‘Tis the season for commencement speeches! In this post we share the advice given in a selection of commencement speeches by J.K. Rowling, Steven Spielberg, and George Saunders.
For many college campuses, another school year has ended. With these endings also comes a celebration of beginnings as graduation and commencement speeches close one life stage to inaugurate another. While most of us are not graduating this year, many of these speeches impart timeless lessons that apply to many stages of life. As such, I thought I might share some wisdom from former commencement speeches.
In her commencement speech delivered to the graduating class of 2008 at Harvard University, J.K. Rowling spoke to the power of imagination.
Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared… Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s places. Of course, this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic, that is morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate, or control, just as much as to understand or sympathise.
J.K. Rowling reminds us that our connection with one another can be enhanced by a deep curiosity that develops into imagination and ultimately empathy. As we allow our imaginations to wander through the stories of others, we are able to better see them as people who matter like we matter.
In her closing remarks, Rowling reflects on how the power of imagination reveals a principle described by the Greek author Plutarch.
“What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.” That is an astonishing statement and yet proven a thousand times every day of our lives. It expresses, in part, our inescapable connection with the outside world, the fact that we touch other people’s lives simply by existing.
How will your existence impact others?
At the same podium, Steven Spielberg spoke to the graduating class of 2016. His words in many ways echoed a theme of Rowling’s speech: stories can drive human connection.
To repair and replace divides between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ “we have to replace fear with curiosity.” But empathy, Spielberg qualifies, is more than a feeling. It is something to act upon. Following that remark, he sends an immediate call for action:
And please stay connected. Please never lose eye contact. This may not be a lesson you want to hear from a person who creates media, but we are spending more time looking down at our devices than we are looking in each other’s eyes. So, forgive me, but let’s start right now. Everyone here, please find someone’s eyes to look into…If you remember nothing else from today, I hope you remember this moment of human connection.
Spielberg’s call to action reminds us of the importance of actually seeing people. Sometimes the first step to seeing people as people, is to actually look at them, make eye contact, and recognize that they possess value, aspirations, fears, thoughts, and feelings just as we do.
Finally, he closes with words unique to Spielberg.
I wish you all a true, Hollywood-style happy ending. I hope you outrun the T. Rex, catch the criminal and for your parents’ sake, maybe every now and then, just like E.T.: Go home. Thank you.
In his address to the 2013 graduating class of Syracuse University, George Saunders emphasized the importance of kindness. Listing all the moments he doesn’t regret, despite the sometimes severe consequences, he shares one moment he does remember with remorse.
In seventh grade, this new kid joined our class. In the interest of confidentiality, her Convocation Speech name will be “ELLEN.” ELLEN was small, shy. She wore these blue cat’s-eye glasses that, at the time, only old ladies wore. When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it.
So she came to our school and our neighborhood, and was mostly ignored, occasionally teased (“Your hair taste good?” — that sort of thing). I could see this hurt her. I still remember the way she’d look after such an insult: eyes cast down, a little gut-kicked, as if, having just been reminded of her place in things, she was trying, as much as possible, to disappear. After a while she’d drift away, hair-strand still in her mouth. At home, I imagined, after school, her mother would say, you know: “How was your day, sweetie?” and she’d say, “Oh, fine.” And her mother would say, “Making any friends?” and she’d go, “Sure, lots.”
Sometimes I’d see her hanging around alone in her front yard, as if afraid to leave it.
And then — they moved. That was it. No tragedy, no big final hazing.
One day she was there, next day she wasn’t.
End of story.
Now, why do I regret that? Why, forty-two years later, am I still thinking about it? Relative to most of the other kids, I was actually pretty nice to her. I never said an unkind word to her. In fact, I sometimes even (mildly) defended her.
But still. It bothers me.
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.
In the rest of his speech, Saunders asks the audience to reflect on those they remember fondly with feelings of warmth. Likely, the people remembered were those who were the kindest. And so he ushers the call to be kinder. He urges the audience not to think that of all the calls to action in commencement speeches, kindness is the least of them. He reminds them that kindness is hard, but also a cure to selfishness. “So err in the direction of kindness.”
As we reflect on the words that are meant to carry us through the passages of one life stage to another, let’s not forget the people who also supported us through these transitions. As the year anniversary of my own graduation draws near, I reflect on the people who helped me arrive at such a milestone. At the time I wrote,
Today my dad and I had lunch with a professor who likely changed my life. I’m a person who struggles with believing in myself. Yet, what I lack in self-confidence, I make up with passion, grit, and work ethic. How grateful I am to the professors who say that passion and grit are enough no matter your skills or talents. With this particular professor, he believed in me long enough for me to light my own flame of faith that I have what it takes. Thank you to the teachers who believe in their students (even when those students seem to be drowning and failing). You really do change lives. And people who change people, change the world.
So as we stand at the threshold of change, even if it’s just one day yielding to another, let’s resolve to create empathy with our imaginations, look into each other’s eyes, and be kinder—because people who change people, change the world.