Commencement Address by John Katzenbach

Editor’s note: The following speech was presented by John Katzenbach during the 172nd Commencement Exercises at the Williston Northampton School on May 26, 2013.

Good morning…

I was delighted to be asked to stand in for the Ambassador from Colombia at this graduation. After all – what is a graduation speech? Mostly it is an opportunity for older folks to exhort younger people with all sorts of incredibly heartfelt and probably utterly useless advice. But – that said – You are – for better or worse – the classic captive audience. That is, it is my sincere belief that until Bob Hill actually hands you that diploma it is unlikely you will flee from this ceremony, regardless of what I say.

So, my first thought in putting this talk together was – obviously: What would the ambassador from Colombia tell you?

This was easy: One: Learn Spanish – a very useful language.
And two: Be diplomatic.

Diplomacy – as a general rule – is not the strongest suit for writers like myself. We prefer being controversial, which is more or less the opposite of diplomacy. And, if we can’t be controversial, well, outrageous sometimes works for us. In addition, I suspect diplomacy is probably a skill lost on most of you guys. There’s simply not much call for it until you get older. In fact, I cannot recall any instances of me being compelled towards reason and ready to compromise when I was a teenager – even if that was like a century ago. So I would recommend all of you trying to put off being diplomatic in almost any regard for as long as you can. Keep in mind, I said diplomatic, not polite.

Minimum ten years. Fifteen is better.
Then re-assess.

This should occur right around the time you get the job you’ve always wanted, met someone truly special and fallen in love and start thinking about marriage. Take it from me – this is when the whole concept of compromise suddenly becomes significantly more relevant.

But that should be pretty far off for you. Like way in the distance.
But… to get back to the whole graduation advice-thing…

In fact, it’s my sorry opinion that advice from writers is usually pretty useless – as it is highly specific and tailored for unique circumstances. In my case, let’s see: I could fill you with wise suggestions were you suddenly being pursued by a serial killer who longs for notoriety – that’s my latest book. Or perhaps, you would like to know what to do if being stalked by an obsessed boyfriend? I can help you with that. Maybe you would like to know what course you should take if you were kidnapped by a pair of internet-savvy psychopaths? If so, I’m your guy.

And – I promise – only a few of my recommendations would involve large caliber handguns and modestly depraved thinking.

So, let’s start from the proposition that what I – or just about any fiction writer – would say is somewhat problematic. And, it’s not just us modern authors. Do you think Dickens would have stood up here and told you graduates “Look, it might be a far, far better thing he goes to do… for Charles Darnay – that’s in a Tale of Two Cities – but generally speaking try to avoid the guillotine and people who might want to put you there…” Or do you suppose, F. Scott would have said, “Graduates… Maybe you shouldn’t emulate Gatsby all that much because things don’t work out so great for him at the end…” You can even go back further in literary history: Imagine Homer giving you advice. Big white beard and skinny toga, lyre in hand…wouldn’t he start with something like, “Well if someone leaves a gift on your doorstep, something like a real big wooden horse that makes strange clanking, armor-like sounds from within, maybe you should re-consider bringing it inside your home…”
Actually – that might be good advice.

There’s always a ‘but” in speeches like this…

The point is, you’re graduating, heading off to college, extraordinary adventures and the rest of your life, leaving Willy behind, taking a big step forward into an uncertainty that’s both exciting and a little daunting – and darn it, it’s my job to stand up here and say something inspiring.

To this end, and having already exhausted my entire Ambassador from Colombia chain of thought – I did what any writer would do.


Here are the five most common themes of graduation speeches. I presume these are what I was told, either at my prep school or college graduations – but alas, I cannot now recall what was said on either occasion. Nor can I remember who said it – which is I believe is pretty much par for the course.

1) Don’t be afraid to fail.
2) Remember that you are the future.
3) Always respect your parents.
4) Never stop learning.
5) Follow your dreams.

Okay – a little deconstruction, if you will.

