University of Connecticut, 1999
My message is in praise of the greatest of all avenues to learning, to wisdom, adventure, pleasure, insight, to understanding human nature, understanding ourselves and our world and our place in it.
I rise on this beautiful morning, here in this center of learning to sing again the old faith in books. In reading books. Reading for life, all your life.
Nothing ever invented provides such sustenance, such infinite reward for time spent as a good book.
Thomas Jefferson told John Adams he could not live without books. Adams, who through a long life read more even and more deeply than Jefferson and who spent what extra money he ever had on books, wrote to Jefferson at age 79 of a particular set of books he longed for on the lives of the saints, all 47 volumes.
... Once upon a time in the dead of winter in Dakota territory, with the temperature well below zero, young Theodore Roosevelt took off in a makeshift boat, accompanied by two of his ranch hands, downstream on the Little Missouri River in chase of a couple of thieves who had stolen his prized row boat. After days on the river, he caught up and got the draw on them with his trusty Winchester, at which point they surrendered. Then, after finding a man with a team and a wagon, Roosevelt set off again to haul the thieves cross-country to justice. He left the ranch hands behind to tend to the boat, and walked alone behind the wagon, his rifle at the ready. They were headed across the snow-covered wastes of the Badlands to the rail head at Dickinson, and Roosevelt walked the whole way, 40 miles. It was an astonishing feat, what might be called a defining moment in that eventful life. But what makes it especially memorable is that during that time, he managed to read all of Anna Karenina.
I often think of that when I hear people say they haven't time to read.
College of William and Mary, 2004
College is something you complete. Life is something you experience. So don't worry about your grade, or the results or success. Success is defined in myriad ways, and you will find it, and people will no longer be grading you...
Love what you do. Get good at it. Competence is a rare commodity in this day and age. And let the chips fall where they may.
Providence College, 2005
You have been hearing all your life that this is it: your first big step in what is called the real world.
You may ask, what is this real world all about?
What is this new life that I'm about to enter?
Ladies and gentlemen of the Class of 2005, life is not college.
It's not high school.
Here's the secret no one told you: Life is junior high.
The world you're about to enter is filled with junior high adolescent pettiness, pubescent rivalries, the insecurities of 13-year-olds and the false bravado of 14-year-olds. Forty years from now, I guarantee this, you'll still make silly mistakes; you'll have temper tantrums; your feelings will be hurt for some trivial slight; you'll say something dumb; you'll lose your car keys and your glasses every day; and wonder at least once a week, "Will I ever grow up?"
"Mr." Fred Rogers
I have a lot of framed things in my office which people have given to me through the years and on my walls are Greek, and Hebrew, and Russian, and Chinese, and beside my chair is a French sentence from Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince. It reads, "L'essential ... l'invisibles pour les yeux." What is essential is invisible to the eye.
Well, what is essential about you? And who are those who have helped you become the person that you are? Anyone who has ever graduated from a college, anyone who has ever been able to sustain a good work, has had at least one person and often many who have believed in him or her. We just don't get to be competent human beings without a lot of different investments from others.
I'd like to give you all an invisible gift. A gift of a silent minute to think about those who have helped you become who you are today. Some of them may be here right now. Some may be far away. Some, like my astronomy professor, may even be in Heaven. But wherever they are, if they've loved you and encouraged you and wanted what was best in life for you, they're right inside yourself. And I feel that you deserve quiet time on this special occasion to devote some thought to them. So let's just take a minute in honor of those who have cared about us all along the way. One silent minute.
Whomever you've been thinking about, imagine how grateful they must be that during your silent times you remember how important they are to you. It's not the honors and the prizes and the fancy outsides of life which ultimately nourish our souls. It's the knowing that we can be trusted, that we never have to fear the truth, that the bedrock of our lives from which we make our choices is very good stuff.
Durham Academy, 2005
A few years ago I was at a dinner in New York with a bunch of people who were getting something called the Golden Plate, an achievement award for doing well in their fields. Some were celebrities -- Barbara Walters, Calvin Klein, Colin Powell -- others were less well-known, but had done things like discover the planet Pluto. Oprah emceed. I was the least famous person there.
The idea was to get a bunch of "achievers" together and bring in 400 high school National Merit Finalists from around the country for three days of schmoozing with the accomplished. The idea, I suppose, was that achievement was contagious, like pink eye.
... at breakfast I was discussing the event with a Nobel Prize-winning physicist from Stanford who had discovered the sub-atomic particles called quarks. ... The Nobel Laureate asked me, "Would you have been invited to something like this when you were in high school?" I laughed and said, "No, I wasn't a very good student." He shook his head and said, "I didn't even finish high school. ... I had to get my high school equivalency later." Then, looking around us, he said, "I wonder how many of the others invited here were National Merit Scholars in high school."
What he was hinting at was the puzzle of human personality, the mystery of success, late-blooming talent and confidence, the ineffable qualities of character, drive and ambition, qualities that are often key components of achievement and are sometimes even galvanized by those early high school humiliations.
