As my friend Nancy points out in a message this morning, this is a particularly hard week of the year for commencement speakers. This is the week that they are all writing their speeches.
These speakers know:
- Nobody wants to hear it. Students want to get that diploma and go to that party and get to the pool and pack for college. The speaker is the final speed bump.
- Everything has already been said. Can't beat Steve Jobs at Stanford in 2005. (Brilliant speech. And the audience couldn't look more bored.)
- Tough audience. "Too long" and "Bo-ring" are inevitable assessments.
- It will be forever. The graduates and attendees have paid dearly for this speech and will remember it. It might be on YouTube an hour later.
Yesterday, I visited with some of the wonderful girls — and their beloved head of school, Ann Klotz — at Laurel School in Shaker Heights, Ohio.
My purpose: to hear from the girls what's going on, so I can better prepare for next week's commencement ceremony, where I am to address the graduating students, and the faculty, families, friends and other students.
Ten o'clock at Severance Hall. If you want to come, you need tickets. They're free, but you still need a ticket, because it is a fancy place,worthy of security. (Let me know if you want a ticket.)
Can't Deliver What Ain't Cooked
As any pizzeria knows, if next week is the delivery, I have to write the darn thing this week. (Note: I don't really know how long it takes to make pizza.)
What do great commencement speeches have?
- A celebrity. Too late for that. I'm not going to be famous for anything before next Thursday. (My father once told me: "No Jewish family has been in this country as long as we without producing even one famous person.")
- A revelation. Nothing much here, either. While I await an epiphany, I had better pound out a rough draft, just in case. The ceremony will be in Severance Hall, so anything might sound important.
- Respect for time. This I can do. They're only giving me 15 minutes. I will write 14 minutes of something.
- Strong delivery. I'll practice. No do-overs.
- Make people laugh. Since people will be in a pretty good mood, I'll grab for this one. Yesterday, one of the students asked, "Will you be clever and witty? That's why we asked you to speak." I promised to be clever or witty, or both, but not at the same time.
- Be personal. Really, this is all any speaker can do: tell her or his own story.
- Calm. Everyone is anxious, facing the uncertain future. Parents, especially, need comforting.
So, I'm reflecting on speeches I've given to graduating students.
I spoke at my high school graduation (a poorly conceived, forgettable speech), at my business school graduation (the speech was OK, but none of us really wanted to hear it), and at the graduation at my high school about a decade after I graduated.
Of all the speeches I've given, that last speech — at the 74th Commencement of The Columbus Academy 22 years ago — remains among the speeches for which I most prepared. I wrote draft after draft, really sweating everything, running each draft past Duncan McCurrach, the most expensive lawyer I could never afford. (It was cheaper to name our own son Duncan.)
Afterward, I received only one complaint, which I'll recount below.
Now that I've visited the girls of Laurel, I have to get cracking. So I dug out the old Columbus Academy 1987. You can decide whether it's aged like a fine wine. It seems dated to me — but it also seems to predict who I would become as well as some self-imposed limitations.
Here it is. You can use it.
I remember that the entire ceremony — traditionally in the sunshine of the schools central courtyard ("The Quadrangle") — was pushed inside the gymnasium at the last minute because of rain. I was disappointed, the audience was uncomfortable, and one older fellow collapsed and was carried away just before I spoke. I don't remember who he was or if he recovered.
(Oh, and it was a boys' school, so all the pronouns are masculine.)
If the speech gets boring (it does for me), skip to the phrase "In college you will encounter remarkable freedom." I put it in big red letters, so you can find it easily.
To this day, I remain grateful for Headmaster Bo Dixon, who got me into college and then invited me back to speak a decade later.
The Columbus Academy
June 12, 1987
Two months ago the phone rang. It was Bo Dixon. We got to chatting about things. He told me that it was The Academy's 75th year. I already knew that; I had been celebrating all year. So I told him that it was the 200th Anniversary of The Constitution.
After a moment of silence, he asked me which amendment in the Bill of Rights was — in my opinion — the most important. I wracked my brain — I drifted back to Rainey Taylor's course in American History. Sorry, Mr. Taylor, but I could only remember three of those amendments. So I told Bo that the most important liberty was Free Speech.
Bo said, "Great! See you at The Academy on June 12th."
Graduates, this summer adults will meet you, will listen to your description of your plans for the Fall, and will tell you, "Oh what a great time of life. I wish I were you. So carefree. So happy–go–lucky."
