Commencement Address, Alan Alda GP’11

Delivered at The Williston Northampton School’s 170th Commencement on June 4, 2011

When I see my granddaughter Emilia graduating today, I guess, like all the parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins who are here, I’m brimming with love.

You can’t know how much we love you kids. You make us wonderfully happy just by being who you are. You’re the buds of spring. You’re still tasting parts of the world for the first time. You remind us of the days in our own lives when the world was a squishy grape we were biting into for the first time, and we were the first ones ever to feel such an amazing sensation. We know that you have ahead of you a universe of amazing experiences – and the most amazing of them, some day, may be looking into the eyes of your own young people who will choke you up with the beauty of their pure hearts. And knowing that gives us pleasure, too.

This is a big moment for all of us today. In a few minutes, we’ll go through a ritual that signals your moving on to greater maturity. And the strange thing at a time like this, is how much people our age want to give people your age advice. I don’t know why we do that. You don’t do it.

If a friend of yours wins a free trip to Alaska, you don’t say, “Yes, well, bring long underwear – and take your overcoat!” You just say, “OMG,” or something.

Even though we figured it out for ourselves, we think we have to clue you in on the idea that it gets cold outside. But, forgive us – it’s just our way of saying we love you.

We think the best gift we can give you is to tell you what we we’ve learned. Even if the years you’ve spent with us don’t seem to indicate that we could possibly have learned very much.

I want to tell Emi so many things today, and they’re not big, grand things, they’re practical. I want to tell her things that will preserve her well-being. Like:

Spray your nose with saline twice a day and you’ll never get a cold.

Take an aspirin when you fly so you don’t get a stroke.

When you cross a one way street, Look both ways – or you might get killed by a guy on a bicycle delivering pizza.

You’ll notice, these things aren’t just practical, they’re panicky.

But you’re supposed to say big things at a graduation. They can’t just be practical, they have to be inspiring.

So brace yourself, Emi – here goes. Here are three pieces of BIG ADVICE:

First, I want to tell you about youth, and old age. And why I think they should be the same thing.

The wisdom that’s supposed to come with old age is really better to have when you’re young – because you’re full of energy and you have many more chances to do really dumb things. We want to do dumb things, too, but we need to lie down and rest. Wisdom is wasted on the old. So, arrange to have wisdom now.

Oldness, on the other hand, is to be avoided at any age. When you’re young, you have curiosity, endeavor, candor, skepticism – and you have optimism. You mustn’t lose any of that, no matter how many years go by.

Most of all, don’t lose the innocence of youth. Stay in that springtime where everything is new.

The director Elia Kazan once said he tried to work with actors before they became slick and looked like actors. He wanted them to look like real people. Don’t become slick. Don’t ever think you’ve got it all figured out. Slick is a kind of smug. It’s admiring yourself in a shop window and not even noticing that the sale of the century is going on inside the store.

Keep being brave. Keep questioning everything. Above all, keep learning. Not because it’s good for you, like broccoli, but because learning is maybe the one thing you can get high on that actually does you good.

The second big piece of advice has to do with old age, too. I heard it when I was a kid.

I was in my first year of college, so I was right about the age you are now. I had a French teacher who told us we ought to prepare right then for our old age. For you, that would be right now. He said we ought to learn about the pleasures of fine music and good books. Not just what’s easy to listen to or comfortable to read, but what’s worth the trouble of decoding for the rich experience it gives you, once you unlock it. For some reason, I did what he said – and my life has been richer.

I’ve never run out of squishy grapes. There has always been a taste that was newer and deeper, more surprising and more delicious.

But, as you head off for college, or whatever the next step in your life is, you may be thinking about what you’re going to do with your life.

And that’s where Number Three, the Really Big Advice comes in.

All over America this week, people like me are standing before dazed graduates, shoveling out homilies and clichés, and probably the most common one will be: “Have a Dream.” I’d like to deconstruct that advice a little. It’s not bad advice – but it’s not as easy as it sounds. I’ve thought about this a lot lately.

I had a dream. I wanted to be an artist in the theater – a writer and an actor. And I’m here today because I had that dream. But over the years, I think I’ve figured something out: if all you have is a dream, you’re in trouble.

Martin Luther King had a dream. But he did something about it. And his dream wouldn’t just benefit him, it would raise up the lives of others. Without the crucial ingredients of devotion to it, working on it and doing it with and for other people, a dream is just a dream.

I saw a documentary the other day about Russia. Something in it moved me very much. A man who had been a soldier for many years and now worked as a driver had wanted as a boy to study sea shells. But he never did. He goes to museums now and looks at seashells with longing – they had been his passion, but he lost his devotion to his passion and never worked on it, and now his dream had turned into just a vague memory.

At the end of the movie about Russia, someone gives the driver a gift of a huge seashell. But, it seems he’s lost touch with what seashells first meant to him. He looks at the shell with a kind of vague admiration – and then he makes a decision that just amazed me. It took the breath out of me. He decides to cut the shell up and make a lamp out of it.

It’s as though all he’s left with is a dream of a dream.

So there are two things here. One is: find your seashell. It can save your life. But, two: Never stop working on it, or it will just be a dream.

A dream is not enough. It has to be pursued relentlessly or it becomes this fake thing you wear as a badge, but means nothing. I’m a writer, you say, but you don’t write. Or, I’m a rock musician. But you don’t practice. You just dream.

But, on the other hand, life can be messy. Sometimes a dream comes over you in a casual way, and sticking with it isn’t always the best idea. I’ll make a little confession here. When I was 8 years old I had the dream of being a writer. Later in life, when I was 9, I wanted to be an actor. But for some reason, when I was 12, I started to have this other dream:

Some day, some where, somehow – I would own a cream puff factory.

I liked cream puffs.

I sort of cringe now. To think that my life could have turned into an endless conveyor belt of cream puffs.

And yet, you have to be agile. Things change. You’ll lose your job or you’ll suddenly realize that you or someone you love is going through a crisis. The thing you counted on to last forever, won’t. And you’ll have to pour your heart into something else.

But whatever it is, and whenever it comes to you, in order to achieve it, you’ll need to work on it – but you’ll also need other people.

I really think it can’t just be for you. A solitary dream is not only less fun, it probably won’t get you anywhere. A dream that benefits other people will move them to dream with you – and to work with you. And if it doesn’t make their lives better, it’s probably going to feel a little meaningless.

But, you know… like most of the advice we offer at times like this, you’ll find out most of this for yourselves. You probably already have. Every generation of young people that I’ve seen has been a little smarter, a little more hip than the last one. So pardon me for stating the obvious, but that’s what we do at times like this. The other thing we do – all of us – is try to look into the future and hope for the best.

Can’t do it.

I won’t get to see how it all plays out for you. By the time you’re my age, I won’t be around anymore.

You’ll live to see times that I’ll never know. You’ll do great things I’ll never hear about. You’re on a trajectory that will carry you to places I’ll never see.

Go there with courage and a lightness of spirit.

And don’t forget to bring long underwear and take your overcoat.

Remember, all of you, that you’re very loved.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *