Commencement Address


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 but wiser because of their experience, 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! And stop eating garbage! Why do we believe that profits for food processing corporations mean good nutrition for us? Eat vegetables mostly, a bit of meat and fish as side dishes, fresh fruit for something sweet. Drink water. Don’t believe the milk lobby: read up on lactose intolerance and do your bowels a favour by leaving the milk for the calves.

As you age, your metabolism will slow down and you’ll gain weight. You won’t lose it by exercising—you have to stop putting all those calories in your mouth. You do need to exercise to stay fit, but you don’t have to buy a membership in a gym or run triathlons—a few sit-ups and push-ups, every day, will do the trick. Above all, keep your abdominals strong. You only get one body in this life, so treat it well.

Second. 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 will 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. Their wives, if they were lucky, were left with a comfortable pension and life insurance annuity. Living for two years without a salary was not such a big problem. Today, people retire at 60 and are then in danger of living another 20 or 30 years. By the time you are my age, it may be as much as 40 or 50 years.

Even 20 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 paycheque, no matter how small it is or how many bills you have to pay. Every paycheque. Seriously.

Third. Don’t vote for leaders who want to start wars, who appeal to fear, 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.

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 get giant broccoli at the end, that’s nice; if not, they’ve still had all the other pleasures of the work. If you work only for the giant broccoli you get at the end, 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 best advice I have about work; for love, you’re on your own.

Thank you, and good luck.