"Read obituaries. Your worst days lie ahead. Your parents don't want what's best for you." Not the typical advice you'd expect from a graduation speaker. The author of a new book shares some ideas seldom heard by graduates. He joins us on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm.
Read an excerpt from Charles Wheelan's book: 10 1/2 Things No Commencement Speaker Has Ever Said.
IntroductionThis book is adapted from a speech I gave during Commencement weekend at Dartmouth College in June of 2011. I was not the commencement speaker. That was Conan O’Brien. (As my friends have since been all too happy to point out, I was just the warm-up act.) Instead, I spoke the day before commencement, on Class Day, which may be an exercise unique to Dartmouth. The purpose of Class Day is to bring the graduating class together for one final meeting. There are some parents and guests, but mostly it is just the graduating students. The event is completely informal. When the weather is good, Class Day is held outdoors in a clearing in the middle of a pine forest. The students, wearing the usual casual college attire, sit on the ground. When the weather is bad, the event is held in the campus field house, but the students still sit on the ground, so that the effect is oddly intimate for a gathering of a thousand people in a space designed for indoor track meets.Whereas commencement is about public pomp and circumstance, Class Day is more about quiet reflection. It is a day for and about the students in the graduating class. There are only three significant speeches: one given by the class president, one by a student chosen by the class, and one by a faculty member, also chosen by the class.
I was the faculty speaker. This was somewhat unusual in that I was not actually on the Dartmouth faculty at the time. I was teaching at the University of Chicago. However, I had visited Dartmouth for many years to teach during the summer term that is required for all students at the end of their second year—the so-called sophomore summer. Many of the graduating seniors had been my students. Still, I suspect that if there was some kind of Bush v. Gore challenge before the Supreme Court as to my eligibility to be the faculty speaker, I most likely would have lost.
More important, this was a tremendous honor and a meaningful day, even if I was just the warm-up act for Conan O’Brien (who by all accounts gave a very nice speech the next day). I am a Dartmouth graduate. Twenty-three years earlier, I had attended my own Class Day, outdoors on a nearly perfect spring morning. I remember each one of the speakers (if not necessarily what they said). I sat on the ground that day with my classmate and girlfriend—to whom I have now been married for nineteen years, or nearly as long as most of the students in the Class of 2011 have been alive. For the record, when I told the Dartmouth ’11s that I have been married to my Dartmouth girlfriend for nearly two decades, it was one of the biggest applause lines of the day, which says something about either a yearning among young people for old-fashioned values or a shortage of applause lines elsewhere in the speech.
In short, the 2011 Class Day was a moment of great significance for the students, and also for me as a professor and returning alumnus.
But what to say?
There was no way I could give a saccharine, conventional graduation-type speech. I had become sick of commencement speeches not long after my own graduation. My first real job out of college was writing speeches for the governor of Maine. Every spring, I would draft extraordinary tidbits of wisdom for twenty-two-year-olds—even though I was only twenty-four myself when I first started offering that wisdom. The Dartmouth speech demanded more than my old clichés and nonoffensive jokes (which were also, much to my chagrin, non-funny).
I knew there were plenty of things that students would be interested in hearing, since I had literally been sitting where they would be sitting. Yes, commencement is a time of excitement and promise, but I also remember it as a time of anxiety and self-doubt. In hindsight, there were things that I wish someone had told me. Eventually that line of thinking gave me the insight I needed to write the speech. I would tell the Class of 2011 what I wished someone had told the Class of 1988, particularly the nonconventional advice that would have prepared me—and that I hoped would prepare them—for some of the rough patches that lay ahead.
From that idea, the speech was born: “Five Things No Commencement Speaker Has Ever Said.” However, due to a numbering error, there were actually “six things.” The speech I delivered at Dartmouth had two number 4s. (Perfection is overrated.) Each one of those points, including both number 4s, was something I would have liked to hear on my Class Day. In a surprising way, many of the points I wanted to make intersected with my work as a faculty member. I teach economics and public policy. One of my passionate interests as an academic is the study of happiness and well-being, about which we now know a great deal. Could I weave together the insights I wish someone had offered me on that beautiful sunny day in 1988 with some of the more intriguing things I have learned since about leading “the good life”?
As I noted, Class Day is informal, except for one nod to tradition: the graduating students are led by a bagpiper through the streets on campus and into the field house. Imagine the plaintive yet lovely wail of bagpipes as the senior class assembled together for one last time before their graduation, to hear from a professor and faculty member who had engaged in the very same exercise twenty-three years earlier.
What follows is what I said, more or less.