UntitledAfter last year's graduation speech, the fine educators and families at Village Academy asked me back to give this year's graduation speech.

Here's last year's

And here's this year's.

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June 6, 2012


Thank you, Board President Zaas, Head of School Lasley (Miss Susie), Alumni President Chinn — Weren't you Alumni President last year? Are you Alumni President for Life? — Mr. Mansfield, members of the board of trustees, esteemed faculty, proud parents, loving siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles. 

And to the class of 2012, thank you.

You have been mutually supportive in a real community of genuine people, indulging each other with encouragement. (You know, that sentence came from last year's speech, but — from what I hear about you — it doesn't quite fit. So let me say this: your class is female-dominated. Is that right? O.K.) Anyway, you are a model for other classes to follow. And they will. 

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I guess you could say that Village Academy and I are friends. Here we are, getting together again, on an important day. You have invited me to your party. I'm glad we are friends.

For those of you who are here tonight, but weren't here last year, I was the graduation speaker. That's a funny phrase at Village Academy: "for those of you who weren't here last year." This is the kind of school where everyone who is here now was here last year, too. In Oz, Dorothy Gale watches Glinda, the Good Witch, drive off in her big soap bubble and observes: "My, but people come and go so quickly here."

We can't say that about this Land of Oz. At Village Academy, people come in very young and stay until they are adults. Show of hands, please: how many of you attended last year's graduation?

That's what I thought. So, I guess, I'm not going to be able to use last year's speech. [change speeches].

So, let me ask for another show of hands. Who here is going to college next year? Who here is serving our country in AmeriCorps for a year before Wittenberg? (Way to go. You win.)

And another show of hands: who here in the room is glad to see all those hands?

How nice. I'm glad, too. I teach in college. And I see a lot of college students. And I'm happy for them. And you.

But let's take a moment to set some expectations. What do you want from college? What — if you get it — will make you glad you went? What — if you don't get it — will you be sad about?

When college students are asked what they want from college, the answer is all too often the same: a good job.

If that's the only reason you are going to college, please expand your expectations. College is more than a trade school. Much more. 

I remember when I was graduating from college. With a fine liberal arts education, I had received zero career guidance. Just after Spring Break my senior year, I bought a copy of the Houston Chronicle. Houston was a boom town in 1982, riding the wave of the petroleum industry.

So I looked through the want ads — "want ads" is what we used to call the Internet — and I saw a headline that caught my eye: Meat Truck Driver. This caught my eye, not because I especially enjoyed meat or trucks, but because I knew what both of them were — and I could drive.

All the other want ads had "petroleum" in them and that sounded mysterious and messy.

So I called the telephone number. A man answered and I announced that I was responding to the want ad and that I had long wanted to drive a meat truck. Easily persuaded, he invited me to come right over and do exactly that. "When can you come in?" he asked. 

"Well, I graduate in June, and I am in Connecticut, so I could be there by, say, June 15th.

"Connecticut?" he sputtered. "June? June? My calendar says it's March. And I got a truck filled with meat. I need someone to drive it tomorrow.

"I'm sorry," I said. "But I'm planning ahead."

"Planning ahead? Son, let's not waste time now. When you are ready to work, come on down. Drive my truck. Everybody eats meat!"

This conversation changed my life. [1.] "Everybody eats meat" became my lifelong job search mantra. [2.] I also, upon hanging up the phone, became a vegetarian for the next 20 years. 

I never made it to Houston. 

* * * * *

Please remember, we are headed into a speech about friends. Did I mention that this speech is about friends? It is. Or, at least, soon will be.

But first, back to what college is for. And back to considering how you must not think it's limited to getting you employed immediately thereafter.   

There was a cartoon in The New Yorker shortly after I graduated, an illustration of two scarecrows hoisted high in a cornfield. They are both unusually natty, wearing blazers with elbow patches. They look somewhat professorial. The caption is, one scarecrow speaking to the other, "English lit — how about you?"

This spoke to me, because that is exactly how I felt. I didn't feel qualified to take any one job, because I didn't really know meat or petroleum.  

Why do we want college to lead to a job? This is for several reasons, all of which are based on your parents' #1 fear. They fear that you will not be self-sufficient. They fear that you will someday have to stand on your own two feet while leaning on your own wallet, because they will someday die — or move to a one-bedroom apartment in Paris. And whether it's death or Paris is no matter to you: you can't come along.

