I can really only remember two graduation speeches in my life: my own at my high school graduation, and Ted Turner's at my college graduation.
Believe me, I'm not bragging when I say that I think my own was the better of the two.
I'm not suggesting that mine was good, mind you -- it was well-structured, generally grammatically correct, and included a semi-funny line or two -- but I sincerely doubt anyone in attendance remembers the substance of my speech. (They might remember that I delivered it two separate times about an hour apart, but that's an entirely different story.)
But Turner's -- that one was awful. Even twenty years later, his brief, rambling, speech is remembered as being the opposite of inspiring.
At some point a few years back, I became slightly interested in graduation speeches turned into books. I think the inspiration was probably David Foster Wallace's "This Is Water" speech delivered at Kenyon College in 2005, which was subsequently turned into a book, quite possibly the first example of a single graduation speech turned into a book, or at least a 21st century speech. (More on the Wallace book below.) So I picked up one or two copies of books inspired by graduation speeches each year, and now I'm here with an entire post worth of them. And since many of the children who were the first "readers" of the site -- or at least the beneficiaries -- are reaching graduation age, at least on the high school level, I thought it'd be a good time to compile some thoughts in that regard.
Now, I'm not obsessed with graduation speeches, so I encourage those of you who are to spend several hours (or days) among the speeches collected by NPR, or even longer reviewing the speeches at Graduation Wisdom, which I have come to think of as the Zooglobble for graduation speeches. (Maybe it's the other way around.)
But if I had one simple observation from reading the books I'll discuss below is that graduation speeches can be basically grouped into 2 types: those that suggest what to do, and those that suggest how to be (or think). There's nothing that particularly makes one approach better than the other, but I think it's fair to say that during the more than a decade of running this site, when it comes to kids music, I have a preference for being over doing, for songs that suggest a way of moving through the world and interacting with others rather than lessons to be learned (especially in concrete tasks). Again, it's personal preference, but I think that preference applies to these books as well. I think the advice on how to be is much more likely to be remembered down the line than advice on what to do.
For each book I've provided some details, a brief thesis statement, its applicability to high school students, and some comments. I would note that sometimes what might make for a good speech delivered in person might not make for as engrossing an experience when read in a book several years later and disconnected from the personal experience. As many fans of music can attest, the live experience can be substantially different from the recorded experience, and that, I'm guessing, goes for graduation speeches as well. (I've also provided an Amazon affiliate link in case any of the comments inspire you to purchase a copy for your own family or neighborhood graduate-to-be.)
Without further ado then, let's jump in.
Book: Very Good Lives (The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination)
Author: J. K. Rowling
Thesis: Failure helps you know your strengths; imagination lets you empathize with others.
OK for high schoolers?: Yes
Comments: Rowling is, by an order of magnitude, the most famous author on this list. When she makes indirect references to Harry Potter, she makes them secure in the knowledge that the vast majority of her audience (Harvard in 2008, and the rest of the world) will catch them. (In person, I suspect those lines went over great, while they feel a little cheesy on the page.) Rowling doesn't romanticize the days before she sold a kajillion books, but level-headedly draws upon her early experiences during and after graduating from college to draw a couple lessons that probably are especially important for her privileged and successful-thus-far Harvard audience, but are important for any young person moving on to a new stage in life. The book design by Chip Kidd, featuring illustrations that complement the text, is also a plus. [Watch here, Amazon]
Book: Neil Gaiman's "Make Good Art" Speech
Author: Neil Gaiman
Thesis: Make good art.
OK for high schoolers?: Sure.
Comments: OK, there's more to it than that ("Make good art"), but there's nothing else particularly pithy to say as he has a list of items ("First of all: When you start out on a career in the arts you have no idea what you are doing. This is great."). Gaiman gave this speech to the University of the Arts in Philadelphia in 2012, and while there's nothing I would disagree with in terms of the content (it dances on the edge between "what to do" and "how to be"), there's also nothing that is all that memorable either. Except for the book design, which is also by Chip Kidd, and boy, is it memorable, but mostly for being actively unreadable. It's hard to describe it other than the font size, organization, and even type to some extent changes from page to page, making it difficult to read. In the context of Gaiman's words, Kidd's design choices feel true to Gaiman's spirit, but it's an off-putting experience. [Watch here, Amazon]
Book: If This Isn't Nice, What Is?
