30 Writers’ Invaluable Advice to Graduates

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Graduation season is fast approaching, the time of the year when some of our favorite writers (and notable figures in film, media, business, and politics) are tasked with summing up the lessons learned and the wisdom to be accrued from the process of growing up in ten succinct minutes of witty truth. These days, a successful graduation speech has the very real chance of going viral, and then living forever as a book: from David Foster Wallace’s This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, About Living a Compassionate Life to Neil Gaiman’s Make Good Art, the best graduation speeches are finding a new life. This crop includes the brand new Congratulations, By the Way: Some Thoughts on Kindness by noted author George Saunders, a pretty-in-print encapsulation of his 2013 Syracuse Graduation speech on “kindness.”

It’s reason enough to collect 30 of the best, wisest, and pithiest pieces of advice from the greatest writers to attempt the graduation speech. Here are some of our favorites (and yes, Wallace, Gaiman, and Saunders are included).

George Saunders, Syracuse University, 2013

“Do all the other things, of course, the ambitious things — travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers (after first having them tested for monkey poop) — but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you towards the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality — your soul, if you will — is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Teresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret, luminous place. Believe that it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits timelessly.”

Richard Russo, Colby College, 2004

“Your work should be something that satisfies, excites and rewards you, something that gives your life meaning and direction, that stays fresh and new and challenging, a task you’ll never quite master, that will never be completed. It should be the kind of work that constantly humbles you, that never allows you to become smug — in short, work that sustains you instead of just paying your bills. While you search for this work, you’ll need a job.”

Bill Watterson, Kenyon College, 1990

“If I’ve learned one thing from being a cartoonist, it’s how important playing is to creativity and happiness. My job is essentially to come up with 365 ideas a year. If you ever want to find out just how uninteresting you really are, get a job where the quality and frequency of your thoughts determine your livelihood. I’ve found that the only way I can keep writing every day, year after year, is to let my mind wander into new territories. To do that, I’ve had to cultivate a kind of mental playfulness.”

Rachel Maddow, Smith College, 2010

“How do you become part of good decisions in the absence of a crystal ball? The best way to guess what is going to work out in the future and to figure out what you’ll be glad you played a role in is to get smart and get smart fast, to take the opportunities you’ve got very seriously, to continue your education not necessarily in a grad school way, but in a lifelong way, be intellectually and morally rigorous in your own decision-making and expect that the important people in your life do the same if they want to stay important to you.

“Gunning not just for personal triumph for yourself, but for durable achievement to be proud of for life is the difference between winning things and leadership; it’s the difference between nationalism and patriotism; it’s the difference between running for office and devoting yourself to public service; it’s agreeing that you’re part of something; taking as your baseline that you will not seek to reach your own goals by stepping on your community; it means coming to terms that your country needs you… ”

Ray Bradbury, Caltech, 2000

“Leave the TV alone, don’t get on the Internet too much because there’s a lot of crap there — it’s mainly male, macho crap. We men like to play with toys. You get yourself a good typewriter, go to the library-live there. Live in the library. See, I didn’t go to school, but I went to the library. And I’ve stayed there for the last 50 years or so. When I was in my 40’s, I had no money for an office. I was wandering around UCLA one day, 35 years ago, and I heard typing down below-in the basement of the library. And I went down to see what was going on. I found there was a typing room down there. And for 10 cents for a half an hour, I could rent a typewriter. I said, ‘My God. This is great! I don’t have an office. I’ll move in here with a bunch of students. And I’ll write!’ So, I got a bag full of dimes, and in the next nine days — I spent $9.80 — and I wrote Fahrenheit 451.”

Stephen Colbert, University of Virginia, 2013

“But while we may be leaving you with an economy with fewer job opportunities for the new graduate to slip into and while traditional paths may seem harder to find, that also means that you will learn sooner than most generations the hard lesson that you must always make the path for yourself. There is no secret society out there that will tap you on the shoulder one night and show you the way. Because the true secret is — your life will not be defined by the society that we have left you.”