“Don’t be afraid to fail…”
Well, why not? A little fear can be really helpful, because it provides perspective. Keeps you out of trouble at dicey moments. Helps you to keep your mouth shut and your eyes wide open at opportune times. And failure is not always a bad thing, although I’m not recommending it with frequency. A couple of failures make the successes sweeter. But – with that caveat — if you have a choice, let’s stick with successes. In fact, if you can go through life without any failures at all, I’d say that’s quite an accomplishment. Let’s shoot for that status, okay, even though we know it will be impossible to attain. So, we should change this lesson to: “Don’t be afraid to succeed and greet failures as the imposters they are.” That has a much nicer sound to it.

“Remember that you are the future…”
Well, what about last year’s graduating class? And the class before that? Weren’t they the future, too? And that doesn’t even include next year’s class. Seems to me you’ll all have to get together on this future thing. Meanwhile, of course, being the mature, educated folks that the rest of us are, we’ll just continue wrecking it for you. There’s a challenge I’m certain you are up for. Fixing all of our mistakes. Sorry. On behalf of everyone here who graduated some time ago – where we were probably told we were the future — let me now apologize.

“Respect your parents…” Well, okay. It would be pretty rude of me to get up here and suggest you not respect your parents. Respect – as a concept – is odd. Nothing should be automatic. Someone telling you to respect something or someone rarely has much impact. People – like athletes – are always talking about how respect is “earned.” That’s not exactly true because the reasons for respecting others constantly shift. So, in reality, respect is something that comes from within you. It’s about the internal posture you create. You will make the decisions about what you feel deserves honor, compassion, affection and loyalty.

Of course… all that said, please, please, please respect your parents. And grandparents. And siblings (even if that’s sometimes tough). And teachers. And law enforcement. Firemen. Military guys and gals. Auto mechanics. Coaches. Groundskeepers. Waiters and waitresses and folks in service industries. Everybody that helped get you through Williston. And if I’ve left anyone else off the list, respect them, too. Actually – and here’s a dirty little secret: it’s easier to start out respecting all people – and then wait for them to lose your respect. Doesn’t happen a lot. But it will from time to time. Be ready for it.

“Never stop learning…” Right. As if someone needs to tell you this. When you stop learning, you calcify. If you happen to look down one day and realize you’ve stopped learning, there are really only two viable possibilities: 1) You’ve died and are on your way to heaven. 2) You’ve been elected to public office. Especially congress.

And lastly, my favorite:
“Follow your dreams…”
Now – I don’t know how many of you have heard of Sigmund Freud’s dream theories – this is all about Id, ego, super-ego and how different parts of our psychological make-up protect us from the worst impulses we have. Dreams are – well difficult. They represent wish fulfillment – and not the sorts of wishes you would actually wish upon anyone. I mean – try to recall your last actual dream. A tad bit unsettling, I would imagine.

There’s a wonderful sequence in C.S. Lewis’s extraordinary children’s book The Voyage of the Dawn Treader where the adventurers come across an island “where dreams come true.” And – of course, their first instinct is that this is the place where their fantasies and day-dreams come to life. It is only when a terrified, haunted inhabitant of the island warns them of their foolishness – it is a place where actual dreams become real – that they realize their mistake and barely escape with their psyches intact.

This is – I think – the best literary description of Freud’s theories on paper anywhere.
So – for goodness sakes’ don’t follow your dreams.

We need to substitute something for that word.
Reasonable beliefs based upon solid expectations?

That doesn’t have much of a ring to it, does it?

I mean, I doubt any graduation speaker ever got up and said to the assembly: “Follow your reasonable beliefs, modest hopes and firmly-grounded aspirations based upon solid expectations backed up by concrete evidence that you can readily identify and which should be apparent to others.”

Nor would any speaker be likely to tell you: “Follow your day-dreams,” because that would certainly sound like he was recommending laziness and a less than diligent, hard-working, nose to the grindstone approach to life. After all, a day-dreamer is seen as a negative, no?

Okay. Actually, one speaker would tell you to do that: Me.

A million years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I was in prep school – a place geographically located in Exeter, New Hampshire, but I forget the name of the school – this was the pejorative I was assigned by an unimaginative dean right around the time I was placed on academic and social probation for like the hundredth time before I graduated – which I just barely managed.

