On Commencement, and Moving Forward

In my work, it’s the time of year on campus when things are gearing up for graduation – and a big part of that process at a lot of universities and colleges is choosing a commencement speaker  for the graduation ceremony. I’ve sat through these ceremonies as a graduating student and as a faculty member, and I have some painful memories of very tedious, long-winded speakers who spouted cliche after cliche. But I’ve also been privileged to hear great speakers like author Antonine Maillet; at the ceremony where I received my MBA, she gave a beautiful address that was like being told an enchanting tale about the power and magic of books.

Stephen Colbert isn’t graduating from university this year, but, like a graduating student, he’s about to start a new part of his career – by taking over as the host of The Late Show when David Letterman retires next year. I’ve written before about how much I admire Colbert’s work and his attitude about what he does, and so I was delighted to discover earlier this week the text of Colbert’s 2011 commencement speech at Northwestern University. OK, so I missed this when it actually happened, and some of his speech is jokes – but the end of the speech is honest, heartfelt, and very poignant.

Stephen Colbert addresses the 2011 graduating class of Northwestern University. (credit: suntimes.com)

Stephen Colbert addresses the 2011 graduating class of Northwestern University. (credit: suntimes.com)

In my experience, you will truly serve only what you love, because, as The Prophet says, service is love made visible.

If you love friends, you will serve your friends.

If you love community, you will serve your community.

If you love money, you will serve your money.

And if you love only yourself, you will serve only yourself. And you will have only yourself.

So no more winning. Instead, try to love others and serve others, and hopefully find those who love and serve you in return.

While thinking about this, I happened to read an interview in Record Collector magazine with musician Ry Cooder. Cooder has been a professional musician for nearly 50 years, and the interview was conducted to mark the release of an 11-CD box set of his albums from 1970 to 1987. Cooder has had a wide range of musical experience in those 50 years, both in his own work and in his collaborations with other artists, such as Cuba’s Buena Vista Social Club; Cooder produced and played on their 1996 album which went on to sell eight million copies.

The last question to Cooder in the interview is: “Is there one defining lesson that’s guided you throughout your career?” Here’s his answer:

You have to listen. In order to do something of your own, you first have to listen and to learn about what’s been done before….Listen to things, pay attention and try to learn about them. The second thing is that you have to work hard. It doesn’t happen by nature. Even people like Louis Armstrong used to practice night and day. That’s all he did. Then pretty soon you get a handle on it. You stop struggling or worrying and it starts to appear in front of you. But it takes a long goddamn time, believe me.

So as we move forward into graduation season, I have a wish for everyone who is graduating, and everyone who goes to a graduation ceremony. I hope that you get to hear speakers as eloquent as Cooder and Colbert. And I also hope that you get to hear speakers who give you ideas as meaningful as Cooder’s and Colbert’s – ideas to guide you whenever you embark on a new phase in life.


One comment

  1. Thanks .. Some wise words! I will look back through your archive. You may enjoy my post on Paul Brady on the immortal jukebox which speaks about craftsmanship … Doing something well for its own sake not for reward. Regards. Thom

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