Susan Sontag, Vassar College, 2003

“Try to imagine at least once a day that you are not an American. Go even further: try to imagine at least once a day that you belong to the vast, the overwhelming majority of people on this planet who don’t have passports, don’t live in dwellings equipped with both refrigerators and telephones, who have never even once flown in a plane.”

Neil Gaiman, The University of the Arts in Philadelphia, 2012

“So be wise, because the world needs more wisdom, and if you cannot be wise, pretend to be someone who is wise, and then just behave like they would. And now go, and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make good art.”

Aaron Sorkin, Syracuse University, 2012

“Don’t ever forget that you’re a citizen of this world, and there are things you can do to lift the human spirit, things that are easy, things that are free, things that you can do every day. Civility, respect, kindness, character. You’re too good for schadenfreude, you’re too good for gossip and snark, you’re too good for intolerance — and since you’re walking into the middle of a presidential election, it’s worth mentioning that you’re too good to think people who disagree with you are your enemy.”

Anna Quindlen, Villanova University, 2000

“And realize that life is the best thing ever, and that you have no business taking it for granted. Care so deeply about its goodness that you want to spread it around. Once in a while take money you would have spent on beers and give it to charity. Work in a soup kitchen. Be a big brother or sister. All of you want to do well. But if you do not do good, too, then doing well will never be enough. It is so easy to waste our lives: our days, our hours, our minutes. It is so easy to take for granted the color of the azaleas, the sheen of the limestone on Fifth Avenue, the color of our kid’s eyes, the way the melody in a symphony rises and falls and disappears and rises again. It is so easy to exist instead of live. I learned to live many years ago.”

Oprah Winfrey, Howard University, 2007

“The human death of our integrity is the most we have to offer and I would beseech you to remember what Harriet Tubman said of her efforts to spirit slaves from the plantation. Harriet Tubman once said that she could have liberated thousands more if only she could have convinced them that they were slaves. So do not be a slave to any form of selling out. Maintain your integrity. It has always been, I believe, the only solution to all of the problems in the world and it remains the only solution.”

Tracy Chevalier, Oberlin College, 2013

“Lots of people, when they first start writing, write about themselves. But I’m going to be blunt: You’re not as interesting as you think you are. And even if you’ve had an unusual life, a difficult life, a shocking life, it’s not easy to write about it well. We seem to have little perspective on ourselves and what will be appealing to others. That’s partly why I moved into writing historical novels — it takes me away from my self, so that you don’t have to read about me. Writing about places and times I know nothing about has gotten me interested in all kinds of strange things. In the name of research I’ve gone fossil hunting, given tours in a Victorian cemetery, learned to quilt. I’ve handled priceless medieval tapestries and held the original notebook William Blake drafted Songs of Innocence and of Experience in.”

Ira Glass, Goucher College, 2012

“There’s a show on HBO that I admire a lot called Girls. It’s about what it’s like in the years after college when you’re trying to make a life for yourself. It’s about what you guys are about to launch yourselves into. Every single fact about that show is completely different from my life when I was in my 20’s, but the essence of that show feels exactly the same. What’s great about that show is that it’s a completely unromantic view of what your life is about to be. The young women on that show, they flounder, they pretend to know what they’re doing when they absolutely don’t. They strongly believe things that are transparently untrue. I myself spent years — YEARS — in a terrible kind of politically correct phase where I travelled to Nicaragua and called it ‘Niquragua’ to observe the Sandinista revolution firsthand.”

Melissa Harris-Perry, Wellesley College, 2012

“So remember, ignorance is not your enemy, only complacency with ignorance is to be resisted. Never become so enamored of your own smarts that you stop signing up for life’s hard classes. Remember to keep forming hypotheses and gathering data. Keep your conclusions light and your curiosity ferocious. Keep groping in the darkness with ravenous desire.”

Billy Collins, Colorado College, 2008

“And the corollary to carpe diem — a vein that runs deeply through the rock of poetry — is gratitude, gratitude for simply being alive, for having a day to seize. The taking of breath, the beating of the heart. Gratitude for the natural world around us — the massing clouds, the white ibis by the shore. In Barcelona a poetry competition is held every year. There are three prizes. The third prize is a rose made of silver, the second prize is a golden rose, and the first prize: a rose. A real rose. The flower itself. Think of that the next time the term ‘priorities’ comes up.”