He thought he was being critical. Harsh. Realistic. Telling me the hard truth, right along with letting me know I would never amount to anything in life.

I felt the opposite. I thought it was a compliment. And happily – it worked out okay for me.
Writing fiction is acknowledging the power of day-dreams. Writers just don’t talk about it all that much.

So – as long as we’re still in the lesson-mode here, what I would tell you is imagine what you can be. Don’t put any limits on that bit of brain energy. Picture yourself in days to come and see the road in front of you. Don’t worry if it is obscure and even hidden and maybe even difficult. It’s there. You just have to search it out. Then follow that path and see where it leads you. While it might not be what you envisioned or even expected, and probably contains some pretty surprising twists and turns, I suspect it will be someplace truly interesting.

Okay – that’s some actual advice. I’m not going to characterize it as either good or bad. That’s up for you to determine.

Couple that with the little bit from our fictional Homer about wooden horses and the inadvisability of bringing them home, and you should be good to go.

But – in an effort to fulfill the requirements of an actual graduation speech – and sadly realizing that Google didn’t help me all that much – I was forced to turn to arguably the best, wisest, most Yoda-like source of advice for Williston graduates.
That would be: other Williston graduates.

These come from Boston, New York, Miami, Los Angeles, Chicago and Tokyo. They range from a couple of years out – to more than a decade. They work in film, television, business, law, academia. What I asked these guys and gals was simple: If you could pass on any advice to a graduating senior – and assuming you could do this in private – with no faculty, parents, siblings or anyone else listening in, what would you say?
Some have been edited to avoid… well, flagrant, original and quite rampant obscenities…

There were modest suggestions:

“Drive slow. Wear your seat belt. Enjoy the view.”

“During the summers, don’t get an internship in an office. Get one in Yellowstone. Or, better yet, Hawaii…”

“Major in whatever you want. Minor in something useful, but major in whatever you want…”

This came from a guy: “Never date a girl for more than one year.”
Curiously, this came from a girl: “Never date a guy for more than one year.”

And the law school grad suggested: “Only sign once a year contracts.”

More observations on life post Williston:

“If you are going to the University of Kentucky or the University of Arizona, you are in luck: You will continue to be a Wildcat. The rest of you will have to learn a new mascot.”

“”Be an ‘and’ person, not an ‘or’ person. ‘And’ is inclusive and expansive, it broadens choices and horizons. ‘Or’ carries with it an exclusive sentiment; it separates, divides and segments. Reserve ‘or’ for your postmodernism essays and critical writings; in life, I wish you a safe and exciting journey. I wish you both coleslaw and fries, not coleslaw or fries.”

Here is a sentiment that came from more than one grad:
“Williston is harder than college…”

Several quotes of significance came in:

From Thomas Jefferson: “I find that the harder I work, the luckier I am…”
From the great Brazilian philosopher, Edison Arantes do Nascimento (those of you on the soccer teams will more quickly recognize his nom du pitch as Pele): “Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do…”

(Let’s add one more from the same source, very deep and very wise: “A penalty is a cowardly way to score.”)

More advice:
“Turn off your cell phone at least once a day.”
“It’s okay to be the underdog, but it’s not okay to be under-prepared.”

“Thank your teachers. Remarkably, the older you get, the smarter your teachers become… and stay in touch with them. You will enjoy this and they will appreciate it.”

“Always have a sense of humor. Always have a designated driver, take a cab or walk. Paint the lion. Study a martial art. Remember: pro wrestling is fake.”

“Don’t take Friday classes.”

“Boomshakalaka, boomshakalaka…”

(That one confused me, as well. Some might recall it from Sly and the Family Stone’s 60’s hit “I want to take you higher.” Others might think it connects to the electronic game NBA Jam. Regardless, I pass it on in the unlikely hope that it will mean something to someone here…)

And finally, one to end on, from a young person with an enviable job in the literary world, where they are carving out quite a reputation…

“It gets better.”

In that short phrase, there are remarkable truths. It’s not really advice, is it? Really, more a promise. We could be speaking about something as simple as the weather, as complicated as what awaits us around the corner of life. But, it seems to me, a good phrase to keep in mind, not just today, but tomorrow and the day after, as well.

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