The Commencement Address I Sorta Gave

Not surprising, I was never invited to give a real,  official commencement address on the Quad or in the basketball arena, so I wrote my own for my capstone seminars in 2002, 2007, and 2010.

Congratulations on completing your college education. You might not think graduating from college is a big deal, I didn’t think so in 1973 either, but your parents and society thinks so. So do I. You are among the top quarter of American society who have either been given, or made the opportunity for,  at least four years of post-high school study.

You are approaching another transition—the commencement of an independent, unguided life. Remember that you survived a similar major transition four, or five, years ago.

Your persistence through bureaucratic hoops, excessive parking fines, less-than-stimulating courses, and late-night computer crashes will serve you well in the society you will soon confront. Real life, as they say, doesn’t give many extensions or give incompletes. Many “normal people” start work at 8:00, 8:30 or 9:00. Good luck with the adjustment.

Here are some lessons for your consideration that I’ve learned from listening to former students, from wise old people in my community, and from parents, teachers, and politicians.

 About Public Policy and Politics

  1. As is inscribed on the rotunda of the Missouri Capital, “It is essential that public opinion be enlightened as the structure of government gives voice to public opinion.” The legitimacy of our government depends on citizen understanding and participation. Do your part to make it better.
  2. Policy-making is not microsurgery—it is butchery. Government can build new departments or chop up old ones, but seldom does it fine-tune existing ones. Be careful.
  3. Most partisan arguments about the role of government miss the boat. Few people are really for “less government.” Rather, they are for “less government” for programs they don’t need or like, but favor “more government” for programs they like. It gets real complicated. Listen carefully.
  4. There are few new policy issues. Social security reform, energy independence, nuclear waste storage, and education inequalities are back. Actually they never left, we just haven’t solved them. It’s wise to look at how we got here. My father used to quote Mark Twain, “The only thing new is the history you do not know.”
  5. Most of us take our stable political system for granted. We shouldn’t.


About Jobs and Careers

  1. Think carefully about what being “successful” means. Most of us will have the opportunity for sufficient material wealth. A sense of success comes from something else. Don’t give up too much of yourself to be “successful.”
  2. Sooner or later, you will feel you are over-qualified. You are. In this information, high tech, bureaucratic world, jobs are more routine than they should be. Deal with it.
  3. Your job satisfaction depends on finding a balance among abilities, expectations, opportunities, and responsibilities. Don’t be afraid to change. In the final analysis job satisfaction usually comes from doing your best. Good. Luck.


About Life

  1. The best kept secret in America: life gets better with age. Most 33 year-olds are happier than they were at 22. By then, you have experience, confidence, and even some money. Hang on until then and you will be okay.
  2. We can’t change our parents and our siblings. Make peace with them. Sooner or later you will be pretty much like them.
  3. The glass IS half-full—but the really great news is that are lots of glasses. If your glass is consistently half-empty, look around for another glass.
  4. In hindsight you will usually see that we have more options and opportunities than we realized at the time.
  5. If you become a parent, you will understand that it “takes a village to raise a child.” We are all children. There is help and support floating around out there. One key to happiness is learning to see it, and taking what you need. Be sure to repay your debt to the village.

A central challenge of your era will be to find meaning in your life. We baby-boomers have given your generation confusing signals as to what is really important. My parents’ generation, THE GREATEST GENERATION, had it easy—all they had to do was to save the world for democracy and come home and put food on the table for the next half century and they became heroes.

It’s tough to be a hero nowadays—we are too cynical, the grad missions of settling the West or marching for Civil Rights are behind us, and we no longer care how the food got on the table. Your challenge will be to make meaning in your lives by plugging away one day at time. We need heroes for the present day—perhaps that’s why there was a rush to make 9/11 victims and military folks heroes.


Among my heroes is Robert Kennedy. One of his most repeated quotes is:

“Few will have the greatness to bend history; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is thus shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”


May you retain your sense of yourself and find your personal courage as you confront life’s challenges.

My family’s favorite prayer (and that of Alcoholics Anonymous) is the prayer of St. Francis:

God, grant us the serenity to accept the things we can not change,

The courage to change the things we can,

And the wisdom to know the difference.

Baby-boomer graduates from the 1970s seemed overly endowed with courage, and we are still working on serenity. May you gain wisdom faster than us baby boomers did.

Best wishes, Graduates.

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