J.K. Rowling, Harvard University, 2008

“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 already 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.”

Suzan-Lori Parks, Mount Holyoke, 2001

“When someone gives you advice, you lay their advice along side your own thoughts and feelings, and if what they suggest jives with what you’ve got going on inside, then you follow their suggestion. ON THE OTHER HAND — there are lots of people out there who will suggest all kinds of stupid stuff for you to incorporate into your life. There are lots of people who will encourage you to stray from your hearts desire. Go ahead and let them speak their piece, and you may even want to give them a little smile depending on your mood, but if what they suggest does not jive with the thoughts and feelings that are already alive and growing beautifully inside you, then dont follow their suggestion. THINK for yourself, LISTEN to your heart, TUNE IN to your gut.”

Atul Gawande, Williams College, 2012

“But recognizing that your expectations are proving wrong — accepting that you need a new plan — is commonly the hardest thing to do. We have this problem called confidence. To take a risk, you must have confidence in yourself. In surgery, you learn early how essential that is. You are imperfect. Your knowledge is never complete. The science is never certain. Your skills are never infallible. Yet you must act. You cannot let yourself become paralyzed by fear.”

Meryl Streep, Barnard College, 2010

“There has always been a resistance to imaginatively assume a persona, if that persona is a she. But things are changing now and it’s in your generation we’re seeing this. Men are adapting… about time… they are adapting consciously and also without consciously and without realizing it for the better of the whole group. They are changing their deepest prejudices to regard as normal the things that their fathers would have found very very difficult and their grandfathers would have abhorred and the door to this emotional shift is empathy. As Jung said, emotion is the chief source of becoming conscious. There can be no transforming of lightness into dark of apathy into movement without emotion.”

David Foster Wallace, Kenyon College, 2005

“And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving… The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.”

Sue Monk Kidd, Scripps College, 2010

“And I understood then that he had given me a reason to write fiction that was better than anything I was really coming up with, beyond just fulfilling my own need and desire to do it: Because it creates empathy. Most people, unfortunately, tend to go through the world maintaining their separation from others, more or less preserving that. But when we read fiction, we participate intimately in other people’s lives. In their sufferings and ecstasies, in all the ways their lives fall apart and are shattered and are put back together again. And if their experience is different from ours, all the better.”

Barbara Kingsolver, Duke University, 2008

“You could walk out of here with an unconventionally communal sense of how your life may be. This could be your key to a new order: you don’t need so much stuff to fill your life, when you have people in it. You don’t need jet fuel to get food from a farmer’s market. You could invent a new kind of Success that includes children’s poetry, butterfly migrations, butterfly kisses, the Grand Canyon, eternity. If somebody says “Your money or your life,” you could say: Life. And mean it. You’ll see things collapse in your time, the big houses, the empires of glass. The new green things that sprout up through the wreck — those will be yours.”

Toni Morrison, Wellesley College, 2004

“All my ruminations about the future, the past, responsibility, happiness are really about my generation, not yours. My generation’s profligacy, my generation’s heedlessness and denial, its frail ego that required endless draughts of power juice and repeated images of weakness in others in order to prop up our own illusion of strength, more and more self congratulation while we sell you more and more games and images of death as entertainment. In short, the palm I was reading wasn’t yours, it was the splayed hand of my own generation and I know no generation has a complete grip on the imagination and work of the next one, not mine and not your parents’, not if you refuse to let it be so. You don’t have to accept those media labels. You need not settle for any defining category. You don’t have to be merely a taxpayer or a red state or a blue state or a consumer or a minority or a majority.”

Martha Nussbaum, Georgetown University, 2003

“So the first recommendation I would make for a culture of extended compassion is one that was also made by Rousseau. It is, that an education in common human weakness and vulnerability should be a very profound part of the education of all young people. Especially when they are at the crucial time when they are on the verge of adulthood, young people should learn to be tragic spectators, and to understand with increasing subtlety and responsiveness the predicaments to which human life is prone. Through stories and dramas, history, film, the study of philosophical and religious ethics, and the study of the global economic system, they should get the habit of decoding the suffering of another, and this decoding should deliberately lead them into lives both near and far.”

