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The Best Graduation Advice

What’s the best advice you can give a new graduate? Might it be contained in one word, like that famous line from 1967’s The Graduate, where the character played by Dustin Hoffman receives an enigmatic tip from a family friend?

Skipping ahead almost 5o years, someone looking to make a prediction about a future lucrative career might as well say, “Just two words: Big Data.” While it’s true most new college grads are getting plenty of career advice these days–which makes absolute sense given today’s soft labor market–what other kinds of advice are they being offered?

The answer depends, of course, on where you look, and one obvious place to begin is graduation day. Commencement speakers, who are sometimes paid tens of thousands of dollars to deliver 15 minute-long speeches, are typically chosen for their contributions to their fields of work and, perhaps less commonly, to society as a whole. The speakers tend to lend a certain gravitas to the occasion or in some cases provide a Hollywood-like spectacle.

But there have been at least a few commencement speakers in the past decade who have attempted to answer, or begin to answer, one of the oldest questions in philosophy: What does it mean to live a good life? These speeches–at least of the ones I’ve encountered by reading them or watching them online–all seem to point toward a very finite resource that, at certain times in human history, has appeared on the verge of extinction: human empathy.

One of the most celebrated commencement speeches in recent memory was given by David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College a few years before his death. An award-winning author and professor of English who at one point taught at Illinois State, Wallace reminds us in his speech that we education gives us the power confront “our natural default setting,” which he describes as the “automatic, unconscious belief” that we are “the centre of the world” and that our needs are ultimately what matters the most. Using the language and imagination he is renowned for, Wallace underscores how we must daily choose, at a conscious level, what we “worship”– is it money? beauty? success? kindness?–and do so wisely.

About one year ago, a video production company excerpted parts of Wallace’s speech and adapted it in the video (below), titled “This is Water.”

Eight years later, another writer famous for his short fiction and essays, George Saunders, took to the stage of his alma mater and echoed a key theme in Wallace’s speech, declaring that, above all else, its graduates must increase their capacity for kindness. Shortly thereafter The New York Times reprinted his short address in full, and then a little later, a small part of his speech was adapted in an animation (below).

Of course, Wallace and Saunders are not the only commencement speakers who’ve keyed into expanding our capacity for self-awareness and generosity and human decency. In 2003, writer Anne Lamott directed the graduates of UC Berkeley to “feed and nourish” their spirits by, at least in part, “[taking] care of the poor.”And novelist Barbara Kingsolver urged the graduates of Duke in 2008 to stay in “close and continuous contact” with others–because community is “our native state.” And I’m sure there are many other speakers who’ve done the same, and deserve mention. (Please share your own favorites in the comments section below.)

No matter who delivers the commencement speech or its topic, graduation day is a joyous time and a reason to celebrate our graduates’ accomplishments and look forward to their future ones. But like Wallace and Saunders and others remind us, it can also be a time for honest reflection and self-assessment. Not only should our graduates and we as their loved ones be asking the question, “Where do we go from here?”, but we also should be asking ourselves, “Why?”

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