Thursday, October 3, 2019

12 Commencement Speakers Offer Wisdom to Grads, Plus Sage Advice from Johnny Carson

Photo by Alexander Schimmeck on Unsplash
Commencement addresses are one of the grand traditions of academic life. I have no idea who spoke at our Ohio University graduation in 1974, though I surprisingly do recall something he said. (For the record, President Gerald Ford spoke at Ohio State's commencement that year.)

Our O.U. commencement speaker began by teaching us the French word for backside, behind, bottom, breech, bum, buns, butt, buttocks or rear end.  That word was derrière.  He then explained that it is customary for speakers at gatherings and events such as this to forewarn their audience, about five minutes before they reach it, that they are approaching the end of their speech, and that he would do accordingly. This provides the audience with a measure of relief, knowing that the speech will not go on indefinitely.

After explaining this, he indicate that the end--or derrière--was in sight.

It was a cute way to produce a short speech, and in hind-sight I see now that the end he was referring to was not his speech, but rather the four years of our college experience.

THIS RECOLLECTION came to mind when I saw a book on the new books shelf at our library titled Way More Than Luck. The subtitle says it all. Commencement Speeches on Living with Bravery, Empathy, and Other Existential Skills.

The zippy title and cover design prompted me to pick it up, if for no other reason than to see who the speakers were. Noting that speeches by Tom Wolfe and David Foster Wallace were interred here, I checked it out to see who else was included. What follows are quotes from each of the 12 speakers, with three from Madeleine L'Engle, whose A Wrinkle In Time made an impression on me when I was young.

At the end of your days you will be judged by your gallop, not your stumble.
--Bradley Whitford, Emmy Award-winning actor

Always have a Plan B. And if you can, a Plan C.
--Michael Uslan, Exec. Producer of the Batman/Dark Knight movie franchise

You're going to have to make the crucial judgments yourselves.
--Tom Wolfe, Author

No matter what it cost, I was going to stay on the side of truth.
--Madeleine L'Engle Author

I learned to be willing to be who I was, not the plastic model of who I had thought I wanted to be.
--Madeleine L'Engle

Nothing that's easy is really worth very much.
--Madeleine L'Engle

Life's outcomes, while not entirely random, have a huge amount of luck baked into them
--Michael Lewis, Author

Your education is a dress rehearsal for a life that is yours to lead.
--Nora Ephron, Writer, director & screenwriter

It's Normal to feel lost for a little while.
--Ira Glass, Host of This American Life

The world shifts under our feet. The rules change.
--Barbara Kingsolver, Author

I hope there's mystery and poetry in your life.
--Eileen Myles, Poet, essayist, novelist

The more distracted we become, and the more emphasis we place on speed at the expense of depth, the less likely and able we are to care.
--Jonathan Safran Foer

Two hours spent with somebody less fortunate than you can make a world of difference.
Khaled Hosseini, Author

The most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.
David Foster Wallace, Author

* * * *
As a parting shot, here's Johnny Carson giving a graduation speech to his audience in 1985. I was looking for a specific anecdote, and it must have been in a different grad speech I saw him give on another occasion. If you wish for some pearls of real wisdom, go elsewhere. Otherwise... 
Heeeere's Johnny.


If you ever become famous and get asked to give a commencement speech, Way More Than Luck might be a useful tool for crafting an idea of where to go. 

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