The commencement address I’m sharing today is not really a commencement address at all. It was written and published in 1997 by Mary Schmich, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune and winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for commentary.
In the introduction to her column she noted:
Inside every adult lurks a graduation speaker dying to get out, some world-weary pundit eager to pontificate on life to young people who’d rather be Rollerblading. Most of us, alas, will never be invited to sow our words of wisdom among an audience of caps and gowns, but there’s no reason we can’t entertain ourselves by composing a Guide to Life for Graduates.
Schmich wrote the column in four hours, whilst high on coffee and M&Ms. She likely didn’t anticipate the extent to which her column would take on a life of its own.
Back in 1997, there was no social media. There were various online forums and message boards, but they were essentially walled gardens – places where people would discuss and share things amongst themselves; instead, email was the prevalent online medium for sharing content.
Here’s where things get interesting.
Today, we still share content via email from time to time, and we also share content on social media. However, when we do so, we normally share a link to wherever this content is located online. Identifying the original source of anything can of course can still be problematic, but with a little digging and diligence it’s usually possible to do.
Back in 1997 people were less likely to share links to things they’d found online. Whilst content was still shared, it was more commonly reproduced directly in the body of the email.
I suspect that someone had either seen this content online and copied and pasted it, (the Chicago Tribune were publishing online in 1997) or possibly, they saw the column in print, and typed it out. Possibly they neglected to cite the source, or perhaps in the process of it being shared over and over again, the original source (if indeed it was ever cited), got cut out thanks to a copy/paste error.
At some point, someone attributed Schmich’s column to the novelist Kurt Vonnegut, claiming it was the commencement address he gave to the 1997 graduating class at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (Incidentally, Vonnegut had never given a commencement address at MIT, and in reality, it was Kofi Annan who gave the address in 1997.)
Schmich became aware of this chain email, and attempted to locate the original source, but was unable to do so.
According to internet lore, this was a real commencement address, and it was one written by Kurt Vonnegut. The story became so widespread that Vonnegut’s lawyer began receiving requests to reprint the speech. In fairness, Vonnegut repeated denied writing the speech, but commented that he would have been proud had the words been his.
Many continued to receive the email crediting Vonnegut, including Anton Monsted. He was working on a track with Baz Luhrmann and Josh Abrahams, when he received the email with the supposed Vonnegut speech. They decided to use it in their track, but were doubtful of getting through to Vonnegut for permission before their deadline, which was only one or two days away. While searching the Internet for contact information they came upon the “Sunscreen” authorship controversy and discovered that Schmich was the actual author. They emailed her and, with her permission, recorded the song the next day.
Sunscreen would go on to be a number 1 single in the UK in June 1999.
Of course we can never know if Schmich’s wonderful piece of writing would have gained the notoriety it did without the Vonnegut misattribution, but I think it’s a delight, and fully deserves the attention it received.
Schmich herself said in a follow up article, “It was not art”, and:
I should put Kurt Vonnegut’s name on my column. It would be like sticking a Calvin Klein label on a pair of Kmart jeans.
Schmich’s commencement address (which was never really a commencement address) is published in full below, as usual, the emphasis is mine:
Ladies and gentlemen of the class of ’97: wear sunscreen.
If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it. The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering 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 20 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 imagine.
Don’t worry about the future. Or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4 p.m. on some idle Tuesday.
Do one thing every day that scares you.
Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts. Don’t put up with people who are reckless with yours.
Don’t waste your time on jealousy. Sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind. The race is long and, in the end, it’s only with yourself.
Remember compliments you receive. Forget the insults. If you succeed in doing this, tell me how.
Keep your old love letters. Throw away your old bank statements.
Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what you want to do with your life. The most interesting people I know didn’t know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives. Some of the most interesting 40-year-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, maybe you’ll dance the funky chicken on your 75th wedding anniversary.
Whatever you do, don’t congratulate yourself too much, or berate yourself either. Your choices are half chance. So are everybody else’s.
Enjoy your body. Use it every way you can. Don’t be afraid of it or of what other people think of it. It’s the greatest instrument you’ll ever own.
Dance, even if you have nowhere to do it but 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’ll be gone for good. Be nice to your siblings. They’re your best link to your past and the people most likely to stick with you in the future.
Understand that friends come and go, but 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 who knew you when you were young.
Live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard. Live in Northern California once, but leave before it makes you soft. Travel.
Accept certain inalienable truths: Prices will rise. Politicians will philander. You, too, will get old. And when you do, you’ll 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. Maybe you’ll have a wealthy spouse. But you never know when either one might run out.
Don’t mess too much with your hair or by the time you’re 40 it will look 85.
Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it.
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.