Washington University in St. Louis
156th Commencement Address
May 19, 2017
Thank you, Chancellor Wrighton, and thank you so much for the profound honor of addressing the Washington University community on this very special day.
Commencement speeches are very difficult to craft, even in a year when the country doesn’t seem to be going through a nervous breakdown. After all, no one is here to hear me. Everyone is here for the sake of just a few words; the name of someone they love, or their own name. It’s almost the only thing I remember from my own commencement, even though the legendary anthropologist Margaret Mead was the commencement speaker. I don’t even remember the weather, although you probably won’t forget yours. I remember these three words: “Anna Marie Quindlen,” and the look on my father’s face.
But it’s particularly hard to craft a message for people like you. Because you’re receiving a degree today from Washington University, I know this about all of you: You are what my grandmother used to call “The smart ones.” The children of the 99th percentile, the men and women of the top decile, accustomed to high test scores and high hopes. You are the people who make the checklists, who come up with plans, who are invested always in the right answer.
I know this, because I am one of you. And this is what I’ve learned, often with great difficulty: The checklist should be honored mostly in the breach. The plans are a tiny box that, followed slavishly, will smother you, and the right answer is sometimes the wrong answer.
What are the public names you recall sitting there of those people who did exactly what was considered the right thing, who followed the template, who met expectations? You cannot come up with one of them, because the people we know, the people we admire, the people whose names we carve into the cornices of buildings and see on the cover of books are deviants in the best sense of that term.
Jane Austen threw out the plan for a well‑read regency‑era woman. Frank Lloyd Wright threw out the plan for a young architect of his time. Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Enrico Fermi, Lin‑Manuel Miranda, Martin Luther King, Marie Curie, Pablo Picasso, Toni Morrison, they all threw out the plan. The right answer was safe; the wrong answer, the one no one else came up with or followed or believed in, was transformational.
Ah, you say to yourself sitting there, “I cannot expect to be Jane Austen or Frank Lloyd Wright,” but what you can embrace is a life that feels like it belongs to you, not one made up of tiny fragments of the expectations of a society that, frankly, in most of its expectations, is not worthy of you. And that requires courage, not compliance; passion in lieu of simply plans.
Smart is good. Smart and hardworking is really good. Smart, hardworking and fearless, that’s the hat trick. You possess an invaluable credential that will soon be ratified here, but are you strong and smart enough to become who you might be were you not afraid? That’s the problem, isn’t it?
We slavishly seek what is correct because we are afraid. Caution is nothing but fear dressed up as common sense. Coloring books have come back into vogue for adults because there’s nothing quite so soothing as coloring inside the lines.
“The Road Less Traveled,” popular poem, unpopular life choice. The well‑trod road is so much safer. But I tell you absolutely that the most terrifying choices I made in my life and the ones that other people saw as most foolhardy are the ones that brought greatest rewards. Because of some strange little voice inside, I zigged where I was expected to zag. I traded more good jobs than most people had ever had for new roles I thought were even scarier and chancier and potentially more rewarding. I took the ultimate flying leap in life and had three children in five years while my career was at its very peak.
Five years in, I left the op‑ed page of The New York Times to become a full‑time novelist. The publisher told me that I was the first person to willingly give up a Times column. Someone wrote that my decision showed that women are afraid of success. But I’m not afraid of success. I’m afraid of living a life that seems more like a resume than an adventure story, that doesn’t feel as though it belongs to me, a life full of dreams deferred until they evaporate entirely with the call of custom.
None of you want to have that sort of life, so you can’t let fear rule you. For your own sake and for the sake of this great nation, fear is what has poisoned our culture, our community and our character. The very worst things in this country are done out of fear. Homophobia, sexism, racism, religious bigotry, xenophobia, the embrace of demagogues, they all arise out of fear of that which is unknown or different.
Our political leaders don’t actually lead when they are afraid of being thrown out of office. Our corporations resist real innovation because they’re afraid of taking a chance.
In my former business, the news business, which I was proud and continue to be proud to call home, fear is the greatest of enemies. Without fear or favor, the business has to provide readers, listeners and viewers with searching stories, even if those are stories the powerful do not want you to hear or believe and do not want us to publish or disseminate, even if they are stories that offend and rage and distress the very readers we are bound to inform.
What is the point of free speech if we are always afraid to speak freely or if we embrace an echo chamber?
If we embrace an echo chamber in which liberals talk only to other liberals and conservatives only to other conservatives, and moderates feel as though no one is talking to them, as an opinion columnist nothing was more important to me before I wrote on any issue than to listen to those people who were in opposition to my position.
