So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:
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.
George Saunders delivered the convocation address at Syracuse University earlier this year. A transcript of his speech was posted online by the New York Times this week, and while I am a couple of days late in sharing it, I wanted to make sure I posted it in case anyone reading this site hasn’t seen it yet.
Also, via the folks at Syracuse.com, here is a video of the speech:
We all face complexity and uncertainty no matter where our path takes us. That means we all face the risk of failure. So along the way, we all are forced to develop these critical capacities—of judgment, teamwork, and acceptance of responsibility….
When things go wrong, there seem to be three main pitfalls to avoid, three ways to fail to rescue. You could choose a wrong plan, an inadequate plan, or no plan at all. Say you’re cooking and you inadvertently set a grease pan on fire. Throwing gasoline on the fire would be a completely wrong plan. Trying to blow the fire out would be inadequate. And ignoring it—“Fire? What fire?”—would be no plan at all.
— This Atul Gawande essay (it was originally a commencement address, but since it’s June and graduation speeches were a big May thing, let’s just call it an essay since it works quite well as an essay) is an excellent read about how failure matters less than how you react to it.
Around this time of year, videos and transcripts of recent college commencement addresses begin to appear. Some of them are very good! Aaron Sorkin, for instance, gave a really nice address to students at Syracuse University (his alma mater). Yes, he largely repurposed an address he gave at the school in 1997 (link via), but Sorkin has a well-established habit of revisiting his own lines, so I guess it’s not that big of a deal? (Unless you were at the ceremony in 1997 and also at the one earlier this month, and maybe in that case you feel very let down because despite it being 15 years later and Sorkin having created “The West Wing” and won an Oscar for “The Social Network” during that time, he apparently doesn’t have much in the way of new thoughts to offer graduates.) Anyway, it’s still a good speech.
Longform gathered some other gems, including Sheryl Sandberg’s speech at Barnard last year and Jon Stewart’s words to William & Mary in 2004. I’ve mentioned this before, but I have no idea what my commencement speaker said. As such, I will again point to two of my personal favorites: David Foster Wallace’s 2005 address at Kenyon College (audio) and Conan O’Brien’s address to Harvard in 2000.
Read obituaries. They are just like biographies, only shorter. They remind us that interesting, successful people rarely lead orderly, linear lives.
Okay, so you have probably seen this already, as it has been online for days and quickly reached maximum Internet exposure because everybody already posted it on Facebook and tweeted it and emailed it. But some of us only just saw it! Some of us saved it to read later and then we forgot and then the Heat game was on, and the next thing we knew we had forgotten to read that thing everybody had already seen and shared.
So I’m going to share it again because hey, maybe you also missed it, maybe you just didn’t see it because it’s a big bad Internet out there and sometimes you get caught up in things and miss that one item everybody has already seen. Here’s that list of things your commencement speaker won’t tell you, and it really is quite good if you haven’t read it already. (I particularly like the lowered expectations: “I am not asking you to cure cancer. I am just asking you not to spread it.”)
I don’t remember a single thing my commencement speaker said. Not a word. Probably something about graduation? Not really sure. But since it is graduation time for many students, I will also link to two of my favorite commencement addresses: Conan O’Brien’s speech to Harvard students in 2000 and David Foster Wallace’s famous “This Is Water” address to Kenyon College in 2005. (Here’s audio of the DFW speech, if you’d rather listen.)