You were very little when the self-sufficiency idea was raised. Maybe they said to you, in an all-loving, all-caring way: "Little, Artie, we are worried about you. Your work is a little sloppy. We think you need to take more care in your work. We are afraid that you won't be self-sufficient, even though you are only five years old now, so — well — let me offer this one thought, and if it becomes your belief, things will go well for you: anything worth doing is worth doing well." 

You know what, this speech is half over and it still isn't about friends. I think I will save the rest of that story for next year's graduation speech. You see, my double secret amibition is to give the graduation speech here for 10 years in a row and then publish them all in a book. This is the book the world is waiting for. A guy who no one has ever heard of offers advice to a school no one has ever heard of. 

We were made for each other. The idea couldn't make us any less famous.

So, forget about mom and pop telling us that anything worth doing is worth doing well. That's next year's subject. 

This year's subject is about friends. So, what did mom and pop tell us at an early age about friends? Remember: "Little Artie, go play with that fellow. Make nice. Be friends. You must be friends with all the children."

How sweet that is. And, to be sure, it was a belief that served me well. 

Is anyone here a Cognitive Behavioral Psychologist? Yes? There's always one! Well, that's awkward. Because I'm not a cognitive behavioral psychologist and I'm about to give a lesson on it. I hereby ask all the cognitive behavioral psychologists to endorse this lesson.

Anyway, being told "make friends with all the children" is helpful. It made for a peaceful life on the playground. And it delivered you to this moment. To this moment when you are allowed to wear a robe in public. That's great.

Then again, I've been told that this year's graduating class isn't goofy about making friends. There are friendships around the class, of course, but generally, the classmates are friendly, not friends. 

There's a difference. We'll get to that in a minute.

In this year's class, I'm told, the individual achievements are the focus; the friendships are somewhat secondary. That might be wildly inaccurate. If so, I apologize. Please remember: no one here knows these students less than I do.

For now, however, back to cognitive behavioral psychology. Here is cognitive behavioral psychology in a nutshell: What we think — "cognitive" — and how we act — "behavioral" — influences how the brain works — "psychology."

So what we think is partly implanted in our heads by our parents. And they told us to make friends with everyone. And that worked for a while.

But, as you became adults, during the past several years, you have become more discerning. Some people, you decided, were friend-worthy and some were not. So you held one or two good friends close and you let the others stay free range.

Now you are going off to college and can — truly — start over. And how you make friends will be more important, I believe, than whether college prepares you for some job.


What do we get from college? Here's what we get, under the best of circumstances:

  • A small handful of good, lifelong friends. I have three or four from college. We don't see each other very often. We talk only once a year. But they are very good friends. They are going to be willing to read any speech you give and give you suggestions. One: a capitalist friend of mine said that most everything I say in this speech is wrong. So you might take it with a grain of salt. (Maybe he can give this speech next year.)

What else do we get from college? After a handful of good friends…

  • One professor who inspires us to care about his or her subject. And…
  • One subject in which we want to pursue a greater understanding. And…
  • Something to think about at red lights. Last year's speech was about speed bumps. This one is quickly headed in that direction, too. So much of life is spent waiting for the red light to change to green. What will you do during that time? Turn on the radio and let someone else tell you what to think? Not if you went to college. If you went to college, you will take that red-light opportunity to have a thought of your own.

Nowhere in this list is "get a job." 

You'll get a job. Holy cow. You'll get a job. The fear isn't that you won't get a job. The fear is that you will have nothing to think of when you are waiting at a red light.

So: a few good friends, one inspiring professor, a subject worthy of continued study, and something to think about when you are waiting at red lights. That is what I wish for you at college.

So, finally, let us move to the topic of today's speech: friends. 

Here are my recommendations for friendship:

  • Be nice to the roommate, but don't smother him or her. You have a better chance of being lifelong friends if you say — on the first day — "I like you and I think our friendship will blossom best if we don't hang out all day, every day. Let's force ourselves to find other friends." You could make a deal: any person you meet who you don't like as your own friend, you could give to your roommate. There's no accounting for taste. 

During a brainstorm in my creativity class at Ohio State, one of my students came up with this idea: have a party for single people where everyone brings their most recent ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend. It's kind of a garage sale for love. Bring one, find one, give one, take one. It's not match.com; it's rematch.com.

I can imagine inviting my ex-girlfriend. "Want to go out? No, it's not like that. I'm not trying to start us up again. Frankly, this is a way for us to get away from each other, once and for all." 