In the spirit of keeping things in perspective, remember, it was Harvard grads, the best and the brightest, who got us into Vietnam. It was a Duke Law graduate -- Richard Nixon -- who obstructed justice, ignored subpoenas and was forced to resign the presidency. It was a graduate of Georgetown, Yale, and Oxford, a Rhodes Scholar -- Bill Clinton -- who disgraced the office of the presidency, lied under oath, and taught a generation how to parse the meaning of is. Enron execs were, as the book title puts it, The Smartest Guys in the Room.
A recent New Yorker cartoon shows a bum seated on an orange crate with a sign that says, "Blew off my SAT prep class."
Yes, it's a bottom-line world out there, boys and girls. Everything -- including education -- has been commodified. Consequently, we think everything worth knowing is test-able, quantifiable, and measurable.
You've grown up in a time when performance is everything ... Performance Anxiety is marketed to you in discreet and insidious ways. ... Binge drinking, eating disorders and college suicides are all perfection diseases, ways of acting out the impossibility of perfection. Ease up on yourselves. Have some compassion for yourself as well as for others. There's no such thing as perfection, and life is not a race.
Be grateful. I have kept a journal since I was l5 years old and if you look back on my journal when I was l5, l6, it's all filled with boy trouble, men trouble, my daddy wouldn't let me go to Shoney's with Anthony Otie, things like that. As I've grown older, I have learned to appreciate living in the moment and I ask that you do, too. I am asking this graduating class, those of you here, I've asked all of my viewers in America and across the world to do this one thing. Keep a grateful journal. Every night list five things that happened this day, in days to come that you are grateful for. What it will begin to do is to change your perspective of your day and your life. I believe that if you can learn to focus on what you have, you will always see that the universe is abundant and you will have more. If you concentrate and focus in your life on what you don't have, you will never have enough. Be grateful. Keep a journal. You all are all over my journal tonight.
Create the highest, grandest vision possible for your life because you become what you believe. When I was a little girl in Mississippi, growing up on the farm, only Buckwheat as a role model, watching my grandmother boil clothes in a big, iron pot through the screen door, because we didn't have a washing machine and made everything we had. I watched her and realized somehow inside myself, in the spirit of myself, that although this was segregated Mississippi and I was "colored" and female, that my life could be bigger, greater than what I saw. I remember being 4 or 5 years old, I certainly couldn't articulate it, but it was a feeling and a feeling that I allowed myself to follow. I allowed myself to follow it because if you were to ask me what is the secret to my success, it is because I understand that there is a power greater than myself, that rules my life and in life if you can be still long enough in all of your endeavors, the good times, the hard times, to connect yourself to the source, I call it God, you can call it whatever you want to, the force, nature, Allah, the power. If you can connect yourself to the source and allow the energy that is your personality, your life force to be connected to the greater force, anything is possible for you. I am proof of that. I think that my life, the fact that I was born where I was born, and the time that I was and have been able to do what I have done speaks to the possibility. Not that I am special, but that it could be done. Hold the highest, grandest vision for yourself.
UNIVERSITY OF PennSYLVANIA, 2004
I saw something in the paper last week about Kermit the Frog giving a commencement address somewhere. One of the students was complaining, "I worked my ass off for four years to be addressed by a sock?" You have worked your ass off for this. For four years you've been buying, trading and selling everything you've got in this marketplace of ideas. The intellectual hustle. Your pockets are full, even if your parents' are empty, and now you've got to figure out what to spend it on. Well, the going rate for change is not cheap. Big ideas are expensive. The University has had its share of big ideas. Benjamin Franklin had a few, so did Justice Brennan ... They all knew that if you're gonna be good at your word, if you're gonna live up to your ideals and your education, it's gonna cost you. So my question, I suppose, is: What's the big idea? What's your big idea? What are you willing to spend your moral capital, your intellectual capital, your cash, your sweat equity in pursuing outside of the walls of the University of Pennsylvania?
There's a truly great Irish poet; his name is Brendan Kennelly, and he has this epic poem called "The Book of Judas," and there's a line in that poem that never leaves my mind: "If you want to serve the age, betray it." What does that mean to betray the age? Well, to me, betraying the age means exposing its conceits, its foibles, its phony moral certitudes. It means telling the secrets of the age and facing harsher truths. Every age has its massive moral blind spots. We might not see them, but our children will. Slavery was one of them and the people who best served that age were the ones who called it as it was, which was ungodly and inhuman. Ben Franklin called it when he became president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. Segregation. There was another one. America sees this now but it took a civil rights movement to betray their age. And 50 years ago the U.S. Supreme Court betrayed the age, May 17, 1954, Brown vs. Board of Education came down and put the lie to the idea that separate can ever really be equal. Amen to that.
Emory University, 1998
One of the unique things about humanity is the special human brain. We have the capacity to think and to memorize. We have something that can have very special qualities.