I beg of you, don't resort to violence. Often I think the same well-intentioned thoughts that those forgetful oldsters think.
Often I remember my years at The Academy, and my years at college, even my first years in the workplace and I say to myself, "Artie, those were the days. Things were much easier then. So carefree. So happy–go–lucky." The Academy in my faulty memory is a hilltop of pleasure, always lush in springtime. There I am with all my friends. We laugh and sing and play dodgeball all day.
Upon further reflection, however, I remember the true context of all those dodgeball games. There were also those building blocks of character: trauma and turmoil. There was the Junior Speech. There were girls that would not go out with me, especially when I was too nervous to ask them in the first place. There was the Dress Code. There were faculty who would catch me in some mortal crime, point at me and say: "That's Time!"
And there was Latin and there was History — The Bill of Rights and its, oh, three or four amendments. "What that April, with here shires sote/The draught of March hath pierced to the rote."
Yet, as dramatic as those moments were, I now remember that they paled before the summer spent wondering what college would be like. As our college president put it, during that summer "the worm of apprehension bit deep in the bud of anticipation!" Roughly translated: the prospect of freedom and opportunity both elates and intimidates.
But most people you meet in passing will seem to have forgotten. It's not just when they say, "Oh how I wish I could be in your shoes." They mean, "Oh, how I wish I could be in your shoes knowing what I know now."
Hearing such a glowing appraisal of your predicament can be frustrating. You might think these people knew at your age what they wanted to do with their lives. While it is true that some people know when they are Freshmen in college that they want to be poets or doctors or captains of business, and they actually go on to pursue that goal, that is the exception and hardly the rule.
Indeed, I remember when I first met the president of the company I joined after college. He immediately asked me what my Five Year Plan was. I wasn't thinking five years; I was thinking tomorrow: How could I make my only two suits look different on the third and fourth days of my new job? The only Five Year Plans I had ever heard of were those I vaguely remembered from Russian History, and I wasn't too impressed with the results. I told him that my Five Year Plan was to have a Five Year Plan in, say, five years. Now it's five years later and I'm still working on it.
Having given his question much more thought since then, I think that it's bett
er not to have a Five Year Plan which targets a particular result for your life. As an example, many of my peers have defined Five Year Plans, especially at the Columbia Business School where sixty percent of my class is studying finance and hoping to be swept into investment banking. Their Five Year Plan is to pursue money.
Everybody's talking about money these days. From Bryant Gumble at dawn to Ted Koppel at midnight. That's probably not a surprise. People have always rushed to maturing gold mines. On Wall Street they rush for money just like they rushed for it in Silicon Valley three years ago, or in Texas five years ago.
[Note (2009): Why was I expressing such contempt for money? I think it was a blend of jealousy and my lack of courage to chase such opportunities. — Artie]
Before that it seems that people all over America aimed for more worthwhile, more substantial goals — productivity, family, community, quality. And, quite often, money followed their success.
Now people talk about making money as the end in and of itself, as the goal in the new Profession of Making Money.
Don't get me wrong. I like money. But once I had worked for a year and found myself able to afford New York City's criminally expensive slum living, I was no longer captivated by the money my career was offering. Again, not because I don't enjoy what money can buy. Rather, because money is an anti-climactic and narrow goal for your life.
Why am I against any Five Year Plan which dictates specific results for your life? Because having such results-oriented goals while in college or a first job is not critical to your growth and productivity. It is not necessary for happy, responsible living. In fact, it may be a crutch which prevents you from realizing your potential.
I have no regrets for my years in college and in my first job, because those years were by no means wasted. Instead of targeting a particular result for my life, I decided to adopt a two-part code of conduct and let the results follow as they may.
First, I would be confident of my abilities. I jumped from the Central Buckeye League to a national league, a much larger fish bowl. I knew very quickly that The Academy had prepared me well for carving out my own identity in college. Once I saw this, I decided to remain confident. In the end, I proved that the campus community should not be feared as a Goliath. It was a collection of my equals (more or less), challenging the limits of their own abilities and wondering what the future would bring.
Second, I took responsibility for my performance. Because my confidence was — and is — not always enough, I had to be willing to make, and learn from, my mistakes. (I've made some good ones that we don't need to go into right now.) But I knew that I had made my own decisions — so I always knew that I must take final responsibility for my performance — good or bad.
By being confident, once can best use his abilities. By taking responsibility, one gains self-respect, builds even more confidence, and earns a reputation for honesty. With this code, I continued to pursue a liberal education and experiences that would make me able to do many things, without shutting too many doors of opportunity.
