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.