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Commencement Speeches – The Kasdan U of Michigan Speech

by Marc Luber

Graduation season is here…and that means college graduation speeches will start making their way around the internet for the next several weeks. Some will be new, some will be old; some will be entertaining, yet most will be canned, run-of-the-mill schlock. The truly good commencement speeches live on forever, not just on the internet but in the hearts and minds of those who were there and those who take the time to listen and to read.

Twenty years ago today, Lawrence Kasdan, filmmaker/screenwriter behind massive hits like “Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back”, “Body Heat” and “The Big Chill”, delivered an exceptional commencement speech at the University of Michigan. If you spend any time on Careers Out There, you’ll recognize many of our themes in Kasdan’s speech. I find this speech to be a huge source of inspiration on both a personal and professional level…and I hope you do too. Kasdan’s life advice is timeless, insightful and dead-on. Let’s keep this one alive by taking the time to read or watch it and to share it with your world.

Commencement Speech: Lawrence Kasdan @ U of Michigan May 5, 1990

Thank you…Thank you very much. Thank you Provost, Mr. President, deans, regents, faculty, students, family, friends – that should cover it. I apologize to the people behind here. I wish I could turn around and play a dynamite guitar solo.

Crisler Arena didn’t open for basketball until the year after I graduated. But I was still living in Ann Arbor and working in a record store. And I remember coming here to games and looking at the basketball players and thinking, wow, what must it be like to be in Crisler Arena, with your heart pounding, out of breath, sweating like a maniac and having everybody look at you? Now, I know.

For weeks people have been asking me, “Did you write your commencement address yet?” It was very annoying. I felt that since I was returning to the scene of my collegiate career, I should approach this speech the same way I approached my term papers back then. Here was my method: procrastinate. Then, put it off a little while. As the deadline neared, it is important to procrastinate a little more. And then when it was upon you, pull an all-nighter. But in this case, with this speech, I was worried about one thing: is it possible to ask 14,000 people for an incomplete? I decided not.

It was 20 years ago this weekend that my own commencement took place in this same intimate setting. But unlike you, I did not attend. A whole bunch of my friends are here today. They were in that same class and they were supposed to be here on that day in 1970. But instead they’re at their first commencement today. We’ve all decided to graduate with you. I asked my friend Bruce about this strange phenomena and “Larry”, he said, “if you had been speaking 20 years ago, I would have gone.” That got me to thinking, first of all, was it true? Sure, Bruce would’ve shown up and maybe a few others, but we could have definitely had the ceremony in a smaller room. Now of course I know most people don’t come to commencement to hear the speaker. They come to get that diploma and share their hard-earned accomplishment with their families. But what I got stuck on was this: would anyone have been interested to hear one of their own classmates, who clearly knew nothing more about life than they did, share his thoughts on this important day? Maybe not, but why not? Because if this day is about anything, it’s about you.

Tradition has it that commencement speakers are older, more experienced people, travelers who have been out there, in life, and have come back to give a report on what they’ve seen. Maybe give a little bit of advice and wisdom to those who have yet to venture into the world. That’s the idea. So I’m standing up here now, much to my surprise, 41 years old, a 20 year veteran of the real world, and I can see this tradition from the other side and I’ll tell you something you may not know: this idea, this tradition, like so many others we’ve come to accept in our culture, is an illusion. I know because I’m the speaker this year and I’m JUST LIKE YOU. I’m just as confused as I was on that day 20 years ago. I’m just as mystified by the way things really are out there. If anything, I’m more confused than ever.

Now at this moment, you may be thinking, “Well, I’m not confused, I’m not mystified, what’s he talking about? I know where I’ve been and I know where I’m going.” Well, that’s just what I thought back then. Youth made me cocky and energy made me strong. That’s why if I had been chosen by my 3,000 classmates and plunked up here, I probably would have given a speech full of certainty and righteousness and impatience.

But even back then behind my confidence and my optimism and my certainty about the world, there was a second me…one that lived in private, in secret. A second me who was confused and afraid and clearly unprepared to go out into the world. Well for any of you out there who share this feeling, for whom confidence is a coin flipping from moment to moment; for whom any given day can hold the brightest hopes and the grimmest discouragement; for whom any argument can suddenly twist in the wind and change from absolute clarity to murky complexity; for all of you people with at least two selves, I have this news: it never changes. The older you get the less you know and want to know.

Here’s the amazing part, the surprising part: I sort of knew this back then. That’s right, even when I was 21 I had a feeling that maybe things weren’t the way I thought they were and you probably know it too. So if I know it and you know it, what can I tell you? Well here’s what I can tell you: the hardest thing in the world is to let yourself know what you know. Why? BECAUSE LIFE IS NOISY. Everything we’re told, everything about the way we’re raised and educated and bombarded by our culture makes noise. And that noise makes it very hard to hear the ticking of our own hearts; and it’s only when you hear the quiet tick from deep in your being, that you can know what you know, and trust what you know, and be who you are.

