Advice served plainly, rather than wrapped up in plot and metaphor, is often what's delivered when great writers are asked to give commencement speeches at universities. These earnest talks about what young people should and shouldn't value can offer a straightforward look at writers' philosophies and can even give us a leg up in interpreting their more creative work.
In some cases, the frankness and optimistic nature of a commencement speech allows us to see a writer in a different light -- the normally curmudgeonly Jonathan Franzen, for example, used his as an opportunity to discuss alternatives to the consumer-driven world he often complains about.
Here's some of the best and most inspiring advice we found in commencement speeches by well-known authors:
1. A culture of 'liking' impedes genuine love.
Jonathan Franzen, Kenyon College, 2011
Everyone's favorite grump will take any opportunity to publicly air his grievances about technology. But in this case he goes on to offer alternatives to the lifestyle he condemns, and arrives at a sunny conclusion about human nature.
The author says that contemporary culture involves constantly exposing oneself and one's opinions to the scrutiny of others, and that this fact lends itself to a flattening of character. Because we're exposed and fear rejection, we tend to make an attempt to be broadly liked, rather than committing fully and honestly to a handful of things that we love. This observation is made literal by Facebook's "like" button.
The author touches on his (often joked about) love of birds and how his devotion to one thing gave a depth to his more general passions, like environmentalism.
Notable quote: "When you stay in your room and rage or sneer or shrug your shoulders, as I did for many years, the world and its problems are impossibly daunting. But when you go out and put yourself in real relation to real people, or even just real animals, there’s a very real danger that you might love some of them."
2. The (sometimes tedious) tasks of adult life are what you make of them.
David Foster Wallace, Kenyon College, 2005
Wallace's speech, which was later adapted into a short book, This Is Water, attempts to defend the value of a liberal arts education. The topic was a hot one among Wallace and his ilk, as much was being written about whether or not there is a unique value in reading literature as opposed to, say having a conversation or watching a movie. Franzen's essay "Why Bother?", written a decade earlier, concluded that writers have a potential to influence American culture, in addition to benefiting from the act of writing themselves.
Wallace outlines additional benefits to reading and writing in his speech, the most important being an individual's ability to choose the way she sees her surroundings. Rather than grumbling about grocery store lines and other tedious inconveniences, the liberal arts student, Wallace argues, is able to contextualize the experience, and look at it in a more positive light.
He also touches on the now scientifically proven fact that reading literary fiction can promote empathy.
Notable quote: "Because here's something else that's weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship."
3. Kindness counts.
George Saunders, Syracuse University, 2013
Saunders's speech begins with a quip about the tradition of commencement addresses -- stodgy old men telling young people how best to live their lives. "I intend to respect that tradition," he jokes. After chronicling all of the things in life that he doesn't regret, he arrives at the one thing he does regret: "failures of kindness." He does on to tell a subtle, anticlimactic story about a former classmate who was bullied, and why he regrets not sticking up for her more than he did.
Notable quote: "Do all the other things, the ambitious things — travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers (after first having it tested for monkey poop) – but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness."
4. Your personal happiness matters, but shouldn't be your sole focus in life.
Susan Sontag, Vassar College, 2003
Sontag's speech was, in part, a response to the decision to invade Iraq. She encourages her audience to be alert and analytical, and not accept whatever information they're presented with. "Attention," she says, "is vitality." In keeping with the theme of the above mentioned speeches (aside, maybe, from David Foster Wallace's), she doesn't necessarily instruct graduates on how to be happy. Happiness, she seems to believe, is secondary to being a caring and motivated citizen. When a person focuses on making the world a better place, happiness can be achieved as easily, if not more easily, than when happiness is a main focus.
Notable quote: "You'll notice that I haven't talked about love. Or about happiness. I've talked about becoming -- or remaining -- the person who can be happy, a lot of the time, without thinking that being happy is what it's all about. It's not."
