me? — no acting agent, but I had a cat named Brian who told me of the world outside. And I stayed for ten years… ten years in a place without heat, six years at a job I felt stuck in. Maybe I was afraid of change. Are you?
Please bring each other along with you. Everyone you need is in this room. These are the shiny, more important people.
Treat everyone kindly and light up the night.