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Finals Address at the University of Virginia

Finals Address at the University of Virginia

May 20, 2007

Thank you, Tom Farrell, for those kind words and thanks to the Board of Visitors, to Dr. Casteen, to Leonard Sandridge and the administration, to the faculty and to the students for the invitation to be here. I am honored to be here to address the Class of 2007.

To the graduates, congratulations upon this day. Your talent and perseverance have brought you to this milestone and you are to be commended for it. Your families and friends are here, and they are very proud. Savor the moment. Savor this day because it
cannot be repeated.

Some of you are sad to be leaving; others are downright giddy at the thought of getting out of here. Regardless of how you feel now, over the years, your emotional attachment to this place will only deepen and you will find yourselves drawn back many times. You are fortunate to have studied here. We are blessed with a lot of great universities in this country, but few can match the history and tradition and prestige and beauty and setting of the University of Virginia. You are indeed fortunate.

In the past 15 years, I have been privileged to deliver a few college commencement speeches. And each time I accept an invitation I always ask the school to go to the archives and research some stuff for me and to give me the record for the shortest commencement speech at that particular school. Then during commencement I announce what the record is and then promise to break it. This goes over really well. It always gets a lot of applause, and I’m proud to say I hold a number of records for brevity.

However, at the University of Virginia, such records are not kept. I inquired. I pushed pretty hard. A thorough search was conducted, but simply for some reason these records do not exist. It’s obviously a breakdown somewhere in the administration. And, by now, the buck has been passed back all the way to Mr. Jefferson himself. As we know, that happens all the time around here.

But don’t worry. I don’t take that as a license to speak for an hour. I don’t like long speeches. I know you are not in the mood for one. So whatever the record is here today, there will be a new one tomorrow, I guess.

Commencement speeches are usually full of wisdom and advice, and no speech is ever complete without the platitudes, such as, “The future is yours, and the world is at your feet.” I don’t give advice. If I had more time, I might fall into that trap and say such
important things. But I really don’t give advice. It’s easy to give. It’s easy to digest, but rarely is it followed.

I used to give a speech that I called, “The Top 10 Reasons You Should Stay in College Until You Are 30 Years Old.” It was always well received. It was humorous. It had a touch of wisdom to it. But I stopped giving it because no one’s listening. Let’s face it, you’re done. You’re finished. You’re out of here. You can’t wait to start your careers, and that’s the way it should be. Plus, the hate mail from the parents had gotten really ugly, so I stopped that speech.

What I’m going to do is pass along three lessons I have learned in the past 30 years. I hope I’ve learned more than three things, but I’m just going to share three with you. These are not connected. They are totally random. But sadly, that’s the way I think.

Thirty years ago this week, I graduated from college, Class of 1977. I don’t recall much about my commencement. I do remember that the speaker was dull and long-winded, and he did inform us that the future was ours and the world was at our feet. I do remember sitting through my commencement being pretty smug: I was graduating from college; I had been accepted to law school; and I knew exactly what I was going to do. I was going to study tax law. I wanted to be a tax lawyer because I was convinced I could make a lot of money representing wealthy people who did not want to pay all their taxes. That was my dream, and I had it all planned. I knew the day I was going to start law school, the day I was going to finish. I had a pretty good idea where my office was going to be. It was all planned.

I don’t know where this idea came from. I did not like tax law. I sure didn’t know any wealthy people. Looking back, I cannot begin to remember where this idea was planted, but that was my dream. I had everything planned. The idea of writing a book had never crossed my mind. I had never written anything that had not been required by school. I had never dreamed of it.

Lesson No. 1: You cannot plan the rest of your life.

We love to plan things. In our culture, it’s all plans. It’s all written down — our daily calendars, our monthly planners. We put all this stuff in our laptops and our Smartphones and our BlackBerries. We plan everything. We waste so much time making plans, and the plans don’t work because life has other plans.

John Lennon said, “Life is what happens while you’re making all of those plans.” Think about today and tomorrow and next week, maybe. Have a goal. Don’t confuse planning with dreaming. Dreaming is a worthy pastime. Planning is a waste.

The Class of 1977 survived Vietnam. We grew up with Vietnam At first we were good patriots, and we were told it was a just war and we believed that. As we grew older, we grew to fear it. As we got closer to the draft age, we really began to fear this war. And then we grew to hate it as it dragged on for 10 years and tore our country apart. Every member of the Class of 1977 knew someone — a cousin, a kid down the street, the quarterback on our high school football team three years older — we all knew someone who went to Vietnam and came home in a box, 58,000 boxes. We were told it was necessary to protect our interests. We were told that we had to attack communism before it found us. We were told we were winning and winning and winning and more troops were needed. As the war dragged on and grew worse, so did the lying.

Lesson No. 2: When politicians get the itch to go to war, don’t believe much of what they say.

During our freshman year in college, a truly unique and traumatic and frightening event happened in our country — oil was embargoed for the first time. For a nation addicted to cheap gasoline, we couldn’t get it. Service stations had limited supplies or none. There was rationing, long lines to get to the stations, hot tempers, folks were furious. The refineries had nothing to refine. The reserves were empty. The nation panicked. It was very frightening. For the next three years in college we listened to these fierce debates about cutting off our dependence on foreign oil, creating a sensible energy policy, developing alternative fuels, conservation, conservation. The same rhetoric that we hear today, except this was long before we ever heard the term “global warming.”

