Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Eat Bananas and Follow Your Heart: An Imaginary Commencement Address

I have never been asked to deliver a commencement address, an honor typically reserved to those who have achieved great public acclaim. But if ever I was asked, I probably would say something like this:

Congratulations to the Class of 2010. You are young and beautiful and full of life. You may not think so, but trust me, when you look back at your photographs thirty years from now, you will look in amazement at how young and truly beautiful you are. My heart goes out to you.

I sat in your place 29 years ago, pressed between 500 graduates, each of us uncertain of our future and unaware of our destiny, during an uninspired time in our nation’s history. The generation before had bequeathed us Vietnam and race riots, the dethronement of Camelot and the murder of a King, Kent State and Watergate, gas lines and oil embargoes, the Iranian Hostage Crisis and Three Mile Island. Ronald Reagan was our new president, elected on an anti-government platform that devalued public service. Consistent with the day’s prevailing sentiments, I chose practicality over passion, with business school in my immediate future. After accepting my degree, I departed the commencement stage unmindful of the tortuous paths my life would soon take.

Much has happened since that warm June day in 1981. However grateful I am for the joys and opportunities life has bestowed, I remain, in some ways, the same insecure student unsure of his direction in life, as apprehensive today as when I hugged my classmates goodbye. It is too soon for history to judge my generation, to know if we have built lasting legacies and positively contributed to future generations. For me, the final chapter has yet to be written. I envy that you begin today with fresh chalk and a clean slate, an unwritten tablet upon which to carve your story. The future is yours.

Any advice I divulge should be taken lightly, for in the words of the great philosopher Groucho Marx, “Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.” So to America’s future I present here a few slivers of wisdom collected through the years, offered with a strong dose of humility and a hint of hopefulness:

Eat bananas. This may be the best advice I will ever give you. Bananas are high in potassium and good for your heart and nerves, kidneys and bones; a great source of vitamin B6, bananas are good for your blood; and they are a great source of dietary fiber. So, if you remember nothing else, listen to me about the bananas.

Follow your heart. Your time here is limited. Don’t waste it trying to live someone else’s life, or someone else’s dream. Don’t let the noise of other people’s thinking drown out your own inner voice.

Be at peace with your own mortality. Embrace it. Death is the only certainty in life, a destiny we all share. No one, not kings or noblemen, presidents or sports stars, has ever escaped it. Trust me on this, even more than on the bananas. Life is short and moves quickly. Maintaining an awareness of your mortality can help with the big choices in life. Steve Jobs, who a few years back confronted and overcame cancer, wisely noted during a real commencement address at Stanford University in 2005: “Everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way . . . to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

Follow your heart, but don’t completely ignore your head.
Pursue your dreams, but fulfill your obligations. Understand the importance of real income, but do not devalue your psychic income – the level of satisfaction derived from a job. Many of life’s decisions are dictated by money – how much you have, how much you need, how much you owe. Money is, for most of us, a major influence in our choice of careers, where we live, and the number of children we have. I cannot tell you that money does not matter. It does. But look around and you will see that some of the happiest people in the world are teachers and public servants, artists and musicians, journalists and directors of non-profits, aid workers and clergy, people who forsake more lucrative careers for the sake of a satisfying life. Some of the most frustrated, unhappy souls are those who pursue careers for money and status and nothing more. Between European vacations and rounds of golf are dysfunctional lives torn asunder by the devastating knowledge of a life wasted.

This is not always the case, of course. Some people are very content with money. As Russian born actress and singer Sophie Tucker once said, “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Believe me, honey, rich is better!” Money provides freedom and security. It provides for your family. Absent a revolution – and I don’t like your odds if you’re contemplating one – it is a necessary component of our social structure. But how much you need or want is determined by your values. Don’t be fooled into thinking it has anything to do with one's self worth or the worth of other human beings.

