Inspiring Commencement Addresses

13 01 2013

We don’t really have the same culture of commencement addresses in Australia that the US seems to have. And while I am sure many commencement addresses are forgettable, every so often one pops up on Youtube (or elsewhere) that is amazing. Here are a few of my favourites….

Steve Jobs, Stanford University 2005
Jobs talks about getting fired from Apple and how he came back from that devastating setback.


Professor Randy Pausch, Carnegie Mellon, 2008
Prof Pausch was dying of cancer when he made a surprise return to Carnegie Mellon University.

“We don’t beat the reaper by living longer. We beat the reaper by living´╗┐ well… The question is, what do we do between the time we’re born and the time he shows up?”


Oprah Winfrey, Stanford University, 2008
After first embarrassing her god-daughter and giving us a view of the human side of Oprah, she talks about finding her way and the challenges she faced overcoming set ideas of what a television personality looked like early in her career.


JK Rowling, Harvard 2008
The Harry Potter author talks about her imagination and creativity at a young age and how her parents, wanting the best for her, encouraged “straight” education over the classics and artistic pursuits that interested her.

The commencement address Kurt Vonnegut didn’t do

13 01 2013


Have you heard of Mary Schmich? Of the Chicago Tribune?

No, neither have I. And that is where urban legends begin.

On 1 June 1997, Mary Schmich, a journalist with the Chicago Tribune, wrote a fantasy commencement speech entitled Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young. It was a thoughtful take on “what I wish someone had told me when I was young”. She wrote it, according to her, high on caffeine, one Friday afternoon. She had no idea how it would change her life!

But of course, the idea that an unknown journalist had written it wasn’t good enough, and hence a “better” name had to be attached to it to get the viral coverage that this commencement speech has had.

Enter Kurt Vonnegut. (Yes, apparently Vonnegut is a better name that Schmich. Slightly easier to pronounce, but a whole lot better known.) Of course it wasn’t really Kurt himself, but someone unknown attached Kurt Vonnegut’s name to the commencement speech, the date 1997 and the place MIT, and it took off. (Actually Secretary General of the UN, Kofi Annan gave the MIT commencement speech in 1997.)

Vonnegut himself told the New York Times, “What she wrote was funny, wise and charming, so I would have been proud had the words been mine.” Meanwhile, Mary Schmich was inundated by people accusing her of plagiarism. If you read it on the internet, it must be true…..

Still, despite the confusion , Schmich did come out of it smiling. In 1998 she published the essay as a short book (Wear Sunscreen: A Primer for Real Life). She went on to win the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for commentary.

So, giving credit where credit is due, Mary Schmich, here is the commencement speech….”

Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young

If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it. The long-term effects of sunscreen have been proven by scientists, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more than my experience. I will dispense this advice now.

Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth. Oh, never mind. You will not understand the power and beauty of your youth until they’ve faded. But, trust me, in twenty years, you’ll look back at photos of yourself and recall, in a way you can’t grasp now, how much possibility lay before you and how fabulous you really looked. You are not as fat as you imagined.

Don’t worry about the future. Or worry, but remember, that worrying does about as much good as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing gum. The real troubles in your life are likely to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4:00 p.m. on a Tuesday.

Do one thing everyday that scares you.


Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts. Don’t put up with people that are reckless with yours.


Don’t waste your time with jealousy.

Sometimes you’re ahead; sometimes you’re behind. The race is long, and in the end, it’s only with yourself.

Remember the complements you receive. Forget the insults. If you succeed in doing this, tell me how.

Keep old love letters. Throw away old bank statements.


Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what to do with your life. Some of the most interesting people I knew at 20 didn’t know what they were going to do with their lives. Some of the most interesting 40 yr. olds I know still don’t.

Get plenty of calcium.

Be kind to your knees. You’ll miss them when they’re gone.

Maybe you’ll marry, maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll have children, maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll divorce at 40, and maybe you’ll do the FUNKY CHICKEN on your 75th wedding anniversary.

Whatever you do don’t congratulate yourself, or berate yourself too much. Your choices are half chance. So are everybody else’s.

Enjoy your body and use it every way you can. Don’t be afraid of it or what other people think of it. It’s the greatest instrument you’ll ever own.

Dance, even if the only place to do it is in your living room.

Read the directions, even if you don’t follow them.

Do not read beauty magazines, they will only make you feel ugly.

Get to know your parents. You never know when they will be gone for good.

Be nice to your siblings. They are your link to the past and the people most likely to stick with you in the future.

Understand that friends come and go and with a precious few you should hold on. Work hard to bridge the gaps in geography and lifestyle, because the older you get the more you need the people that knew you when you were young.

Live in New York once, but leave it before it makes you hard.

Live in California once, but leave it before it makes you soft.


Accept certain unalienable truths; prices will rise, politicians will philander, you too will get old. And when you do, you will fantasize that when you were young, prices were reasonable, politicians were noble, and children respected their elders.

Respect your elders.

Don’t expect anyone else to support you. Maybe you have a trust fund and maybe you have a wealthy wife, but you never know when either one will run out on you.

Don’t mess too much with your hair or by the time you’re 40 your hair will look 85.

Be careful whose advise you buy, but be patient with the people that provide the advice. Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts, and recycling it for more than it’s worth.

But trust me on the sunscreen.

The Second Parent

10 01 2013

Friends of mine decided, when the husband was offered a package at work, that he would take a year off and be the stay at home parent while his wife went back to work to re-establish her career.