Lesson No. 3: Your generation must have the courage to save the environment because prior generations did not.

Enough of this depressing stuff — I kind of want to end on a light note. The challenge facing any commencement speaker is to say something that you, the graduates, might remember for more than 24 hours. It sounds easy, but it is rarely accomplished. But as I was looking for new ideas, I came across something I think is pretty interesting. This is what I want you to remember come Tuesday.

If we can believe statistics, and I really don’t because I am always reminded of Mark Twain who said there are three kinds of lies — lies, damn lies, and statistics. But we love numbers. We love polls and surveys and studies and all these things that supposedly tell us a lot about ourselves. Since I need a few numbers today, I’m going to go ahead and use them.

There are little over 5,900 degrees being conferred today, so let’s say there are 6,000 of you in the Class of 2007. According to a survey, a study somebody did, out of a class this size, 42 of you will one day give a college commencement speech. Don’t look around. I’m talking to you. Do you know who you are? Some of you are no doubt planning your speech already. Who are you?

I’ve got some more research. I was curious about the other folks who are sharing this honor this spring, the other commencement speakers around the country, and I found a list of them online. It’s a long list, and it’s a fairly impressive list, for the most part, with a few exceptions. A few schools seem a little desperate for speakers. Some would say U.Va., but we won’t go there.

Who are these people? I thought if we looked at the list it might help us identify the 42 out here. There are a few factors. First of all, gender is totally irrelevant: the list is half male, half female. Age is not important: the youngest commencement speaker I found this year is 28 years old and the oldest is 80. Fame is not that big of a deal: I recognized about half of the names on the list. Wealth is not a huge factor. Sure, there are some billionaires, but far more educators, historians, researchers, diplomats, scientists.

But if you want to be guaranteed a spot at the podium, give your old school about $100 million and they will be happy to let you speak as long as you want to speak. The list includes Ph.D.’s and drop-outs, judges and ex-cons, ministers and atheists, former presidents and many, many who want to be. It has the usual array of actors and rock stars and athletes and journalists and authors and talking heads. The bottom line is the list is as diverse as you are. Right now, each of you has an equal chance. Right now, the playing field is completely level.

I’m not suggesting that giving a college commencement speech is the pinnacle of a career or the barometer of success or even a worthy goal. I’m not suggesting that.

I read the bios of a lot of these people who are the spring 2007 lineup of commencement speakers, and I was looking for some common traits, common ground. Why are these people thought of enough to be invited? I found three things, three factors that they all share.

The first is talent. I don’t mean a big IQ or the ability to win prestigious awards or set records or create masterpieces, not that kind of talent. Talent is the ability to discover what you do well and to want to do it every day. Find something you love and you’re
never going to have to work. The people on this list don’t punch a clock. They don’t long for the weekends. They don’t dread Monday mornings. They’re not planning retirement. They do what they love and they go about with great enthusiasm. Each of you has a talent. Some of you may already know what it is and that’s great. For most of you, it’ll take some time. Ten years passed from my commencement in 1977 until the night I sat down with a legal pad and wrote the first sentence of the first piece of fiction I ever tried. You all have talent.

The second factor is perseverance — not just the ability to work with great determination, but more importantly, the ability to handle rejection. Your ideas are going to be laughed at; your papers are going to be trashed; your designs are going to be dismissed. But you cannot quit. In this country, we still love the underdog. We love the story of the disabled person who was told that she couldn’t do it or the immigrant without a dime or the kid from the wrong part of town. All these people have talent and dreams and perseverance, and they succeed. In this country those dreams come true every day.

The third factor is the least important. It’s luck, something you can’t always control. Not necessarily blind luck but more importantly the ability to spot an opportunity that you weren’t looking for. If you have the talent and perseverance, the luck will take care of itself.

I’m not sure that my statistics, as shaky as they are, really apply to this university. We moved here 13 years ago and discovered this place, and we’re never going to leave. We love Charlottesville. One of the great things about living here is we get to meet a lot of students. I’ve always been impressed with your talent, your hard work and, most importantly, your determination to make the world a better place. I suspect that for a class like this, the number of 42 is very low.

For those of us who live here, our lives are very much intertwined with yours and the University’s. You’re everywhere. We bump into you. You take over the town when you come to town. We see you everywhere. You arrive in late August as freshmen with nerves on the edge, emotions barely under control, SUVs stuffed with more junk than anybody could possibly need.

Around here as locals, the most important day of the year is not the first football game. I’m not even sure it’s Thanksgiving or Christmas. It’s the first day the freshman move in. We all know that. It’s circled on our calendars. Many of us simply leave town. Everybody else goes inside and locks the door. Suddenly, there’s traffic, and there’s a real element of danger on the streets. The restaurants are full. The parking lots are full. The town comes to life and so do we. Our lives have been enriched by you. Through your arts, through your plays and concerts and exhibits, we are exposed to new ideas, new interpretations, new expressions. Through your athletics, we are treated to great competition in a variety of sports. There’s always a game in this town. And for the big games, we are always inspired by your raucous enthusiasm. What big football game wouldn’t be complete without your orange face paint and semi-nude bodies.

You have kept us younger, thank you. But now, you guys have to leave. You can’t stay here until you’re 30. Life doesn’t work that way. In about three months, August 25 to be exact, the freshmen are coming to replace you. You have to leave now. You have been superbly educated. Go forth and start working on your speeches.


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