Timeless Advice

Learnings from three commencement speeches Jing Lang

I skipped my convocation in favor of starting work early. At the time, having an income to support myself financially was more important than the formality of attending the graduation ceremony. I moved to Toronto the weekend after my last university exam and started work at a consulting firm the following Monday. When my degree arrived in the mail three weeks later, I took it out of the hard-shelled envelope, glanced at it, then shoved it right back into the envelope and forgot about it. It was not until years later that I recognized what I forfeited—camaraderie with my fellow graduating class on what marks the end of a journey and the start of a new one.

I like commencement speeches for two reasons. One, I get to hear from people who are otherwise outside of my realm of daily consciousness. I did not know any of the three speakers featured in this article until I stumbled upon their speeches. Second, knowing how much time and effort a speaker surely poured into preparing their remarks, life lessons distilled, wisdom condensed—I am interested in what they have to say.

Over the years, I have come back to each of the following speeches multiple times when I needed motivation, inspiration and a mental reset. I hope these can be of value to you, too.

Make Good Art

Commencement address by the author Neil Gaiman at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts in 2012

I did not consider myself an artist when I first watched this speech. I still don’t, but Gaiman makes many valid points that are applicable regardless of your chosen profession or passion. Every time I watch it, depending on my mindset at the time, different parts of the speech stand out to me. It is always 20 minutes well spent.

During my most recent viewing, two learnings stood out to me:

  1. Imagine what you want as a distant mountain, and choose your next step by evaluating whether it takes you away or closer to the mountain. This is not easy, Gaiman notes. He wanted to be an author and support himself with his words, so he passed up opportunities that paid decent money simply because they meant walking away from the mountain. This is sound advice that I have used in my own decision-making. But the caveat is one needs to reassess periodically if their personal mountain has shifted. It requires us to reflect on what we actually want versus what society, the media and our peers tell us we should want. It means setting our own paths and not reacting to stimuli.
  2. The freelance “secret sauce” is that people get hired however they get hired, but people keep getting jobs because they are on time, their work is good and they are pleasant to work with. And (pause for emphasis) you don’t even need all three—two out of three is fine. This, I have to say, applies not only to freelance work but also to full-time jobs. Of course, the point is not to lower the bar if someone can consistently deliver high-quality work on time and be pleasant to work with, but it is not very common—at least in my experience working across public and private sectors.

Claiming an Education

The late poet and essayist Adrienne Rich’s talk at the Douglass College convocation in 1977

It’s not long. Read it.1 Much of what Rich said is timeless. Here is an excerpt that froze me in place:

Responsibility to yourself means that you don’t fall for shallow and easy solutions … it means you refuse to sell your talents and aspirations short, simply to avoid conflict and confrontation. And this, in turn, means resisting the forces in society that say that women should be nice, play safe, have low professional expectations, drown in love and forget about work, live through others and stay in the places assigned to us. It means that we insist on a life of meaningful work, insist that work be as meaningful as love and friendship in our lives. It means, therefore, the courage to be “different;” not to be continuously available to others when we need time for ourselves and our work; to be able to demand of others … that they respect our sense of purpose and our integrity as persons.

This Is Water

A speech by the late novelist and essayist David Foster Wallace to the Kenyon College class of 2005

My maternal grandmother would have made an impressive politician. If she had received education beyond just three years in elementary school, she might have used her impressive brain to contemplate topics deeper than who owes her three ounces of soy sauce. Or she might have aspired to do more than badmouth one of her children in front of another to elicit sympathy.

It’s not very classy of me to throw my grandmother under the bus, but she came to mind during this speech when Foster Wallace talked about choosing what to think about. I also struggle with the numerous “thought fishes” darting back and forth in my subconscious mind. Without disciplined awareness, I’d either be dwelling in the past or worried about the future, living in a constant state of mental clutter—if I allow it.

As Foster Wallace put it:

“Learning how to think” really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience … It is about simple awareness—awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over, “This is water, this is water.”

Jing Lang, FSA, FCIA, FLMI, MAAA, is director, Pricing, at Manitoba Public Insurance. She is also a contributing editor for The Actuary.

Statements of fact and opinions expressed herein are those of the individual authors and are not necessarily those of the Society of Actuaries or the respective authors’ employers.

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