When I was at the University, they used to tell me about a student named Danny and a course he took. Seems this kid Danny showed up for his first class at the beginning of the semester. After that first session he never came back to class until the day he took the final. A hundred questions. His professor called him into his office. “Danny”, he says, “I don’t understand this. You come to class the first day, you never come back and then you take the final and you get a 97. Danny, how come you didn’t get a perfect score?”

“Well,” says Danny, “I’ll tell you, doc. That first day you confused me a little.”

I think the world is like that. We’re in class all the time from the time we wake up until we go to sleep. Except out there, in the world, the professors we’re listening to are the T.V. and advertising and our parents and our spouses and our bosses and our coworkers and our friends and our political leaders. And it gets downright confusing. It gets awfully hard to hear ourselves. And if we can’t hear ourselves then we can’t sort out what we believe or feel or think or really want to do. We don’t know what we know. Well, what are we going to do about it? What if we’re not as lucky as Danny and we can’t cut class? How do we hear our own hearts and trust them? Well try this: QUESTION EVERYTHING YOU’RE TOLD. Don’t automatically believe what you read in the newspaper and hear on T.V. Ask yourself this: how many times have you read something accurate about something you actually know about? The media just doesn’t get it right. The way they sum up and simplify and encapsulate the world is inherently false. And it’s not just the media, it can be anyone you know, even people who love you. It’s just hard to get reliable information.

Here’s something you find out every day: things aren’t really like we’ve been told they are. Let me give you an example. Did you know that after worrying about your grade point average for four years, it never comes up again in the rest of your life? I didn’t know that. Did you know that if you’re going to graduate school and you’re disappointed about the one you got into, that may not turn out to matter very much either? Did you know that eating a double sausage pizza at midnight, on the night before a final, may not be the smartest thing to do, nutrition wise? I didn’t know that.

When I was in junior high in 1960, here’s what we were taught: that Communism was a powerful monolith that threatened to take over the world and crush Capitalism; that America was a country so prosperous every man, woman and child had a home to live in and plenty of food to eat; that the pioneers of our country fought a courageous war to drive savage Indians off of our land. This was one of my favorites: only the greatest, smartest, most admirable men could become President of the United States. In 1960, all the kids in my junior high thought those things were true, nobody told us differently. But I have to believe that someone knew the truth; they just didn’t want us to know. They thought that the fantasy was more important for us than the reality. That same thing is happening today, but some of the things we’re told are more personal. That the kind of car you drive and clothes you wear tell what kind of person you are. If you don’t work obsessively at a certain kind of job, you’re a failure. That military spending should always take precedence over spending for people. We’re told that it’s a dog-eat-dog world where people are only looking out for number one. That being thin and good-looking are among life’s most important virtues. That the acquisition of things is how you measure your progress. And here’s a good one: that some of us can prosper like kings while others fall into despair, and that fact won’t eventually destroy us all.

We’re told again and again that our society is divided into winners and losers. Make the distinction simple and make it quick, thumbs up or thumbs down. What’s in, what’s out, the top ten, the highest paid, the best, the worst. Culture isn’t interested in the large middle ground and yet that’s where most of us live our lives. And in that middle ground is where people sometimes succeed and sometimes fail and where doing the best you can is what counts; where kindness, decency and courage are found in the smallest actions of people’s lives. That’s where we can find a life, an honorable life, a life of dignity.

Twenty years ago when my friends and I graduated we were sure that all adults, all parents, all older people were wrong about everything. That turned out to be not quite true. But now I’m afraid something worse is going on. I’m worried that a lot of young people are convinced that their elders are RIGHT about everything. That the values that society pushes, the infernal noise that the culture puts out, must be the true values because everyone around us seems to be buying in. The challenge for you is to question those things that everyone is rushing to agree upon. That’s what’s known as the conventional wisdom. You must remain unconvinced. Be a holdout. Here’s a suggestion: remember what you dreamed of when you were 11 years old; don’t be confused by everything you’ve been told since. Try to find that spark again. It’s not that you knew what job you wanted, it’s that you knew what excited you. When you find something that makes you feel good about yourself, about your life, about your world, do those things. Americans love heroes. We like them in sports, we like then in our movies, we like them in our public life. We’re always searching for heroes. But we think that our own lives don’t give us an opportunity to be heroic; it’s not true. Be a hero in your own life. Do the bold thing, do the honorable thing. Do the thing that flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Do it for the simple heroic reason you feel it’s right. Make the choice in your own life that says I DON’T CARE WHAT SOCIETY IS YELLING BECAUSE I CAN HEAR THE QUIET TICKING OF MY OWN HEART.

Your good friends from college may be the best friends you ever have. Guard those relationships like gold, work hard to maintain them. When they have a wedding, go across the country to be there. When one of them gets sloppy about keeping in touch, keep trying. And when one of them needs your help, cross the globe to give it to them. If you do that, if you work hard, your friends will become a precious touchstone in your life; there aren’t many things more valuable. And if you’re lucky, twenty years on, perhaps you’ll be called back to Ann Arbor to speak to a large gathering of people like you, and maybe on that day all your friends will show up.

I wish you the best in all you do! Enjoy this day and thank you!!

(c) 1990 Lawrence Kasdan


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