What your commencement speaker won’t tell you

Some frank and timely words of wisdom from writer Christopher Wheelan in the Wall Street Journal:

Dear Class of 2012,

I became sick of commencement speeches at about your age. My first job out of college was writing speeches for the governor of Maine. Every spring, I would offer extraordinary tidbits of wisdom to 22-year-olds—which was quite a feat given that I was 23 at the time. In the decades since, I’ve spent most of my career teaching economics and public policy. In particular, I’ve studied happiness and well-being, about which we now know a great deal. And I’ve found that the saccharine and over-optimistic words of the typical commencement address hold few of the lessons young people really need to hear about what lies ahead. Here, then, is what I wish someone had told the Class of 1988:

1. Your time in fraternity basements was well spent. The same goes for the time you spent playing intramural sports, working on the school newspaper or just hanging with friends. Research tells us that one of the most important causal factors associated with happiness and well-being is your meaningful connections with other human beings. Look around today. Certainly one benchmark of your postgraduation success should be how many of these people are still your close friends in 10 or 20 years.

2. Some of your worst days lie ahead.Graduation is a happy day. But my job is to tell you that if you are going to do anything worthwhile, you will face periods of grinding self-doubt and failure. Be prepared to work through them. I’ll spare you my personal details, other than to say that one year after college graduation I had no job, less than $500 in assets, and I was living with an elderly retired couple. The only difference between when I graduated and today is that now no one can afford to retire.

3. Don’t make the world worse. I know that I’m supposed to tell you to aspire to great things. But I’m going to lower the bar here: Just don’t use your prodigious talents to mess things up. Too many smart people are doing that already. And if you really want to cause social mayhem, it helps to have an Ivy League degree. You are smart and motivated and creative. Everyone will tell you that you can change the world. They are right, but remember that “changing the world” also can include things like skirting financial regulations and selling unhealthy foods to increasingly obese children. I am not asking you to cure cancer. I am just asking you not to spread it.

4. Marry someone smarter than you are. When I was getting a Ph.D., my wife Leah had a steady income. When she wanted to start a software company, I had a job with health benefits. (To clarify, having a “spouse with benefits” is different from having a “friend with benefits.”) You will do better in life if you have a second economic oar in the water. I also want to alert you to the fact that commencement is like shooting smart fish in a barrel. The Phi Beta Kappa members will have pink-and-blue ribbons on their gowns. The summa cum laude graduates have their names printed in the program. Seize the opportunity!

5. Help stop the Little League arms race. Kids’ sports are becoming ridiculously structured and competitive. What happened to playing baseball because it’s fun? We are systematically creating races out of things that ought to be a journey. We know that success isn’t about simply running faster than everyone else in some predetermined direction. Yet the message we are sending from birth is that if you don’t make the traveling soccer team or get into the “right” school, then you will somehow finish life with fewer points than everyone else. That’s not right. You’ll never read the following obituary: “Bob Smith died yesterday at the age of 74. He finished life in 186th place.”

6. Read obituaries. They are just like biographies, only shorter. They remind us that interesting, successful people rarely lead orderly, linear lives.

There are four more.  Check ‘em out.


  1. Interesting. I don’t agree with number one. One builds lots of friends as one moves on in life. The number of friends I still have from college is very small. Five as I count off the top of my head.

    Number two is accurate. Number three strives for the lowest bar, so hmm. Number four is shallow. Number five is actually profound.

    I do like number six. There’s something mesmorizing about reading obits.

  2. But, Manny, you are too much too young to read obits on a regular basis.

  3. pagansister says:

    I graduated university 44 years ago and have absolutely no idea who the speaker was or what he said (do remember it was a male speaker). I was at the time, 3 months pregnant with our first child, and only wanted to get through the ceremony and get on with my life, which I did. :o) Some good advise above—

  4. midwestlady says:

    Great, great advice.

    I really like 2, 3, 4 & 6 the best. My favorite is “Don’t make the world worse.” Love it. Unfortunately, when a person is really busy making the world worse, they often don’t realize it til it is. Worse, that is. Such is the business of being human.

    #1 & #5:
    #1 If it means that you should appreciate other people, yes, yes, yes. If it means you have to join a fraternity, be a social butterfly, nyaaa. Depends on the person; some people aren’t meant to appreciate people in these ways.
    #5 The last line of this is the best line of this. The goal is not to beat anybody. The goal is to live a life. Your life, as God intended you to live it!

  5. LOL, I am fifty. Is that too young? ;)

  6. The speaker at my college graduation was Walter Cronkite. He concluded the speech with, of course, ” and that’s the way it is.”

    1, 2, 3, 5, and 6 above are fine. Although I have lost track of most of my friends from college, I am still married to the closest one. I am not sure how both spouses manage number 4.

  7. I made them part of my daily reading about when i was 30, 25 years ago.

  8. Deacon Greg Kandra says:

    Obits can make for great homily material!

  9. Catherine says:

    The speaker at my graduation, almost 40 years ago, was Hugh Carey. I do not remember a single thing he said. I do remember that the valedictorian urged us to avoid materialism, and practice austerity. I thought 9 (“It’s all borrowed time”) was the most important piece of advice, but they won’t get it for a while. Five of my closest college classmates died of various causes in their 20s, and that’s when the wisdom of that observation hit me. 3, 5 and 6, yes. Number 1, no. Instead, someone should have spoken to these grads before they started college, and told them to take maximum advantage of the luxury of being able to read, think and write for four years. I would tell them to stay away from frat houses. Working on the newspaper, yes, because it builds job skills. And finally, the best (because the most colorful) obituaries are the ones in the British papers.

  10. Love the stuff about Little League. So true.
    The comment about not making the world worse reminded me of William Cavanaugh’s quip about what he would say if he ever gave a graduation speech. I paraphrase: “Don’t go out and change the world. There’s enough people trying to do that and making things worse. Instead, just go home. Live a virtuous life in your own home town. Go home.”

    Seems like good advice to me. We laud the ‘Dead Poet’s Society’ idea of ‘making our lives extraordinary’ and ‘seizing the day’. But Wheelan is right (#9): your motto shouldn’t be ‘carpe diem’. Don’t live like you’re going to die tomorrow. Instead, assume you won’t die for a while, and live so that you’ll be able to look back at your life when you’re old and see a life virtuously and responsibly lived.

  11. Right out of college, I used to keep a list of interesting names from obituaries to use in future novels. But I don’t recall reading the obits (except for more names) and the novels went unwritten, probably because young me was capturing the interesting names instead of the great stories. Now the obit stories are interesting to me, usually because my husband has pointed them out to me (he also sent me this link!).

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