It’s that time of year. Inspiring words from a university commencement address

June 18, 2016

On Sunday 12th June, documentary film maker and historian Ken Burns delivered the commencement address at Stanford University.  His speech covered a number of topics – the impact of history on our thinking and behavior; creeds to live by from famous leaders; politics, policy and government; the blessings and curse of social media; and some honest personal advice for embracing the future.  But what struck us most was Burns’s view on resilience, delivered so eloquently that we felt compelled to share.

“None of us gets out of here alive. An exception will not be made in your case and you’ll live forever. You can’t actually design your life. (If you want to make God laugh, the saying goes, tell her your plans.) The hard times and vicissitudes of life will ultimately visit everyone. You will also come to realize that you are less defined by the good things that happen to you, your moments of happiness and apparent control, than you are by those misfortunes and unexpected challenges that, in fact, shape you more definitively, and help to solidify your true character–the measure of any human value. You, especially, know that the conversation that comes out of tragedy and injustice needs to be encouraged, emphasis on courage. It is through those conversations that we make progress.”

And some of that sage advice:
  • Be curious, not cool. Feed your soul, too. Every day.
  • Don’t confuse success with excellence. The poet Robert Penn Warren once told me that “careerism is death.”
  • Do not descend too deeply into specialism either. Educate all of your parts. You will be healthier.
  • Free yourselves from the limitations of the binary world. It is just a tool. A means, not an end.
  • Seek out — and have — mentors. Listen to them. The late theatrical director Tyrone Guthrie once said, “We are looking for ideas large enough to be afraid of again.” Embrace those new ideas. Bite off more than you can chew.
  • Travel. Do not get stuck in one place. Visit our national parks. Their sheer majesty may remind you of your own “atomic insignificance,” as one observer noted, but in the inscrutable ways of Nature, you will feel larger, inspirited, just as the egotist in our midst is diminished by his or her self-regard.
  • Insist on heroes. And be one.
  • Read. The book is still the greatest manmade machine of all–not the car, not the TV, not the smartphone.
  • Make babies. One of the greatest things that will happen to you is that you will have to worry–I mean really worry–about someone other than yourself. It is liberating and exhilarating. I promise. Ask your parents.
  • Do not lose your enthusiasm. In its Greek etymology, the word enthusiasm means simply, “God in us.”

For the full commencement speech, click here.