Never stop learning. You need not be in school to achieve a Master’s Degree in life. Expand your mind and push your limits. Turn off the television and pick up a book; write a poem; visit a museum; attend a play. Understand and use technology, but don’t lose touch with the traditional tools of learning – reading, writing, travel, study, and reflection. One of my favorite scenes in Dead Poets Society is when Robin Williams lectures his disinterested students on the importance of poetry:

We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. . . . That you are here - that life exists . . . that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play “goes on” and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?

Be skeptical, not cynical. Ask questions. Be cautious of smooth talking salesmen and slick politicians. Avoid gullibility, but don’t assume that you always have the answers. You don’t.

Oppose smugness. To those of you blessed with good health, good looks, and good families, understand that this has as much to do with luck as with anything you ever did or will ever do. To those soon to be blessed with happy marriages, understand that others struggle with relationships. To those soon to be blessed with healthy children and seemingly safe lives, know that others will not be so lucky. Do not take your blessings for granted. Show concern to those for whom life has not been so kind; recognize that we all are a mere phone call away from walking in their shoes.

Don’t feel too guilty about everything. What we used to think of as vices – wine, coffee, and chocolate – turn out to be good for you.

Call your parents. Stay connected to the people you love. Stay in touch with your closest friends. When times get rough, when you falter and make mistakes – and you will – the unconditional love of a parent and the support of a true friend are among the few constants on which you can count. And if you are fortunate enough to have children of your own, you will come to truly understand what I just said.

Choose your role models carefully. Don’t be impressed with celebrity. Seek conversations and ideas, not autographs. A person’s value is defined by character, which has more to do with sincerity and the ability to love, listen, and learn from others, than with society’s attributions of glitz and glamour.

Don’t be afraid of uncertainty. Some of the most creative and intelligent people I know still aren't sure what they really want to do with their lives. What may be important to you today will undoubtedly change when you are older. No one has all the answers, and most who think they do are full of shit.

Keep laughing. It is good for the soul. Laughter is life’s best medicine, almost as good for you as bananas.

Show kindness. It is a sign of strength. Except for presidents, dictators, and Philadelphia sports fans, no one was ever criticized for showing compassion and reaching out to someone in need. The world needs more of this, not less. Never lose sight of our shared humanity. We are all in this thing together. It is not as easy for some as for others. Sometimes really bad stuff happens that throws the universe out of whack. Life is unfair, but it need not be unkind.

Stay engaged. Life is not for spectators. Mix it up a little and live in the arena. There is a small plaque on my mother’s kitchen wall that probably cost her fifty cents at a flea market, but which possesses great wisdom. It is a simply knitted picture of a sailboat floating at sea. The caption says, “A ship in the harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” Or as Babe Ruth once said, “Don’t let the fear of striking out hold you back.” Simple, corny words, but ones that deserve to be quoted on occasion, for only wise souls know when to apply them.

Strive to be happy. But understand that happiness is a journey, not a destination. If you can bring passion, joy, and optimism to your life, you will succeed. But understand that success is not how much money you make in life, or how many gadgets you acquire and cars you drive, or how many high-powered friends you accumulate. Success is being missed when you are no longer here and leaving something of value behind. If you touch the lives of others, if you make the world a better place, even a little; if you inspire a young child or make a difference in someone’s life, then you will have succeeded.

“Go placidly among the noise and haste and remember what peace there may be in silence.” There is a plaque on Old St. Paul’s Church in Baltimore that contains the words of the oft-quoted poem, “Desiderata” by Max Ehrmann, a famous and beautiful writing, the words to which I never tire of reading. It ends thus:

You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.

But don’t forget the bananas.


  1. Mark,

    Very nice. I'll get back to ya.

    Rich R.

  2. Here is to hoping that one day you will indeed deliver this commencement speech to a graduating class!


  3. "Keep laughing. It is good for the soul. Laughter is life’s best medicine, almost as good for you as bananas."

    My favorite part! Wow, dad, wow. :) Haha

  4. Once again, Mark, I happened on to your blog, searching for inspiration to start this second to last day on my current job.

    I found it. What a wonderful commencement address and, like Kellie, I hope you have the opportunity to deliver it one day. I suspect it's better and deeper than some that were spoken this year.