While he loved staying home with his sons, he found it incredibly lonely. None of his friends were stay at home dads, and in his sons’ school classes, the were no stay at home dads. The mums at the school gate didn’t really connect with him – it was a Mother’s club, a women’s club. His presence put a damper on the conversation, a stilted politeness. They could hardly bitch about their husbands and sex lives with him present! (OK I admit that is a stereotype, made to illustrate the point.) While he loved staying at home and loved the time with his sons, he was relieved to go back to work and have adult conversations again.

So in a society where we lobby for equal career opportunities, equal pay for women, why is a man’s (and presumably a family’s) choice to stay home not supported by the community?

Fathers report being treated as the “second parent” by schools, medical practitioners, hospitals, childcare providers. And as a mother, I also find that frustrating. While I do want to be contacted and involved in decisions affecting my children, why should the father not also be contacted.

As the mother of sons, this would be an excellent example for my children to see, to grow up to be good men, involved and caring for their children.

And I am sure for fathers, it is disrespectful.

“Every time we liberate a woman, we liberate a man.” Margaret Mead
Every time we liberate a man, we liberate a woman. Mudmap

How google revolutionised study

10 01 2013


As the beginning of the school year rolls around (for the southern hemisphere) and I am once again tempted (but resisting) going back to university, I have been reflecting on the changes since I undertook my first degree, in the early 1990s.

I studied recreation management and planning, which was a fabulous degree. It was a very small intake, 40 students per year, so we all knew each other very well. To get into the course you not only had to have the right high school marks, you also had to write a couple of essays about why you wanted to do it, what your career ambitions were, and then sit and interview. I remember how excited I was when I was accepted!

Because we were such a small tight group, we cooperated for resources. At the beginning of each semester, we would form a production line at the photocopiers in the library and photocopy off the required readings for each student. These were the days before easy access to resources on computers, and before every student having a computer in their home. Microsoft dominance had not yet become entrenched and hence part of the course included being taught how to use the university’s computers. When deadlines rolled around the entire year would set up camp in the computer room at the university and stay there, sharing resources, ordering pizzas, and proof-reading each other’s assignments. Assignments had to be handed up in hard copy and bound, and hence the battle with the printer was a shared one.

Fast forward to a couple of years ago when I completed my most recent degree (I am a serial student with the university debts to show for it). I studied online with students from all around the world. In fact one of the really interesting things was hearing about people’s career paths in other countries and other fields.

All materials were sent electronically. Assignments were submitted electronically. Research could be done electronically. During this entire degree I did not set foot in a library for research purposes – when Google Scholar and PubMed can provide us with a wider range of peer-review journals and free access to books, photocopying sources in the library is no longer the time-consuming (and costly) exercise it was. As a result, hopefully there is a wider range of material being used for references….although too much information can be difficult to manage. (When I lectured at University, the undergrads all used to use the same quotes from the same sources. Very monotonous to mark. Post-grads were better.)

Studying as an activity has become entirely different. Possibly for those who study on-campus, ie: attend lectures rather than distance education, the experience might still be similar – the camaraderie, the networking. I still occasionally come across people I studied with in my work life and it is always great to look back on those days.

But as an adult with work and home responsibilities, the convenience of being able to log on at night without having to travel to campus has significant benefits. If distance education weren’t available I wouldn’t have done so much study.

And I wouldn’t be so tempted to go back again…..

Flight safety

5 01 2013

photo credit: licensed under Creative Commons from Beverly & Pack

photo credit: licensed under Creative Commons from Beverly & Pack

One of my favourite books, Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (a trilogy in five parts) has its hero travelling the universe interminably seeking….who knows what. Well he thinks he is seeking the earth in some parallel universe – it has been destroyed in his own universe. Anyway, this is actually beside the point.

Because of his excessive travel and excessive boredom, and because he was trapped on a spaceship which was put in suspended animation while they awaited a delivery of moist towelettes so they could take-off, when his flight is actually involved in an emergency, he is the only one who survives because he is the only one who has actually listened to the safety instructions.

Flying with children who are somewhat nervous brought this to mind. They are the only ones on the flight who listen to the stewards doing the emergency instructions, and are the only ones reading the evacuation and emergency procedures card.

Airline staff are one of those stereotypes that often is the butt of comedy jokes. And none-so-more that the emergency procedures which is, after all, the most distinctive thing about them from the viewpoint of the flying public.

Who has not seen a hilarious skit where the stewards turn the safety presentation into a lesson on bondage? Oh – what? only me? Ah well. It stayed with me.

Australian comedian Adam Hills tells a story about a hostie who had integrated some Auslan sign language (Australian sign language for hearing impaired) into the safety presentation. Only in Australia is there sign language for “Fuck you, Fuck youse all” (youse being plural of you, for those unfamiliar with vernacular bogan). I won’t spoil the joke – it can be viewed here.

However, airlines are starting to get in on the joke. Air New Zealand has released this Hobbit inspired safety video. While it is a hit on Youtube, I presume it is also shown on flights. While the safety details are pretty much the same as any other safety video, one would have to be more concerned about finding an orc, or Gollum sitting alongside or behind you….and there are no suggestions how to deal with unpleasant fellow-passengers. Also notable, two of Tolkien’s grandsons make guest appearances, as does Director Peter Jackson. This isnt Air New Zealand’s first effort – a previous safety video (view here) features stewards and passengers wearing…..body paint!

Of course other airlines have tried to make the safety videos mire interesting, notably….Thomson Airlines (featuring small children, this video from Sri Lankan Airlines is animated, as is this offering from Virgin Airlines, Delta Airlines, and Cebu Pacific’s video featuring a choreographed presentation, which must surely make the routine more entertaining for staff, as well as passengers.

Fly safe!