More notes on friendship:

  • Don't make friends with everyone. That old belief, given to you by an all-loving, all-caring parent was sweet, well-intended, and — to be sure — effective. Until now. Now, however, you are headed to college where you will meet many potential friends. And you can have only so many friends. Facebook aside (where I think the algorithm limits each of us to 5,000 friends), in real life we can really have only a handful of true friends.

Years ago, I was at a gathering of entrepreneurs. The facilitator asked each of us to stand up and say something memorable about ourselves. Not the usual blather about what jobs we do. Something more memorable. One woman, Natalie, who lets me tell this story, said that she seems shy and, to be sure, she doesn't have many friends, but — and this is the comment that changed my life — "any of my few friends will tell you that I'm the best friend they ever had."

That's so inspiring. I'm not like that. I have thousands of superficial friendships. They are genuine, but only an inch deep. I'm inspired by Natalie's challenge to cultivate deep friendships.

So, this leads to some suggestions on how to do that:

  • Write a job description for anyone who wants to be hired as your friend. What are the minimum qualifications? What are the non-negotiables? What must the person do? What must that person never do? Certainly there are standards, standards that are higher than: make friends with everyone.

It's funny. The same parents who told you to play with everyone will suddenly hear about your college friends and think that they are all drug-addled anarchists. At an unnerving distance from your college, your parents will change the friendship belief: don't make friends with anyone.   

This is like when you were little and your parents took you into a public restroom: "Don't! Touch! Anything!" 

Here's another recommendation: 

  • Make a list of your friends. Put them in order of — at the top of the list — those who are life-affirming, those who lift you up, those who challenge you to become your best self. And — at the bottom — those who are corrosive, those who bring you down, those who resist the change that comes along with your growth.
  • Each year, chop off the bottom 10% of that list. This might sound sad and soulless, but no longer do you have to make friends with everyone. The people at the bottom of that list are not your friends. They are your enemies. They just happened to sit beside you in class, or in the dining hall, or were assigned to you as roommates. Don't tell them that they have been released, that they have been fired. That would be tacky. Just be less accessible to them. Be friendly, not friends.
  • At the top end of the list, get closer to the best friends you have, those that encourage your growth. And, frankly, they might be very different than you. 

The goal is not to surround people who are exactly like you.

Consider it this way. "Diplomacy" is when you talk to people with whom you disagree. When you are talking to people who agree with you, it's called "Talk Radio." I think you want friends that expand your skills in diplomacy.

Your parents will agree with this recommendation. They know that we each become our friends. A recent article in the The New York Times — or on Fox, depending on your politics — revealed that obesity runs among friends. Either birds of a feather flock together, or friends influence friends. Doesn't matter which. If you are going to become more like your friends, you might as well choose the people you most want to become.

One last piece of advice about friendship:

  • During this summer, consider your classmates. Among the many wonderful subjects you have studied here at Village Academy, your classmates are also object lessons. Which ones are models for who you might like to be close to in college? Which ones have attributes that you might want to avoid? You don't have to be right. There is no right. There's no accounting for taste. You just have to pick the ones that are right for you.

Your classmates are good yardsticks for measuring the worthiness of potential new friends at college.

Oh, and this parting thought:

  • When you return from college and are reunited with your Village Academy classmates — at Thanksgiving or during the winter break — try to look at them with fresh eyes. Allow them to have changed. Don't hold them to the past. Encourage their growth. And you might find a wonderful surprise: the Village Academy classmate you never really considered a friend, might suddenly be the perfect friend — because you have both grown in a mutual direction.

Bring on the diplomas. 

[Deep breath.] 

[Deliver as a blessing to the students with arms gently raised:] May you find years of learning and growth. May you be surrounded by people who love you. May you experience a sense of completeness, of what my people call, shalom

Shalom. Congratulations.

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Introduction of
Artie Isaac

It is my pleasure to introduce our commencement speaker, Artie Isaac.

Artie has worked for more than 30 years with highly creative people, addressing challenges and opportunities facing more than 1,000 companies. Now — after selling his award-winning advertising agency, Young Isaac — Artie leads corporate brainstorming and idea generation programs to develop new products and save businesses. Locally, Artie leads monthly business roundtables with Vistage International.

Artie teaches Personal Creativity and Innovation at The Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business. He also teaches Marketing Strategy, Ethics and Creativity at the Columbus College of Art & Design. Artie is a writer, actor, corporate trainer, and sought-after public speaker.

Artie has a bachelor's degree in English Literature from Yale and an M.B.A. from Columbia. And a varsity letter in cheerleading from Columbus Academy. Back in the day.

Please join me in welcoming Artie Isaac.