A good friend of mine recently attended a graduation ceremony for his twin grandchildren. Proudly he watched them receive their diploma as they were now moving from kindergarten to first grade.
Now, of course, May and June are the months when we celebrate the graduate, however it is usually the high school or college grad. Nonetheless, whilst kindergarten ceremonies may have their critics, achievement of any kind needs to be celebrated and why not set the standards at an early age?
The traditional commencement speaker (I have been one several times) usually focuses on the opportunities and challenges the world presents and finishes with a flourish of wonderful words describing the potential of the fresh and eager faces sitting in front of them. All of this is appropriate and valid.
Sometimes, however, a truly memorable, to the point, and transformative speech is given which clearly delineates where we are in the world today and sets the tone for the future. One such address was given a few years ago by the author, Bill Bryson, and captures beautifully what not only young people need to know, but also the rest of us need to remember.
Here it is with some minor editing:
- Take a moment from time to time to remember that you are alive. I know this sounds a trifle obvious, but it is amazing how little time we take to remark upon this singular and gratifying fact. By the most astounding stroke of luck an infinitesimal portion of all the matter in the universe came together to create you and for the tiniest moment in the great span of eternity you have the incomparable privilege to exist. Congratulations. Well done. You really are special.
- But not that special. There are seven billion other people on this planet, every one of them just as important, just as central to the great scheme of things, as you are. Don’t ever make the horrible, unworthy mistake of thinking yourself more vital and significant than anyone else. Nearly all the people you encounter in life merit your consideration. Many of them will be there to help you–to deliver your pizza, bag your groceries, clean up the motel room you have made such a lavish mess of. If you are not in the habit of being extremely nice to these people, then get in the habit now.
- Don’t ever do anything on principle alone. If you haven’t got a better reason for doing something other than the principle of the thing, then don’t do it.
- Whatever it is you want to do in life, do it. If you aspire to be a celebrated ballerina or an Olympic swimmer or to sing at Carnegie Hall, or whatever, go for it. Even though everyone is tactfully pointing out that you can’t sing a note or that no one has ever won the 100-meter dash with a personal best time of seventy-four seconds, do it anyway. There is nothing worse than getting to my age and saying, ‘I could have played second base for the Boston Red Sox but my dad wanted me to study law.’ Tell your dad to study law. You go and climb Everest.
- Don’t make the extremely foolish mistake of thinking that winning is everything. If there is one person that I would really like to smack, it is the person who said, “Winning is not the main thing. It’s the only thing.” That’s awful. Taking part is the main thing. Doing your best is the main thing. There is no shame in not winnning. The shame is in not trying to win, which is of course another matter altogether. Above all, be gracious in defeat. Believe me, you’ll get plenty of chances to put this into practice, so you might as well start working on it now.
- Don’t cheat. It’s not worth it. Don’t cheat on tests, don’t cheat on your taxes, don’t cheat on your partner, don’t cheat at Monopoly, don’t cheat at anything. It is often said that cheaters never prosper. It’s not true. But they also nearly always get caught at the end. Cheating is simply not worth it. It’s as simple as that.
- Strive to be modest. It is much more becoming, believe me. People are always more impressed if they find out independently that you won the Nobel Prize than if you wear it around your neck on a ribbon.
- Always buy my books, in hardback, as soon as they come out.
- Be happy. It’s not that hard. You have a million things to be happy about. You are bright and young and enormously good-looking–I can see that from here. You have your whole life ahead of you. But here’s the thing to remember. You will always have your whole life ahead of you. That never stops and you shouldn’t forget it.
- Finally–and if you remember nothing else from what is said here today, remember this–if you are ever called upon to speak in public, keep your remarks brief.
Looking for that perfect graduation gift? Every graduate needs to be encouraged to fulfill their potential. David McNally’s book – THE PUSH – Unleashing the Power of Encouragement is the answer.