My graduation speech

I’ll begin with a story.

One of my former university professors came to see me years ago for advice about starting a garden in his back yard. As we talked, I realized that he had no interest in gardening: he only wanted giant broccoli and giant strawberries. So I said to him, “Find a really good produce market and buy giant broccoli, and buy giant strawberries. Then go home and do something you enjoy.”

I’ll let you think about that for a while, and then I’ll tell you what it taught me.

Commencement speakers are expected to give advice: the elders, scarred by their experiences but wiser, attempt to save the young from making the same mistakes they made—or pass on some ideas that have worked. It’s not a bad tradition, so I’ll stick with it.

First, take care of your body. Here’s the problem: by the time this seems really important it’s too late—you’re overweight and out of shape, with teeth that look like Swiss cheese and half a lifetime of bad habits to keep you that way.

You know you should floss your teeth and stay out of the sun, so do it! (Try a water flosser—better than normal floss, and more fun.) And stop eating garbage! Why do we believe that profits for food processing corporations mean good nutrition for us? Eat real food: vegetables, grains, meat and fish, fresh fruit for something sweet. Drink water. Don’t believe the milk lobby: go very light, if at all, on the dairy products. Above all, avoid sugar, a slow poison that is highly addictive and causes a host of diseases.

Exercising won’t keep you slim—you have to end your sugar addiction to do that—but you do need exercise to stay fit. You don’t have to buy a membership in a gym or run triathlons, however—working out a bit at home, every day, will do the trick. Find a form of exercise you really enjoy, and exercise regularly. You only get one body in this life, so treat it well.

Second, plan for retirement. As some of you may know, I’m a big fan of cultivating good habits: they make life so much easier and more pleasant. But I won’t advise you to plan your life. Leave some room for chance, for surprises, for unplanned adventures. I do advise you, however, to plan your retirement.

When I was your age, men typically retired at 65, puttered about for a couple of years, had a heart attack, and died. For such a man, living two years without a salary was not a big problem. (His wife, if she was lucky, lived out her days on her husband’s comfortable pension and a life insurance annuity.) Today, people who retire at 65 are likely to live another twenty or thirty years. By the time you are my age, it may be as much as forty or fifty years.

Even twenty years is a long, long time to live without a salary. So however you live your life, plan for your retirement. Buy property, and hold on to it. Put money aside from every paycheck, no matter how small it is or how many bills you have to pay. Every paycheck. Seriously.

Third, don’t vote for leaders who want to start wars, who try to divide people by making them afraid of each other, who want to keep the poor in their place and keep all the power for the rich and the corporations. We’ve had enough of all that, don’t you think?

Fourth, try to find something or someone to live for, besides yourself. Those of you who have had a positive community service experience will understand that the person who gives, gets a lot more than the person who receives. By doing something to help others, something to make the world even a little bit better than it was, you will give your life a richness and significance that no selfish endeavor ever will. The most important way to make the world a better place, of course, is simply to be the best person you can be.

If you’re not asleep yet, you may still remember my former professor who wanted giant broccoli and giant strawberries. The story became for me a fable about choosing a career. Gardeners love every part of gardening: planning the garden, laying out the paths, digging the beds, preparing compost, sowing seeds, transplanting, cultivating, watering, and harvesting. If they eat giant broccoli at the end, that’s nice; if not, they’ve still had all the other pleasures of gardening. If you work only for the giant broccoli, and you hate all the days leading up to that moment, you will be miserable. Instead, find something you enjoy doing every day—something you would do without being paid, if you could afford it. Then you will be happy in your work.

Sigmund Freud, asked for the keys to happiness, famously replied, “Love and work.” I’ve given you the best advice I have about work; for love, you’re on your own.

Thank you, congratulations, and good luck.

2 comments to My graduation speech

  • Shun Yang

    A great graduation speech, Mr. MacKnight! General yet relevant, I can totally hear your voice narrating as I read. I particularly like your second advice. Funny to think that only now, 4 years after graduating from high school, do I begin to value and understand the importance of cultivating good habits! I also enjoyed the gardening fable and found it apt in describing the career-choosing dilemma. Thanks for sharing, Mr. MacKnight — as always, lots to learn from you! All the best in Oregon!
    – Shun Yang

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