Of course, I could not keep every opportunity available. Some doors of opportunity are genetically shut: I am too small to play N-F-L football; I am too tall to be a jockey. Some doors of opportunity are shut automatically: By taking my time to decide what I want to do with my life, I am too late to be a ballet star. But still I've managed to keep a surprising large number of doors open.
I believe that today, this is the best position I can be in. People of our generation — you and I — are expected to have an average of six to ten different careers. Not jobs, careers. We must be generalists ready for the changing world around us.
The Academy prepares you for college, supplying you with the tools you will need. The tools are math and reading and history. They are also sportsmanship and ethics. But the greatest tool is the special relationship that you hold with members of the faculty, staff and student body. Stay in touch with this wealth. To this day, my best friends include classmates from The Academy, some of whom I've gotten to know since graduation. And having known a teacher as a master, coach and friend will forever urge you to meet experts in strange fields.
A liberal arts education aims to make you a generalist. You take the tools from The Academy and then you learn how to learn, how to make mistakes, how to establish your own identity in an ocean of talented people and bozos.
In college you will encounter remarkable freedom.
New thoughts will challenge all you know. Many times, what you hear and see will surprise you with such information that you will have to change your mind. That's O.K. You can change your mind as often as you like. More than ever before, you will be on your own to choose your friends, your course of study, your entertainment, your bedtime.
Will you fight racism? Will you be a vegetarian? Will you support a covert war in Central America? Will you stay up all night? Decisions should be made on the basis of your experience when and as the questions arise. Don't make up your mind before it's necessary, before you are equipped to make the decision. It may seem simpler
to face life with clear-cut rules and beliefs, but the costs of being wrong outweigh the benefits of that simplicity.
Ask for advice from family, faculty and friends. Your best advisers will explain how they arrived at their own lifestyles, and leave you to choose for yourself. No one, no one, no one can tell you what method of living is right for you. When someone or something tries to usurp your right to choose, question authority. Many times, the powers that be are right. But not always. Adopt a way of life that will allow you to use your freedom. Question authority. Relish your freedom. And make choices of which you are proud, for which you will take responsibility.
It is nine years since I sat in your seat in the sun and listened to some other self-proclaimed expert-on-life tell me how he wished he were in my shoes, how I must be so happy–go–lucky, and only now am I able to begin to see the outlines of the direction of want my life to take. Maybe I'm a late bloomer, but because I remained confident and took responsibility for my delay, I would have it no other way. Everything I have heard in the last nine years has reshaped the context in which I live — and has demanded that I redirect or finetune my life. And the world continues changing. So, while I pursue a specific career, I will have to remain a generalist who specializes in anticipating what the world may demand of me tomorrow.
You should do the same. After you move from the Central Buckeye League, and then from the N-C-double-A, you will find yourself in a World Series. The world is smaller than ever before, and we must anticipate other economies. Do not believe, as I did, that we can relax and wait for the world to learn English and adapt to our customs. We are a newcomer in the world, and our competition hints that our day in first place might be over for now.
A recent lesson of the costs of deciding too early, closing your mind too early, is offered by a successful Japanese business leader who says, "I have the advantage when I meet an American. He does not know my language; I know his and have come to love his literature and theatre. He does not know my country's history; I know his from its very beginning and have read the U.S. Constitution. I know his culture and can anticipate many of his expectations. He does not know how I think." I was startled when I heard this because I recognized myself as a complacent American who is at a disadvantage to this man, and to the one-in-four students at Columbia Business School who are foreign-born and have fought much harder to go there.
That advice — learn another language, learn another culture — is too specific for today's purpose. You will be told that at college. Today, as most days, Conrad's Marlow gives us the best advice. He says, regarding life, adventure, college, "The most you can hope is some knowledge of yourself." And — I will add — a little fun.
So relax if you don't know what you will do with your life. College can, and hopefully will, teach you how to learn about yourself. And also how to tell the difference between knowing facts and knowing when to use them. That's the true value of all your knowledge.
Which reminds me of a friend of mine who is an actor. He's not a great actor but he is diligent. Every morning he makes the rounds of all the talent scouts in Times Square, knocking on doors asking if there is a role for him.
During another long morning of rejection, he knocked on another door and opened it and asked the talent scout, "Do you know of any parts for me?"
The scout shushed him. He was on the phone. "Uh, huh. Uh, huh," the scout was saying. He covered the mouthpiece and barked at the actor, "You an actor?"
