For a long time, I felt (as did others) that the traditional address on these occasions was (all too often) just a chance for identical, old guys to tell the about-to-be-graduated to “dare to be different.” Far too many were far too predictable and much too unexciting to be remembered. I confess that most graduates (including myself at my own graduations) don’t pay much attention to the speakers and that’s probably understandable as many aren’t very memorable. So I tried to think of any which I felt were at least somewhat worth recalling and/or had anything much of any real value. The best I could come up with were some of the one given by students during Winter Commencement, as responses (submitted in the form of a draft speech) to a thematic prompt. The one given by that graduating cancer survivor, with her assistance dog at her side, I remember as being inspirational, but I don’t remember what she said. As in this case, mostly I remember that they happened, but, I don’t really remember anything much of what was said. On the other hand, while I couldn’t come up with much in the way of specific memories about any that I had actually attended, I could think of a couple that I had heard about which were described as meaningful and memorable.
One of these was the speech which Steve Jobs gave to the graduating class at Stanford in June of 2005. In it, he suggested that he tried to live by a quote he had read at about seventeen which said something like “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you'll most certainly be right.” That led him to look in the mirror in the morning every day and think: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” I think that’s worth thinking about, as it’s almost certainly true that if you aren’t doing, essentially, what you want to do, you really can’t hope to be happy. To me, that suggests that you are the only one who can define what happiness means to you. Your parents can’t tell you, nor can your friends, nor the society around you. It’s really your choice.
I also discovered that J. K. Rowling had given what was described as a memorable speech to the graduating class at Harvard in 2008, which was recently published as a book under the title of Very Good Lives. I understand that this speech (as is the Jobs one referred to above) is available on You Tube, but I haven’t seen it there although I do remember watching Jobs’ probably shortly after it was given. As I remember it, it was posted on the Apple web site, which id probably where I saw it. In any event, I bought Rowling’s book and read her speech.
One of her major topics dealt with the benefits of failure. She suggests that her own, personal failure (out of work, an unhappy divorcee, a single parent striving just to survive, what most people would consider a form of failure) was important to her because it forced her to consider what was really important to her, and then to act on that to make the kind of life which she wanted. To be fair, Steve talked along much the same lines in considering his experiences when he was forced out of Apple, which he describes as bringing him to a low point and forcing him to think about what was really important to him.
So, here we have two people who we tend to think of as highly successful, wealthy and important both suggesting that what most would consider a significant failure was, ultimately, of real importance to their futures because it led them to stop and think about what really mattered to themselves, what made them happy?
During the couple of years I was able to serve as Faculty Fellow for Instructional Technology in what was then the Coulter Faculty Center at Western, I was able to attend a major educational technology conference known as EDUCOM. The keynote speaker at the ’93 conference I attended was a cultural anthropologist named Jennifer James. I found her keynote quite interesting, so I obtained a recording of it and have listened to it a number of times. That led me to obtain and read copies of several of her books, which are (largely) made up of collections of columns which she wrote for a Seattle newspaper and other essays. I think they are worth reading, but I think the title of one of them summarizes the point I’m trying to make pretty well. That title is Success Is The Quality of Your Journey. I think that just may say a good deal.
If, as a number of people have suggested, life is a journey, it seems to me, as James indicates, what matters most is not the destination (that's, ultimately the same for all of us), but how you get there. That suggests that we are a product of our own experiences, both good and not so. As both Jobs and Rowling imply, what’s important is that one doesn’t let others decide what “success” means for them, that’s something we have to decide for ourselves. That means that “success” is personal, individual and variable and we are foolish to use some arbitrary social definition, like wealth, fame or power to define it for us, if that’s not what really matters to us. There ARE other possibilities; friends, family, the opportunity to help others, just the time to travel or just to sit and read, or think, there are lots of different kinds of “success.”
I won’t suggest that coming up with a personal definition of “success” is easy. In fact, for most people such a definition will probably change many times during a lifetime. The point here is that you decide what’s important to you for this day, this place, this relationship and that you strive to achieve it. In fact, you have to decide because that’s the only way that “success” can truly acquire any real meaning. It isn’t something that just happens, it can only be discovered along the way.
My journey has, of course already been longer than many. All things considered, I think it’s been a pretty “successful” one. I have a long-lasting marriage, a loving wife, two wonderful daughters, a great son-in-law, two bright, active grandchildren, friends, colleagues and relatives in considerable numbers and, not to be forgotten, thousands of students who I’d like to think I may have been of some assistance to along the way, whether that was through work in classes, productions, or by just being willing to listen. I may not be “rich and famous” by common social standards, but I think I’ve had some degree of success. It’s been a pretty good trip.
I hope that the quality of your journey is such that you achieve whatever success you decide you wish. The key to accomplishing that might be stated in a quote from Katherine Hepburn: “Be yourself, it’s a tough act to follow.”