You cannot marshal a cogent argument without knowing the counterpoint. Yet, too often we fall silent, becoming our own censors out of fear. If we fail to allow the unpopular or even the unacceptable to be heard because of some sense of plain vanilla civility, it’s not civility at all. It is a denigration of the human capacity for thought, the suggestion that we are incapable of disagreement, argument or intellectual combat. It is the denial of everything this university stands for.
We parents sitting out there have known fear on your behalf. Make no mistake. We grew up with a simple equation. Our children would do better than we had. In my father’s Irish Catholic household, it was a simple equation. Ditch digger to cop to lawyer to judge in four generations. My mother’s Italian immigrant parents barely spoke English. Their granddaughter is a novelist. That’s the American story.
Many of my generation fear that doing better is not in the cards for you. We feel chagrined that you won’t inherit the SUV, the McMansion, the corner office, that you won’t do better than we did, but you are going to define what doing better means and do it better than we did. Because if you are people who see race and ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity as attributes not stereotypes, you will have done better than us.
If those of you who are male recognize in every way that those of us who are female are capable, equal and human and live that in the way you behave every day, you will have done better than us.
And on a more personal level, if you as a group ditch what has somehow become the 80‑hour work week and return us to a sane investment in our personal and professional lives, you will have done better than us.
Those of us of my generation have worked hard to pass on a better world, but we sometimes made a grave mistake in thinking that doing better was mathematical when it’s actually spiritual. Perhaps my favorite quote and the one I evoke most often is from the great writer Henry James. “Three things in human life are important: The first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.”
If you follow those words in public service and private life, you will have done better, because we have today a world with too much of the kindness leached out of it, that is too often mean‑spirited, that seems to have lost track of the most valuable verse from the New Testament, the one about loving your neighbor. Perhaps that’s because we’ve forgotten how to be kind to ourselves.
The right answer about how we should be, how we should behave is today so often a punitive one. We should be thinner, richer, slicker, surer, we should be tougher, harder. That’s all nonsense. I can assure you that when I look back over my life, “thin” and “rich” will be two of the last things I really care about.
Loving kindness, as Buddhism calls it, that’s what matters. That’s what lasts. That, and giving up on the right answer. In my line of work, the honorable creative failure is infinitely more important and more useful than the careful, little, connect‑the‑dots paragraph. You have to have the courage to frighten yourself with what you attempt, whether it is a start‑up or a family, a novel or a marriage.
You’re lucky people, all of you. Most Americans will never get the kind of education you’ve earned here. In a culture in which knowledge seems to be moving at the speed of sound, the one thing that’s never obsolete is a world‑class university education.
In a recent interview, the CEO of Logitech said he loves hiring English majors. And I don’t just mention that because I was an English major. Critical thinking is a skill that never goes out of style, but being the lucky ones confers great responsibility and even a moral obligation. It is to model a particular kind of life, a life of audacity. America is greatest when it is audacious.
Never forget that this is a nation built on non‑compliance, begun with righteous resistance against the despotism of the privileged class. It is called the American Revolution, not the American Compromise. It is audacious to come here from another country without language or means and add to the fabric of this polyglot place.
It is audacious to send your child off to college when no one in your family has ever been before.
It is audacious to work to overturn laws and customs that for centuries have held fellow citizens as less than.
It is audacious to invent and it is audacious to dare and it is audacious to care and to live that caring conspicuously. Playing it safe is a slog. Taking a chance is getting on a skateboard. When you come up with a checklist — job, check; spouse, check; home, check — don’t forget to ask yourself, “Are these the things I really want or is each of them what I assume I ought to want?” The difference between those two is the difference between a life and an existence.
T. S. Eliot, “Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go.” George Eliot, or as it’s now safe to call her, Mary Anne Evans, “It is never too late to be what you might have been.” It is never too early, either.
The status quo, business as usual, the way things have always been done, even, if you will, the right answer has failed us in nearly every area of life. Fear of setting a foot wrong, of criticism and judgment and even failure is unworthy of people like you.
The voice you should sometimes heed is the one that tells you you can’t, you shouldn’t, it’s too much, it’s too chancy. Don’t heed the fear. The fear a young English woman in a parsonage more than 200 years ago refused to acknowledge when she wrote “Pride and Prejudice.” The fear a neophyte architect refused to let steer his vision as he created uncommon buildings.
When I send a gift to a newborn, I always include the message, “Welcome to the world.” Today I offer you a variation: “Welcome to my world.” It’s a world of achievers, planners, list makers, but it is greatest when it is the world that says, “Be brave. Take the leap. Do it. Dare it. Courage.”