I know the graduation fervor has died down since earlier last month, but this might be the best commencement speech I’ve ever heard.
There’s a reason that David McCullough’s address to Wellesley High School has racked up more than 1.5 million views since being posted on YouTube a month ago. Finally we have a speaker who is willing to be a straight shooter for a change—witty but honest—someone who will say what everyone has always wanted to hear at graduations. It amounts to something to the effect of: “Guess what kid, it’s been a good run having you here at school, but when it comes down to it, you’re not really all that special. There are thousands of graduates in this country in the same shoes as you. And they think they’re pretty awesome too. So what are you going to do about it?” Forget the “reach for the stars, you can do anything” crap. “If everyone is special, no one is,” says McCullough, “If everyone gets a trophy, trophies are meaningless.”
I think it goes to show that our society, despite all the superficiality and political correctness that we put up to shield ourselves from reality, still longs for authenticity. No one wants to live under a delusion or lie, and McCullough, though hopeful, doesn’t shy away from reality in his speech. “Statistics tell us that half of you will get divorced.” When you think about it, that’s an awful reality. It means that hundreds of kids sitting right in front of him will one day experience horrible regret, conflict, and heartache. Yet that is the world too, is it not? It’s full of opportunity, but it’s also full of pitfalls, failures, and disappointment.
Better still, McCullough hits on several critical points that I did not fully grasp until well into my college education. Namely, he tells the graduates: “I also hope you’ve recognized how little you know—how little you know now.” If you’re no more than a tiny, finite, speck in a world of millions of people and a universe of unfathomable length and breadth, how much can you really expect of have figured out? Not much, of course, so how do you deal with it? McCullough gives them the one simple remedy: “Read. Read all the time. Read as a matter of principle, as a matter of self respect. Read as a nourishing staple of life.”
If you watch the speech, take some time to think about it. Think about the principles; then find ways to act. Meditate on what it means to truly live. Agonize over what it means to truly live. Question the purpose of your life. Pray, doubt, cry. Inspiration quotes and speeches are a dime a dozen. Seriously, for the most part it’s true. But the things that change lives—and it may not be one specific moment, phrase, or speech, but dozens of books, a deep friendship, extended meditation and prayer, faith expressed in concrete action–the things that let you look back through life and say, “I’m not who I was back then.” Those are truly priceless.
McCullough echoes New York Times’ columnist David Brooks’ reminder to graduates that it’s not about you. Sure, you may have potential, but you are not the end. You must not make yourself the end. The fulfilled life only happens when you think on things more important than yourself.
I like the irreverent twist on the famous Latin phrase near the end: “carpe the heck out of the diem.” It takes a certain energy, an initiative—a violence, if you will—to truly live. McCullough says “The fulfilling life, the distinctive life, the relevant life, is an achievement, not something that will fall into your lap.” Although I would nuance this by noting that sometimes the greatest joys in life are things that happen to us—things that just seem to fall into our laps–the basic point is correct. Genuine living demands that we choose. It requires a distinct act of the will whereby we actively do things for the sake of Something greater. It is in our nature to let the universe revolve around ourselves, but it is a temptation we must resist. As Brooks said: “The purpose in life is not to find yourself. It’s to lose yourself.”