UCSD, Warren College, June 1999
Good morning, everybody. First I would like to congratulate you on having earned your degree from one of the finest universities in the world. Second, I have been asked to offer you five to seven minutes of advice on how to succeed in the Real World which you are now about to enter. But what do I know about the real world? I have never been there. I am a college professor and I’ve never had a real job in my life. So on your behalf I scoured the Internet and read a huge number of commencement speeches by some of the finest minds in the country. Be grateful that you did not have to sit through all those speeches yourselves; it’s amazing that some of them managed to squeeze so many words into so few ideas. Dozens of this year’s commencement speeches advise you to wear sun screen. Why? I tracked this reference to its source, namely a speech supposedly given by the novelist Kurt Vonnegut but actually written by a woman called Mary Schmich. She wrote the speech, he got the credit, as is usual in academic circles. But I say to you: Do not bother with the sun screen. Who needs it? What does it matter if in twenty five years we all look like a set of matched alligator handbags? The time for us to think about is now. I’d like to pass on one excellent piece of advice from Vonnegut (or Schmich). Be very nice to your parents. You don’t know how long they will be around. And you simply don’t realise what they have gone through for your sakes. You will never realise, until you become parents yourselves. I see some of you shaking your heads, vowing that you will never become parents, just as your parents did when they sat here and graduated so many years ago How lucky for all of us that they changed their minds. So remember — be nice to your parents. Also, who are the best friends you will ever have? You probably know them already — they are the friends you made in college. Keep them. Keep in touch with them, and you won’t be sorry.
Now that you have graduated, what should you do next? How should you start the rest of your lives? I shall offer you two contradictory pieces of advice. The first is this. If you look at the trajectory of the lives and careers of successful people you will see that the high flyers in life generally start flying high right from the start. In other words, it pays to sprint while you are young. The second piece of advice is that there are many different paths to happiness. You do not need to step immediately on to the treadmill of graduate school, or medical school, or hunting down the best career. Take your time to decide what is best for you. What are you to make of these two contradictory suggestions? I think the answer is that I do not know you personally, and I cannot speak for you. But I suggest, if you already know what you want to do, then by all means go and do it right now. Start as soon as you can, and do it as well, and as fast, as you can. But if you do NOT know, it might be best to take your time. Travel a little, think a lot about your life, and only then decide what path you want to follow for the rest of your life. Remember that the two most important decisions you will ever take are choosing your job and choosing your spouse. You will be with them for a long time, so think first and be sure to pick one you really love.
I myself was given two little books as a graduation present. One was called “What life has taught me”. The other was called “How I made my millions”. Each chapter was written by a different person. Oh good, I thought, a quick path to fame and riches, and I read them all carefully — for you. I read about the money first. These people had made their millions in an amazing variety of ways. Yet in every single chapter I found, somewhere, the same tell-tale sentence: “I worked like a dog, 24/7, for 20 years” This is clearly necessary. I do not know if it is sufficient. Then I read about what life had taught them. Do you know, everybody had learned a completely different lesson from life! The philosopher, the writer, the captain of industry … a completely different message from each! So what can I tell you about the meaning of your lives? When I was a philosophy student at Cambridge, it was said that the essay question at the end of the first year was “Has life a meaning?” But the essay question at the end of the final year was “Has ‘Has life a meaning?’ a meaning?” The professor of philosophy then was called (and I am not making this up) Professor John Wisdom. His lectures were extremely difficult to understand, but what I think he said was: “Do not ask What is the meaning of life. Instead, ask what is the meaning of YOUR life. And this is not something you discover. It is something you invent. It is up to you.”
So, yes, it is up to you. Let nobody else tell you how to spend your life. Life is a party, which does not last for ever, though you may think it does, and you have been given an invitation. Go out and enjoy. After all, you have already taken the first and best step. You have earned a college degree. This is the best predictor, not of a well paid life but of an interesting life. So please go out, all of you, and lead interesting lives. And perhaps one day some of you will come back here to tell us all about it.