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Thesis: Too many to summarize
OK for high schoolers?: Only for the most literary-obsessed ones.
Comments: Vonnegut is probably the most well-regarded author on this list, but the speeches collected here, while letting his warm, humanist values shine, feel barely edited -- they are the ones which feel most like a speech, not a tightly-written essay. They are predominantly comments and observations on the world around him rather than guidance to the listener. And some of the advice that does make it through -- the title comes from a comment by his Uncle Alex, who would often pause to appreciate the small moments by saying "If This Isn't Nice, What Is?" -- is frankly diminished in book form by being repeated in multiple speeches. Vonnegut is an essential author to read, but I don't think this particular book makes for the best gift to most graduates. [Amazon]
Book: 10 1/2 Things No Commencement Speaker Ever Said
Author: Charles Wheelan
Thesis: Don't do everything just because a path has been set up for you.
OK for high schoolers?: Yes.. maybe.. parts?
Comments: Wheelan delivered a brief speech at Darmouth College's 2011 Class Day (the day before graduation). His speech was titled "Five Things...," so this book is an expanded experience in multiple ways. This book might be the worst offender, as it were, of providing good advice at the wrong time. "Take time off," reads item #7, and he suggests taking a year off before going to a new job post-college (or college post-high school). Mid-May or early June is a lousy time to hear such advice, useful as it may be. Some of the advice (Number 6.5: "Read obituaries") is quirkier than you'll typically read in these sorts of things -- the book title isn't entirely wrong. This isn't my favorite book on the list, but among the more "do"-oriented books here, it's probably the most useful in getting the reader to think. [Amazon]
Book: You Are Not Special
Author: David McCullough, Jr.
Thesis: You don't need to be perfect.
OK for high schoolers?: Yes, of course (see below)
Comments: Of all the books here, only this one grew out of a high school graduation speech. David McCullough, Jr., a high school teacher and son of well-known author David McCullough, gave the commencement speech at the school at which he teaches (Wellesley High School in Massachusetts) in 2012. For some unknown reason, the speech went viral (I guess it's always a little unknown why things go viral). Two years later he published a full-length book inspired by his speech (found here at the very end of the book). I found the ideas (more "do" than "be" in nature) perfectly reasonable -- do things for the satisfaction it brings not to impress others, the achievement rat race is exactly that, work hard -- but the format hard to read. I found the text a little rambling, and the audience seemed to shift from high schoolers to teachers to parents, and the blanket assumptions he makes based on a career of teaching to overachieving families of suburban Boston and Hawaii's rich may sound entirely foreign to other parts of the country. (If you are, however, in one of those types of areas, there may even be some value to reading this book before your graduation day.) The strongest parts of the book, frankly, are where McCullough is simply talking about teaching. It's not a great graduation book, but there's a very interesting book about teaching trying to escape. [Watch here, Amazon]
Book: What Now?
Author: Ann Patchett
Thesis: "What now was never what you think it's going to be..."
OK for high schoolers?: Yes
Comments: There are a lot of warm texts in this list, but to me this is the warmest on the list in terms of love and understanding floating off of the page. The book is a slightly expanded version of her 2006 commencement speech at her alma mater, Sarah Lawrence College. The speech and book recounts Patchett's less-than-direct route from being in high school and wanting to be a writer to becoming a writer. All that time, she's constantly being asked (or asking herself), "What now?," but she suggests that staying in the present moment -- staring, listening -- is more important than keeping the eyes on the (next) prize. She is clear-eyed but generous in her understanding of her younger self. Chip Kidd designed this book as well, with lots of pictures of paths of one sort or another (we'll put this in the successful design category, making him 2-1 here). Also, the postscript on how she jettisoned her original speech and the value of giving the speech is worth the price of the book. [Amazon]
Book: Now Go Out There (and Get Curious)
Author: Mary Karr
Thesis: Understanding what scares you will help you see the entire world through clearer eyes.
