Commencement Speeches Are For People Who Aren’t Graduating

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I guess part of growing up maintains that at one point, having been in college will feel like a very long time ago. At the same time, it’s the last week of May, and I’ve seen Facebook pictures dotted with graduation caps, my friend’s baby brother now bearded with a neurology degree, and I feel weird, like, didn’t I just graduate?

Sort of, actually, yes. I graduated in 2013, and like most college graduates, the ceremony wasn’t exactly the pinnacle of the event. I was more interested in aftermath, ie. fancy brunch with my parents, graduation gifts (which I never actually received, ahem) and drinking at friend’s celebratory barbecues. Once all the excitement died down though, my life felt much, much scarier. Everyone’s watched Girls, so I don’t need to explain—the year after graduating college is usually very difficult.

In the process of surviving my life as a post-grad “creative”, it’s been hard to not feel completely worthless and/or unproductive at times. I’ve never done this before, but in the past few days, I’ve been strangely drawn to watching celebrity commencement speeches. When Kanye lectured Los Angeles Trade Technical School, (where he taught a semester to fulfill a community service requirement in 2014) I watched, enamored. “Artists, or the most successful artists, are as close to who they were when they’re 5 years old, or 4 years old, or 3 years old, or when my daughter wakes up and decides to change her career 7 times a day,” he said.

In this speech, Kanye talks about his issues transitioning from the music world to the fashion business. It’s so weird to think about—Kanye West, arguably the best hip hop artist of all time, feels boxed out of a field that he wants so badly to break into. I feel like Kanye often; I always feel like I should aspire to the way I felt about myself as a kid. I was unafraid and confident, so proud to talk about the things I wanted.

Then I read Pamela Druckerman’s “How to Find Your Place in the World After Graduation” in the New York Times. She’s a writer who recently gave a commencement speech of the Paris College of Art, and she struggled with writing her own speech for the event. She offered advice on “finding your place”, saying, “How do you find this place? This is especially relevant for creative types, who often won’t have a clear career sequence to follow. They’re not trying to become vice president of something. They’re the something. They’ll probably spend lots of time alone in rooms, struggling to make things.”

Commencement speeches are for people who aren’t graduating because they help you feel a little less alone in that room.

But stay in it, she says:

“It needn’t be an actual room. You can be alone in a busy cafe. I’ve gotten some of my best ideas while walking, or riding the Paris Metro (I recommend Line 8). I’ve never gotten a good idea while checking Twitter or shopping.

You need to be blank, and even a little bit bored, for your brain to feed you ideas. The poet Wendell Berry wrote that in solitude, “one’s inner voices become audible.” Figure out your clearest, most productive time of day to work, and guard this time carefully.

Always carry a pen, a paper notebook and something good to read. A lot of life consists of the dead time in between events. Don’t fill these interstitial moments with pornography and cat videos. Fill them with things that feed your work and your soul.”

When all else fails, listening to music makes me feel better. I like Graduation. 


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