next graduation speech

Andy Rooney

Television Writer
Colgate University, 1996

Most of us are plagued by ambition. It's one of the best and the worst things about us. There is no point of success we achieve where we say, "That's it. That's all of anything I want. I don't want to be any happier, I don't want to have a bigger house, a better car. I don't need more respect from my friends."

It's strange for me, being here at this graduation ceremony. The surroundings here at Colgate are so familiar to me but my relationship to them is so different.

I am somewhere in between feeling important to be speaking to you on such a significant day in your lives and ridiculous to be standing here in this costume. I, at least, unlike some of you, probably, have something on under this besides my jockey shorts.

You can be proud of yourselves for having graduated from Colgate. Five years ago I said that Colgate was a better college then than it was when I was here. Today, I believe it's a better college than it was five years ago. By the standard I use to measure academic excellence, you can't argue with me.

I judge the academic excellence of a college in inverse ratio to the success of its football team. By those standards Colgate is one of the outstanding academic institutions in America. That's what we get for letting the students play.

To tell you the truth, I wouldn't mind having us win a few games, but I'm pleased that Colgate is no Nebraska, no Miami. Any time a college wins more than half its games over a long period of time, against opponents in comparable institutions, it's probably cheating. Obviously what we have to do in the next few years in order to win half our games is cheat a little.

There are 10,000 things I'd like to tell you and I've had to choose just a few. If living a happy life gives a person the right to advise others on how to live their lives, then I am eminently qualified.

I still get up at 5:30 every morning because I like my life so much that I hate to waste any of it by sleeping more than is necessary. I wish I could follow the same rule by not eating any more than is necessary to sustain my body.

I guess first and most important, I'd like to try to convince you how good life can be if you don't already know it. There are some really terrible times ahead for you -- everyone has them -- but life, all in all, can be spectacularly good. If this were not so, none of us my age and older would be so desperately trying to fend off our impending demise.

One of the things you have to face, though, is the unpleasant fact that you will not ever arrive at any condition of life with which you are totally satisfied and happy. It seems unfortunate, but it's true, that to experience real happiness you first, or occasionally, anyway, have to be unhappy. So, you're going to be unhappy sometimes. Just accept it as part of the process. Ambition and satisfaction are at war. If you're ambitious you aren't satisfied and if you're satisfied, you aren't ambitious.

Most of us are plagued by ambition. It's one of the best and the worst things about us. There is no point of success we achieve where we say, "That's it. That's all of anything I want. I don't want to be any happier, I don't want to have a bigger house, a better car. I don't need more respect from my friends."

You're never going to get to the point where you're content. I've been successful and it's satisfying, but the best parts of my life are the small, day-to-day pleasures -- a drink of cold water, the newspaper in the driveway, beating someone away from a traffic light. I take more enjoyment from sitting at my desk writing than I take from the money it brings in. That's a good thing, because I write every day but I get paid only once every two weeks.

If I could influence you at all with what I am saying here today -- and I realize that a speech like this is just an obligatory formality that will have no effect whatsoever -- I know the direction in which I'd head you if I could. I'd try to get you to face what's good about life and what's bad about life with intelligence, knowledge and logic.

I wish you would face the unknown without trying to explain the inexplicable with man-made answers and superstitious nonsense. I wish you could look directly at the world and its problems and at your own life and try to solve those problems with reason.

The tendency people have -- even very smart people -- to fool themselves and turn their backs on what their brains tell them is constantly depressing to me. I have great faith in the strength of intelligence and reason even though I may have a limited amount of either. We have to believe that honest and educated inspection of all our problems is the best way to live successfully. There are a lot of people who don't believe that. They prefer not to face the truth about anything.

All this inability to face the truth doesn't make them bad people; it comes from modesty. A sense of inadequacy they have. They feel that if everything they are and everything they're going to become in this world depends on their own ability, then they're afraid that they're in trouble. They don't think they're capable enough to do it right. If, on the other hand, their success and happiness depends on hoping and praying, getting help from the government and maybe winning the lottery, then they aren't nervous. They feel their destiny is in better hands than their own.

Well, I don't think it is and I hope you can be persuaded that it is not.

Even though I believe living with your brain is the best course, I have to tell you that most of what you learned in college will be of absolutely no use to you whatsoever. College is actually not much more than a place where parents who can afford it store their children for four years because they can't stand having them around the house while they age.