Nora Ephron, Wellesley, 1996

“What I’m saying is, don’t delude yourself that the powerful cultural values that wrecked the lives of so many of my classmates have vanished from the earth. Don’t let the New York Times article about the brilliant success of Wellesley graduates in the business world fool you — there’s still a glass ceiling. Don’t let the number of women in the work force trick you — there are still lots of magazines devoted almost exclusively to making perfect casseroles and turning various things into tents.

Don’t underestimate how much antagonism there is toward women and how many people wish we could turn the clock back. One of the things people always say to you if you get upset is, don’t take it personally, but listen hard to what’s going on and, please, I beg you, take it personally. Understand: every attack on Hillary Clinton for not knowing her place is an attack on you. Underneath almost all those attacks are the words: get back, get back to where you once belonged.”

Dolly Parton, University of Tennessee, 2009

“Now working hard is not just effort. It’s learning. It’s trying new things and it’s about taking chances. I got my first big start in Nashville, working for a man named Porter Wagoner. Now Porter had, yeah you know him. He was good to me. We went around and around. He had the best TV show, the most successful syndicated television show and we were one of the most popular duets ever in country music but I wanted to try new things. I wanted to write more songs, different music, and sing and try different things. Porter didn’t want that and neither did a lot of the so-called conventional wisdom. I knew that even if I fell flat on my face at least that I would know that I tried and that I would learn something from all that. I also knew at the time that given my size that if I did fall on my face it would take forever to get me up. Of course that’s a different story for a different crowd.”

Margaret Atwood, University of Toronto, 1983

“Which illustrates the following point: when faced with the inevitable, you always have a choice. You may not be able to alter reality, but you can alter your attitude towards it. As I learned during my liberal arts education, any symbol can have, in the imaginative context, two versions, a positive and a negative. Blood can either be the gift of life or what comes out of you when you cut your wrists in the bathtub. Or, somewhat less drastically, if you spill your milk you’re left with a glass which is either half empty or half full.”

Ursula K. Le Guin, Mills College, 1983

“We are only going to get there by going our own way, by living there, by living through the night in our own country. So what I hope for you is that you live there not as prisoners, ashamed of being women, consenting captives of a psychopathic social system, but as natives. That you will be at home there, keep house there, be your own mistress, with a room of your own. That you will do your work there, whatever you’re good at, art or science or tech or running a company or sweeping under the beds, and when they tell you that it’s second-class work because a woman is doing it, I hope you tell them to go to hell and while they’re going to give you equal pay for equal time. I hope you live without the need to dominate, and without the need to be dominated. I hope you are never victims, but I hope you have no power over other people. And when you fail, and are defeated, and in pain, and in the dark, then I hope you will remember that darkness is your country, where you live, where no wars are fought and no wars are won, but where the future is.”

Michael Lewis, Princeton, 2012

“This isn’t just false humility. It’s false humility with a point. My case illustrates how success is always rationalized. People really don’t like to hear success explained away as luck — especially successful people. As they age, and succeed, people feel their success was somehow inevitable. They don’t want to acknowledge the role played by accident in their lives. There is a reason for this: the world does not want to acknowledge it either.”

Gloria Steinem, Tufts University, 1987

“Equality is the best insurance against the political upheaval that authorities fear. More than 70 percent of Americans say they are willing to change their standard of living in conventional economic terms — providing this so-called ‘sacrifice’ is evenly spread. This is a turning point in history — and your challenge. Our hearts go with you. Our heads and hands are here to help you. The brotherhood of man and the sisterhood of women — the humanity of people — is ‘not so wild a dream as those who profit by delaying it would have us believe.’ One more point. This is the last period of time that will seem lengthy to you at only three or four years. From now on, time will pass without artificial academic measure. It will go by like the wind.

Whatever you want to do, do it now. For life is time, and time is all there is.”