George Saunders’s Advice to Graduates
George Saunders graduated from Syracuse University in 2013. He gave the commencement address for the graduating class of 2013. His speech touched on some of the moments of his life and larger themes he spoke about in the profile that ran earlier this year. He talked about the need for kindness and the things working against our actual achievement of it, the risk in concentrating too much on success, and the difficulty in swimming in a river full with monkey shit.
This year I am graduating from college. My entire life I have been told what I should do, when I should do it, and how I should do it. But now I am going to tell you what I think you should do. You should follow your dreams. Follow your passion. Don’t let other people hold you back. Do what you love. And if you fail, at least you tried.
I am going to respect the traditions of my elders. I will listen to them carefully, and I will try to understand why they think the way they do. I will also try to avoid making mistakes like they did.
I’m not sure if I regret anything. I guess I just wish I had done more. I wish I could have made more money, traveled more, and lived more. But I think I’ve done enough. I feel satisfied. I have everything I need. I am happy.
But here’s something I do regret: Ellen was small, shy. Her eyes were blue and she wore those blue glasses that only old ladies wear. When nervous, which she was pretty much all the time, she took a strand of hair into the corner of her mouth and chewed on it.
She didn’t really fit in at school. She wasn’t popular. She had long hair and wore baggy clothes. Her parents were divorced, and her mom worked all the time. She was always sad. So when she started coming to my house, I thought we might be friends. We played video games together. We talked about books. We went swimming. Then one day she told me something I couldn’t understand. She said she wanted to kill herself. I asked what she meant, and she showed me her wrists. There were bruises there. I asked why she did that. She wouldn’t answer. I tried to talk to her mother, but she wouldn’t listen. I felt like I should help her. But I didn’t know what to do.
She left one day. She just disappeared. We were all stunned. What happened? How could she leave like that? Was it because of me? Did I say something wrong? Did I do something wrong? I didn’t mean anything bad. I was just trying to help her. And then she went away. I remember my dad saying “she’ll come back”. But she never did. Not ever again.
You may think that kindness is something we all naturally possess, but it isn’t. Kindness is an action, not a trait. We can become kinder through practice. We can also become less kind when our circumstances change. For example, if someone hurts us, we might feel angry and vengeful, but if we forgive them, we will feel happier and healthier. If we see someone struggling, we can help them out, even though we ourselves aren’t in need. And if we’re lucky enough to meet someone who is kind to us, we should try to return the favor.
There are many theories about why we act badly towards each other. Some say it’s because we’re selfish. Others say it’s because we’ve evolved to compete with each other. Still others say it’s because we fear death. Whatever the reason, it seems like we need to change. We need to become kinder.
We don’t really believe these beliefs, but we believe them intellectually, and we live by them. We also believe them viscerally. And because we believe them, we prioritize our own needs over those of others, even though we know that what we really want is to be less selfish and more aware of what’s going on right now.
There are many ways to get out of our own heads and into the world. We could go to school, read books, listen to lectures, watch documentaries, practice yoga, meditate, pray, spend time with friends, join an artistic community, or even start a company. These activities are all great ways to get out of your head and into the world. But sometimes it takes something different. Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to get out of your own head. And sometimes it takes a lot of money.
and importance for creativity. With the support of their founders, SYNC Network has been transformed into a Decentralized Autonomous Organization (DAO). The whole community can now decide how they want their organization to be, with no one person having too much control over decisions or direction.
We all have goals. Some of us achieve them, others fail. But if we are to become kinder, we must start believing in ourselves as doers, as achievers, as dreamers. And we must keep striving to be our best selves, even when we feel like giving up. Accomplishment is not reliable. Success is hard. There is always something else to do. And yet, success is also important. We must keep doing what we love, because we are here to dream about what could be.
If you’re like me, you’ve probably heard about the “happiness trap” before. It’s a term coined by psychologist Daniel Gilbert, who describes it as the tendency we all have to focus our attention on ourselves and what we think will make us happy, instead of focusing on others and what might actually help them. I’m not saying you should stop thinking about yourself — just that you should start doing it differently. That’s why I recommend you get curious about other people. Ask questions. Listen. Be interested. And then try to figure out what you can do to help them.
Do all of the things that you want to do, the ambitious things like traveling, getting rich, getting famous, innovating, leading, falling in love, making and losing fortunes, swimming naked in wild jungle rivers after first having it tested for monkeys pooping there, and doing the things that incline you towards the big questions. To the extent that you can do those things, err in the direction that you want to go. Do those things that make you feel alive, and avoid the things you don’t want to do. That luminous part inside you that exists beyond personality, your soul, if you want it, is as bright and shining and beautiful as anything else that has ever existed. As bright as Shakespeare’s, as bright as Gandhi’s, as bright as Mother Teresa’s, as bright as the sun. Clear away everything that holds you back from this light, believe in it, come to know it, nurture it, share it endlessly.
I’ll always remember you, Class of 2013. You were my best friend, my confidant, my partner in crime, and my inspiration. I wish you all the happiness in the world, and I hope you have a wonderful summer.
Mother Teresa was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu in 1910 in what is now Albania. She became an orphan at age 11 when her parents died during World War I. At 18 she entered the convent of Discalced Carmelites in Skopje, Macedonia. She studied theology and philosophy and began working with children in Calcutta, India. She founded the Missionaries of Charity in 1950. Her mission was to help the poor and sick regardless of race, religion, gender, caste or creed. She worked in hospitals, schools, prisons, slums and refugee camps. She also established homes for abandoned girls, women and young mothers. She received many awards including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.