Because of that, education becomes very important. I believe that education is like an instrument. Whether that instrument, that device, is used properly or constructively or in a different way depends on the user. We have education on the one hand; on the other hand, we have a good person. A good person means someone with a good heart, a sense of commitment, a sense of responsibility. Education and the warm heart, the compassionate heart -- if you combine these two, then your education, your knowledge, will be constructive. Then you are yourself then becoming a happy person.
If you have only education and knowledge and a lack of the other side, then you may not be a happy person, but a person of mental unrest, of frustration. This will always happen. Not only that, but if you combine these two, your whole life will be a constructive and happy life. And certainly you can make immense benefit for society and the betterment of humanity. That is one of my fundamental beliefs: that a good heart, a warm heart, a compassionate heart, is still teachable. Please combine these two.
Then there is another thing I want to tell you. You have achieved your goal, and now you are ready to begin another chapter. Now you really start real life. Real life may be more complicated. It is bound to face some unhappy things and hindrance and obstacles, complications. So it is important to have determination and optimism and patience. If you lack patience, even when you face some small obstacle, you lose courage. There is a Tibetan saying, "Even if you have failed at something nine times, you have still given it effort nine times." I think that's important. Use your brain to analyze the situation. Do not rush through it, but think. Once you decide what to do about that obstacle, then there's a possibility that you will achieve your goal.
After graduating in May, I moved to Los Angeles and got a three-week contract at a small cable show. I got a $380-a-month apartment and bought a 1977 Isuzu Opel, a car Isuzu only manufactured for a year because they found out that, technically, it's not a car. Here's a quick tip, graduates: no four-cylinder vehicle should have a racing stripe. I worked at that show for over a year, feeling pretty good about myself, when one day they told me they were letting me go. I was fired and I hadn't saved a lot of money. I tried to get another job in television but I couldn't find one.
So, with nowhere else to turn, I went to a temp agency and filled out a questionnaire. I made damn sure they knew I had been to Harvard and that I expected the very best treatment. And so, the next day, I was sent to the Santa Monica branch of Wilson's House of Suede and Leather. When you have a Harvard degree and you're working at Wilson's House of Suede and Leather, you are haunted by the ghostly images of your classmates who chose graduate school. You see their faces everywhere: in coffee cups, in fish tanks, and they're always laughing at you as you stack suede shirts no man, in good conscience, would ever wear. I tried a lot of things during this period: acting in corporate infomercials, serving drinks in a non-equity theatre, I even took a job entertaining at a 7-year-old's birthday party. In desperate need of work, I put together some sketches and scored a job at the fledgling Fox Network as a writer and performer for a new show called The Wilton North Report. I was finally on a network and really excited. The producer told me the show was going to revolutionize television. And, in a way, it did. The show was so hated and did so badly that when, four weeks later, news of its cancellation was announced to the Fox affiliates, they burst into applause.
Eventually, though, I got a huge break. I had submitted, along with my writing partner, a batch of sketches to Saturday Night Live and, after a year and a half, they read it and gave us a two-week tryout. The two weeks turned into two seasons and I felt successful. Successful enough to write a TV pilot for an original sitcom and, when the network decided to make it, I left Saturday Night Live. This TV show was going to be groundbreaking. It was going to resurrect the career of TV's Batman, Adam West. It was going to be a comedy without a laugh track or a studio audience. It was going to change all the rules. And here's what happened: When the pilot aired it was the second lowest-rated television show of all time. It's tied with a test pattern they show in Nova Scotia.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & 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. So why did I drop out?
It started before I was born. My biological mother was a young, unwed college graduate student, and she decided to put me up for adoption. She felt very strongly that I should be adopted by college graduates, so everything was all set for me to be adopted at birth by a lawyer and his wife. Except that when I popped out they decided at the last minute that they really wanted a girl. So my parents, who were on a waiting list, got a call in the middle of the night asking: "We have an unexpected baby boy; do you want him?" They said: "Of course." My biological mother later found out that my mother had never graduated from college and that my father had never graduated from high school. She refused to sign the final adoption papers. She only relented a few months later when my parents promised that I would someday go to college.
And 17 years later I did go to college. But I naively chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford, and all of my working-class parents' savings were being spent on my college tuition. After six months, I couldn't see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out. And here I was spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn't interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting.
It wasn't all romantic. I didn't have a dorm room, so I slept on the floor in friends' rooms, I returned Coke bottles for the 5 & cent; deposits to buy food with, and I would walk the seven miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple. I loved it. And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on. Let me give you one example:
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 10 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. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it's likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards 10 years later.
Daniel Webster College, 2006
A survey revealed that 99.7 percent of college graduates can't remember any pearls of wisdom from the speeches at their graduations. That breaks down to only 23 out of roughly 10,000 people graduating from the nation's colleges this May.
Frank Deford is a senior writer at Sports Illustrated and a commentator for National Public Radio.