There’s nothing worse than someone my age standing in front of a group of people your age and starting a sentence with the words “When I was your age…” But you’ve asked me here because you think I might have something worthwhile to say, and anyone who presumes to give advice on an occasion such as this does so mostly on the basis of his own experience.
I can’t help but think back to when I was your age and to my own high school graduation. I’d like to tell you that it was one of the highpoints of my life, but it wasn’t. I graduated a week after the shock of Robert Kennedy’s assassination. Two months earlier, Martin Luther King had been killed in a city I assumed to be so uncivilized that I’d certainly never, ever set foot there. Two months after my graduation, the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia and there were riots in the streets of Chicago during the Democratic National Convention. Hanging over everything was the war in Vietnam. Virtually every boy in my graduating class went on to college whether he wanted to or not, because the alternative was to be drafted.
Against this turbulent backdrop, my graduation was positively surreal. There were 998 graduates in the class; it took over an hour to pass out the diplomas, with two simultaneous lines of students parading up on both sides of the stage for their five seconds of glory. I spent most of the interminable ceremony reading a book. One of my classmates gave a speech filled with Pollyanna-ish, naïve clichés about the wonderful, happy future that lay ahead of us. One would have thought that nothing of any significance, let alone life and death, was happening in the outside world.
You come to your graduation having lived lives very different from mine and from your parents’. You’re smarter, you’re worldlier, and you’ve grown up much quicker. You’ve had access to an incredible amount of information, though I would remind you that information and knowledge are not the same. When I was your age, the world didn’t look much like it does now, but that won’t stop me from offering you a few thoughts I hope you’ll find useful.
First, life is not like high school and high school is not like life. Before I gave myself over to music, one of the things I thought I wanted to be was a political journalist. There was a small problem: I was a lousy writer, unlike the late Meg Greenfield. She was the Editorial Page Editor of the Washington Post and a columnist for Newsweek. In her last book, entitled simply Washington, she wrote this:
“So far as I have been able to discover, nobody, regardless of station, gets over high school—ever. Not even the most swaggery, balloon-headed types in the capital: Get them on the subject of their high school years, and you will soon see the assertive bearing wilt, the smugness vanish. This is true whether they were among the golden boys and girls or the nerdy social outcasts or the great throng in between. All will have carried into midlife and beyond their high school insecurities and dreads, enduring vanities about tiny teenage triumphs that they would find either amusing or pathetic in another adult, and at least a handful of social-life memories so excruciating they still cannot be recalled without a shifting of the feet.”
“…These are the years in which young people first encounter a make-or-break, peer-enforced social code that calculates worth as popularity and popularity as a capacity to please and be associated with the right people (no matter how undeserving they may be), as well as to impress and be admired by the vast undifferentiated rest.”
That’s elegant writing, but her argument only goes so far. High school is really not like life, because life is much richer and much less predictable. For example, when I was your age I was one of those nerdy social outcasts; the cool kids never gave me a second look when we passed in the hallway. But I’m up here giving the graduation speech and they’re not. You’ve received a first-class education here. Take the very best from these years, set aside the rest, and move on.
When you move on, it will likely be to college. When I was your age, I headed to Northwestern University filled with dread. I had no direction or clear goals and, even worse, Northwestern was my third choice. It wasn’t quite the “hot school” that it is now, and referred to itself as “The Harvard of the Midwest.” (Dr. Phil would no doubt see this as a symptom of poor self-esteem). Even so, its academic reputation was greater than that of its football team, so our school cheer was “That’s alright, that’s OK, you’re gonna work for us someday.”
As it turned out, Northwestern was the perfect place for me. The dirty little secret about college is that where you go really doesn’t matter nearly as much as you’ve been led to believe. Plenty of successful, accomplished people went to lesser-known colleges, and plenty of Harvard graduates are drifting through life. Yes, a degree from Vanderbilt or Emory is worth more in the marketplace than one from The Maui College of Surfing. But the amount of hot air that will come your way during four years of college is about the same everyplace. It’s just that at elite schools, the hot air smells a bit nicer.
It’s much more important what you do with your college years than where you spend them. Unfortunately, many students see college as simply a place to buy credentials. They would deny it, of course. They pay their tuition, get through all their courses and walk out unscathed by even a single new or challenging idea. These are the same people who save every paper they ever wrote and every textbook they ever bought. Then one day, there’s a fire or a flood at their house, or the moving company loses the box containing all the papers and they’ve lost their education, because they never really got one in the first place.
You’ll meet people like that at college, but you don’t want to be like them. Rather, seek out the people who are smarter than you are. (Some of them will even be on the faculty). They can teach you how to educate yourself, so that learning becomes something you pursue your entire life, and that will keep you young, not to mention employable.
Much of your education will take place outside the classroom, so an especially good use of your time at college is the late-night bull session. I’m sure such a thing still exists, but since many of you have grown up with every minute of every day programmed into your phones, you might need to enter a Twelve-Step Time-Liberation program before you can really take full advantage of the experience.
Keep your goals high and your expectations reasonable. If you leave college having found there a good library, two good professors and three good friends, you’ve really succeeded. Everything else is gravy.
The greatest thing you can do for yourself in college and beyond is to find your passion, the thing that makes you want to get up in the morning and attack the world. There’s nothing sadder than someone who goes every day to a job they hate, simply to meet other people’s expectations. I realize that I speak from a position of immense privilege, because I’ve been lucky enough to get paid to do the thing I love most. Whether you get paid well, poorly, or not at all, I hope you’ll know the joy of living a passionate life. For some of you that will mean a career, while for others it might mean being a stay-at-home parent, or some other path that you can’t foresee today. It doesn’t matter what your path is, nor does it matter how the outside world sees you. Find the things that float your boat and that are of service to something larger than yourself and pursue them with all your heart.
“When I was your age” seems like it was just yesterday. You may not believe it now, but one day you’ll wonder where the time went and you’ll ask yourself what you’re doing with your life. I wish you nothing more on this joyous day than to be able to answer, “I live passionately, I view the world with a greater sense of awe and wonder than I did when I was a child, and in some small way, that world is better because I’m here.”
Thank you, congratulations and good luck.
May 13, 2005, revised 2019