Memorable Commencement Speeches?
In this season of rapid-fire wisdom condensed and delivered at campuses all over the world, I cannot help recalling my favorite commencement speech. (NB: I wasn’t “commencing,” mind you, but keeping in touch with the old turf.) J.K. Rowling addressed Harvard in 2008, recommending to them that they consider the benefits of failure. And consider the audience–not a group generally considered, at least as they gather at graduation, to be failure-prone. A courageous move. Whole text/video here. Money quote:
So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.
You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.
She’s not saying that failure is a good thing. Nor is she saying that bad news always has a silver lining, and it’ll all be OK. She directs their attention to the askesis of failure engaged mindfully. Not, perhaps, unlike the way Ignatius reminds us to remember desolation in times of consolation, to prepare ourselves for what will come. (And vice versa.) She went on to discuss imagination. Hmmm….Rowling an Ignatian? Seems so…
And you? Commencement speakers, new or old, who stick out in your mind?