OK for high schoolers?: Yes, though Mary Karr's life, which she shares a little bit of here, is not for the faint of heart.
Comments: Mary Carr, Syracuse professor and best-selling memoirist and novelist, delivered this speech at Syracuse's 2015 commencement, a couple years after her fellow Syracuse professor and best-selling short story write and novelist George Saunders spoke to the graduating class. (She dedicates this book to him.) Karr makes very clear that life can be difficult and that we're all scared or worried or afflicted in one way or another. ("Don't make the mistake of comparing your twisted-up insides to people's blow-dried outsides," says Karr.) The speech takes a little while to get to the inspirational part, but once it does (along with art by Gregg Kulick that changes, almost imperceptibly at first, from page to page), it builds to a satisfying cumulative impact. Her empathy is a fierce and powerful force. [Watch here, Amazon]
Book: Congratulations, by the way
Author: George Saunders
Thesis: Be kind.
OK for high schoolers?: Yes
Comments: "Accomplishment is unreliable," Saunders says in his 2013 commencement speech at Syracuse, and in this brief volume, he builds a brief but eloquent case for a focus on being kind as something that continues to provide (internal) benefits throughout life in a way that trying to be successful doesn't always. (See statement above re: accomplishment.) Saunders begins the speech with an anecdote about a failure of kindness from him in seventh grade that he clearly still thinks about, and it's probably the single most powerful personal anecdote in this entire collection of many personal anecdotes. Chelsea Cardinal's art has echoes that of Gregg Kulick's for Mary Karr's book (or, rather, the other way around, since this book was published first), and it's probably the best match of text and art in this list of books. This is a moving book, and I like it very much. [Watch here, Amazon]
Book: This Is Water
Author: David Foster Wallace
Thesis: You get to decide what has meaning, and what doesn't.
OK for high schoolers?: Yes, though I think the points will matter more to a college crowd.
Comments: And so we come to really the ur-text for this whole small genre of books, the book that essentially kicked off the modern 20th century rush (comparatively speaking) of books based on graduation speeches. (It's sort of like how people made music for kids before Raffi came along, but Singable Songs for the Very Young literally created the kids music category in stores.) The popularity of Wallace's 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College may be due in part to Wallace's cult status as author, including fans trying to reconcile the fact that he talks about how to live a life that's not soul-killing with the fact that he committed suicide. (Note: I'm not saying in any way that's a worthwhile question or makes Wallace's words any less valuable.)
But for me, someone who really is pretty neutral on Wallace as an author, the speech works precisely because it doesn't talk a lot about success or life hacks. It talks about how life can be difficult and routine at various points, and how you choose to look at life is, Wallace argues, the very point of the education that his audience is completing. This is the book I've thought most about since first reading, and I think that most recipients, if they keep the book as they move throughout their lives and the country, will find re-reading it most worthwhile. [Listen here, Amazon]
Book: How To Worry Less About Money
Author: John Armstrong
Thesis: Spend less time worrying about money, more time figuring out what we need
OK for high schoolers?: Yes, though given its writing style and topic, college graduates will probably be a more receptive audience
Comments: I had thought about including Dr. Seuss' Oh, The Places You'll Go! as a bonus book on this list, as a book that's often given at graduations. But I've never actually read the thing. So instead my bonus book is this book, part of a series from The School of Life, a London-based group dedicated to building emotional intelligence. Their main series of books take a philosophical approach to "How To" questions, providing not so much self-help as self-maintenance. The books, which are of generally, if variably, good quality, are essentially philosophy books grappling with issues of direct relevance in fairly down-to-earth language.
This book might be my favorite of the half-dozen or so I've read, mostly because it builds its case slowly and steadily until you realize that money problems aren't really problems about money, they're problems with lack of clarity of what someone really wants from life. And while there are parts that seem like they're written for a 45-year-old suburban London resident whose million-pound flat isn't as nice as his co-worker's two-million-pound flat, I think there's enough in here about more universal concerns that I think a 22-year-old trying to figure out how to do what she loves while earning enough money to go through life would find it useful. It doesn't provide "the answer," but helps the reader a little bit in figuring out the answer for themselves. [Amazon]