"Yes, sir, I am."
"Yeah, I got an actor…Uh, huh…Uh, huh…(turning to the actor) Can you say, 'Hark! Is that a cannon's roar I hear?'"
"Hark! Is that a cannon's roar I hear?" said the actor, his chest puffing, his brow furrowed.
"Have I got the perfect guy for you," the scout says, and then hangs up the phone. "O.K., kid. This is your lucky day. But you gotta go to Grand Central Station now. Catch the next train to Stamford. A regular actor fell sick at the dinner theater there. Remember, 'Hark! Is that a cannon's roar I hear?'"
My friend rushed out the door and down the elevator. "Hark! Is that a cannon's roar I hear?" He jumped into a taxicab. "Grand Central," he ordered. "Hark! Is that a cannon's roar I hear?" They screeched into Grand Central. He jumped on the train as it lurched out of the station. "Hark! Is that a cannon's roar I hear?… Hark! Is that a cannon's roar I hear?"
"Next stop: Stamford Station!"
As the train arrives at the station, a car skids to a halt and the stage manager jumps out. "Are you the actor?"
"Hark! Is that a cannon's roar I hear?"
"Get in! We don't have a moment to lose!" They speed away as the actor puts on his costume in the back seat. "Hark! Is that a cannon's roar I hear?" They spin to a stop on the gravel driveway of the theater.
The stage manager drags him into the back door of the theatre. "Hark! Is that a cannon's roar I hear?… Hark! Is that a cannon's roar I hear?" They feels their way backstage in the pitch darkness. Al of the su
dden, the stage manage pushes him through the small opening in the stage curtain and — FLASH! BOOM!
"What the hell was that?"
Most of us can't play a specific role until we know what kind of characters we are. Until then, be confident and take responsibility.
I sat down, top students received awards, the diplomae were distributed amid much joy, and Greg Jacobs spoke beautifully for the class of '87.
As the attendees filed out, several said nice words to me. As a relatively unseasoned speaker, I didn't hear the kind words. I heard only the complaint. It was something like this:
"Of course, you overstated the freedom of choice that faces these young people."
I looked quizzically at the man. He explained:
"You neglected to recognize that there aren't as many choices, because God has a plan for us."
Having had my say, I think I said, simply, "Oh."
Well, That Killed An Hour
Now I'd better get writing.
But First This…
Here's the very kind introduction, offered by David Carlin:
When Mr. Dixon asked me to introduce Artie Isaac, I asked him to tell me some pertinent biographical information. I watched a smile grow to a laugh, and I know Bo well enough to realize that I was in for an interesting answer.
He said that Artie was the valedictorian in his class, was the editor of The Academy Life, and was clearly a major spokesperson for his class. Reportedly, his first words to the new headmaster in July, 1977 were, "Hey, Coach, when are you going to remove those ridiculous speed bumps [from the country day school's long driveway]?" I am told that Bart Giamatti at Yale also earned the title and answered to "Hey, Coach."
Mr. Dixon went on to recall that Artie was the school's head cheerleader and took pride in experimenting with the outrageous to incite the Vikes — including crowning one of his classmates Homecoming King. During basketball game time outs, he would simulate an Olympic sculler — rowing from the baseline to the midcourt to the delight of our fans. What was particularly educational was observing the various reactions of fans from such places as West Jefferson and Grandview. It was worth the price of admission, and more than once opposing coaches and players would prematurely stop plotting their timeout strategies to gape at this figure gliding across the floor to the rhythmic chant of "Stroke! Stroke!"
Artie graduated from The Academy in 1978, because as he says "growing up was much easier then." After graduating from Yale with honors [Note: This is not true. I think I said, "It was an honor to graduate."– Artie] in 1982, he joined a small New York based public relations firm and became director of the firm's investor relations division. In 1986, he retired to drive 9,000 miles across 15 countries in Europe. Artie admits that he may not have found himself, but he did manage to deplete his savings and learn how to shrug his shoulders in five languages. He entered Columbia Business School last fall and expects to receive his M.B.A. in May 1988. He calls this summer his last summer vacation and is working in consumer marketing for AT&T International Long Distance, encouraging U.S. citizens to run up large phone bills.
It is an honor for me to welcome back one of our own. Artie's father graduated from The Academy in 1935; his mother, Jackie, has served as President of the Mothers' Association. Mort Isaac '29, Fred Isaac and Tom Isaac, both class of '66 are all distinguished alumni. Please welcome Arthur J. Isaac III '78.