5. Persistence pays off.
Neil Gaiman, The University of the Arts, 2012
Gaiman's speech, now dubbed the "Make Good Art" speech, was wildly popular after it was delivered two years ago, most likely because, although it's directed specifically at the arts community, it contains wisdom that seems to resonate with everyone. His first point is about boundaries and imagination; the beauty, he says, of being a young artist, is that you haven't learned the established "rules" yet, so it's easier to ignore them. Gaiman has proven to be a wildly imaginative artist, so this advice makes sense coming from him.
The rest of his bulleted points are in some way related to tenacity. Don't have the funds to create the art you want to create? Do whatever it takes to garner them in the meantime (here he cites his work as a journalist interviewing authors before he made it as a fiction writer himself). Making a lot of mistakes along the way? Good! Learn from them. And most importantly, although this sentiment may be obvious, he encourages his audience to "make good art," every day, no matter what.
Notable quote: "I'm serious. Husband runs off with a politician? Make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by mutated boa constrictor? Make good art. IRS on your trail? Make good art. Cat exploded? Make good art. Somebody on the Internet thinks what you do is stupid or evil or it's all been done before? Make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, and eventually time will take the sting away, but that doesn't matter. Do what only you do best. Make good art."
6. Face-to-face interaction has a unique value that technology can't provide.
Jonathan Safran Foer, Middlebury College, 2013
Foer's speech, which has been adapted into an essay titled "How Not to Be Alone," is a mash-up of Franzen's and Saunders's. After relating a dilemma he encountered in a park, when he heard a girl crying and was unsure whether or not he should ask what's wrong, he touches on the basic importance of kindness. Our failure to always be kind, he says, is the fault of technology -- it's easier to distance ourselves from genuine interaction by instead focusing on a steady stream of quick, shallow communication.
He cites psychological studies that claim empathy and moral responses to situations take more time to sink in than more immediate, physical responses, and implies that we're losing that ability.
Notable quote: "We often use technology to save time, but increasingly, it either takes the saved time along with it, or makes the saved time less present, intimate and rich. I worry that the closer the world gets to our fingertips, the further it gets from our hearts. It’s not an either/or -- being 'anti-technology' is perhaps the only thing more foolish than being unquestioningly 'pro-technology' -- but a question of balance that our lives hang upon."
7. Chase your own dreams, not someone else's.
Ursula K. Le Guin, Mills College, 1983
Le Guin wasn't the first woman to publicly acknowledge that much of our culture's language and ideas are masculine, but she certainly was bold to use her commencement speech as an opportunity to discuss the issue. She notes that the language of speeches is often aggressive, and can resemble a rallying cry. Rather than suggesting that graduates seek career-related triumph, she instead hopes that they should pursue what they wish, and to do so with integrity.
Notable quote: "Maybe we’ve had enough words of power and talk about the battle of life. Maybe we need some words of weakness. Instead of saying now that I hope you will all go forth from this ivory tower of college into the Real World and forge a triumphant career or at least help your husband to and keep our country strong and be a success in everything -- instead of talking about power, what if I talked like a woman right here in public? It won’t sound right. It’s going to sound terrible. What if I said what I hope for you is first, if –- only if –- you want kids, I hope you have them."
8. Avoid complacency at all costs.
Toni Morrison, Rutgers University, 2011
Speaking almost a decade after Sontag's speech, Morrison echoes and builds upon her sentiment that happiness is a baseline goal; beyond it, we should strive also for civically responsible lives. Morrison also has similar ideas to Fraznen's about technology; that our social networks make us long for pleasure and eternal youth, rather than depth and maturity. She champions the individual, and the capacity an individual has to promote social change.
Notable quote: "I know that happiness has been the real, if covert, goal of your labors here. I know that it informs your choice of companions, the profession you will enter, but I urge you, please don’t settle for happiness. It’s not good enough. Of course, you deserve it. But if that is all you have in mind—happiness—I want to suggest to you that personal success devoid of meaningfulness, free of a steady commitment to social justice, that’s more than a barren life, it is a trivial one. It’s looking good instead of doing good."