Brad Keywell


Appreciation: The Common Thread of Commencement

One of the greatest graduation speeches of all time (in my humble opinion) was delivered by the late author David Foster Wallace to the Kenyon College class of 2005.

In the speech, he shares: “There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys, how's the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’”

It’s this time of year that has me thinking about stories of graduation. I’m reminded of my daughters and what graduation has meant to them. I recall my graduation ceremony at Michigan, where President George H.W. Bush (the 41st, not the 43rd) spoke and secret service security requirements created a logistical mess.

Which brings me to the commencement speech – one of my favorite forms of oration.

For many years, I taught a class on entrepreneurship and creating technology-driven businesses at the University of Chicago, and every homework assignment included reading or watching a commencement address.  The gravity of the opportunity to address graduates as they embark for “the real world” is a forcing mechanism that often (but, unfortunately, not always) causes the speaker to put their purest thoughts into concise words, directed at our hearts and souls.  So by “assigning” a speech along with more traditional case studies and articles, we attempt to make the point that growing companies is partly about technical and operational skills, and partly about purpose and meaning, and heart and soul. 

The commencement speech has played an especially important role in my life because it brought me back together with my oldest friends.  In 2012, I was asked by my high school to give the commencement speech.  And the invitation resulted in me making my own invitation – to my three closest friends from high school, who I barely kept in touch with (the four of us had not been together in twenty-one years).  I invited them to fly into Michigan for my speech and then to spend a day together like old times.  I was inspired by Larry Kasden’s commencement speech at University of Michigan in 1990 – Kasden said:

Guard relationships [with close friends] like gold, work hard to maintain them. When they have a wedding, go across the country to be there. When one of them gets sloppy about keeping in touch, keep trying. And when one of them needs your help, cross the globe to give it to them. If you do that, if you work hard, your friends will become a precious touchstone in your life; there aren’t many things more valuable. And if you’re lucky, twenty years on, perhaps you’ll be called back to Ann Arbor to speak to a large gathering of people like you, and maybe on that day all your friends will show up.

It was poetic – I stood on an elevated platform to give the speech.  And sitting to my right in the front row were three of my oldest friends. The four of us now get together once a year. 

So it’s with graduation speeches on my mind, I recently took out two great books that I look at from time to time – Lend Me Your Ears, a compilation of the best speeches in history edited by the late great master wordsmith William Safire, and If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?, by the iconic Kurt Vonnegut, a book of Vonnegut’s graduation speeches.  In reading various of these speeches, I was trying to figure out what ties them all together, and what (for me, at least) makes a great graduation speech, well, “great.” 

My conclusion?  It’s not career advice, as any advice is overly generic and cliché, efforts to appeal to everyone results in words that speak to no one.  It’s not reflection on the speaker’s career, as my reading of the speeches show a few nuggets of wisdom sprinkled among stories that may be great at the time, but are dated upon later reading.  And the humor?  Some speakers nail it – none better than Will Ferrell at Harvard’s 2003 commencement (start watching at the 1:30:00 point) – but most are not that funny. 

So what is it that makes the commencement speech format so special? I believe it is the opportunity to deliver a simple message that is mostly forgotten in life – a call to appreciate who we are, where we are, doing exactly what we are doing, right now.  The message of taking stock of our lives, our friends and families, our talents, and our surroundings, and seeing them for their beauty and their opportunity and their essence of aliveness.

The fish in David Foster Wallace’s speech? They didn’t even appreciate the water they were surrounded by every day.  How often do we take a deep breath and appreciate fresh air and the health of our bodies?

We tend to fall into patterns and focus on problems rather than solutions, focus on our own interests rather than helping others, and focus on the minutiae of our schedules rather than our purpose or essence. 

It was in one of Vonnegut’s graduation speeches that I discovered the signal (to appreciate the day-to-day of our lives) through the noise of the many speeches I read.  In his 1999 commencement speech at Agnes Scott College, Vonnegut talks about his Uncle Alex, when he tells this story:

One of the things [Uncle Alex] found objectionable about human beings was that they so rarely noticed it when they were happy. He himself did his best to acknowledge it when times were sweet. We could be drinking lemonade in the shade of an apple tree in the summertime, and Uncle Alex would interrupt the conversation to say, “If this isn’t nice, what is?”  So I hope that you will do the same for the rest of your lives. When things are going sweetly and peacefully, please pause a moment, and then say out loud, “If this isn’t nice, what is?”

I did more research about Alex Vonnegut and his nephew Kurt, and I found this explanation by Kurt about his Uncle Alex:

He said that when things were really going well we should be sure to NOTICE it. He was talking about simple occasions, not great victories: maybe drinking lemonade on a hot afternoon in the shade, or smelling the aroma of a nearby bakery; or fishing, and not caring if we catch anything or not, or hearing somebody all alone playing a piano really well in the house next door.  Uncle Alex urged me to say this out loud during such epiphanies: "If this isn't nice, what is?

So, in this commencement season, I ask you this question, “If this isn’t nice, what is?”

Congratulations to all of the 2020 graduates!

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© Brad Keywell 2021