The good thing about having an education is that it will be a lifelong consolation to you. It will be a pleasure every day. It isn't what an education does for you that makes getting one worthwhile, it's having one. Doing something with it isn't the end product. Being educated is an end in itself. It sets you apart from most of the people on the planet.

I got an education at Colgate that's been a little help, but it was a spotty one. As I recall, you were on the Dean's List if you had two A's and a B and you were on probation if you had two E's. When I was here I distinguished myself one semester by being the only student simultaneously on the Dean's List and probation.

 I know many of you are worried about what comes next. I understand that. I don't know how anyone ever gets a job. It seems so impossible when you're setting out. In a sense, you're freshmen all over again. Whatever you do, I hope you set out to make something. I mean that in the broadest sense. We need doctors, not medical plans; mechanics, not car salesmen; farmers, not frozen food packagers.

You have an education; now you have to see how much of it works. You'll find, not much. I know that in your first job you can't set out to improve the world or remake mankind and it's always foolish for graduation speakers to suggest any grand idea like this. If you want to help mankind, find a job you like and do it as well as you can. We idolize people who take on some noble cause and devote their lives to it and I admire them, too, but not many of us can do that and, short of that, the most help you can be to yourself and everyone else is to live well. If you take care of yourself and your family and provide that one unit of well-being in the world, you'll have done your part. If you can do more than that, great.

There's no harm dreaming of something bigger, though. Wouldn't it be fun to start a company, not with the intention of getting rich, but with the idea of making some good product and providing a lot of people with a job? Why couldn't goodness be the goal of selfish ambition, rather than money? Couldn't a capable executive make providing happiness for other people his motivating force?

It's my opinion that whatever you decide to do, your fate is in your own hands. The idea that man's fate is predetermined is nonsense. Que sera sera is the philosophy of a person who doesn't have enough self-confidence to put his life in his own hands.

I wouldn't deny that some very small incident can change the course of your life in some major way but for the most part it's the manner and intelligence -- or lack of intelligence -- with which you make a thousand small decisions throughout the day, beginning with tying your shoelace, that takes you where you're going and fills your life with good or bad years.

It's apparent that successful people are more apt to think that luck isn't much of a factor than unsuccessful people, but it is, nonetheless, true. If you don't think knowledge and intelligence are the best tools for building a good life, look at the world. See where literacy, thought and expression are greatest and then look at the areas where literacy and freedom of thought are lowest. In every case the standard of living is highest among literate people. The more literate, the higher the standard.

I hope you can keep from measuring your success strictly in terms of how much money you make. The government regularly issues manufacturing statistics that are considered `good' by Wall Street if they are high, and 'bad' if they are low. The government is disinterested in -- or doesn't know how to measure -- the quality of things manufactured. The government doesn't know how to judge the total effect that the things manufactured have on our lives.

It doesn't matter that sometimes the things manufactured are simple-minded toys or weapons designed to kill people. If someone makes money from their manufacture, the government puts them in the `good' column. Production was up. Forget that the product made was something that made us fat or sick or wasted our time or in some other way had a negative effect on our lives. Forget that while production was up, quality declined.

There's no question that all the great technological advances make it easier for people to live and eat without spending full time working to support themselves. We have a lot more free time but we don't seem to have found anything good to do with it. I don't even know why free time or vacation is held in such high regard. Personally, I enjoy working in my free time.

No matter how technical your job may be, I hope you don't lose track of how satisfying physical labor is -- or forget that you can use your brains lifting, too. Blue collar workers no longer wear shirts with blue collars and white collar workers are very apt to wear blue denim shirts. The lines are blurred.

I hope you learn how to do something besides your job. Play a musical instrument, paint a picture, make a chocolate cake. I avoid the word `hobby' because that has an inconsequential connotation. Hobbies are fine, but you ought to be better than a hobbyist.

If I had three lives to live, I'd be a carpenter or a cabinetmaker in one of them because I find woodworking so satisfying. I think there's some evidence that more people with college educations are doing manual jobs, too. Brain and muscle are a great combination.

There's a sign in the service area of the Ford dealership across the street from my office that says "Labor: $80 an Hour." An eight hour day, eight times 80, times five, times 52. How many of you would settle on that? And who says someone who fixes cars or builds a rock wall can't go home at night and read a book?

I'm constantly impressed by how little the high tech inventions we think of as progress have really helped. When I don't have anything else to think about, I think about whether all of mankind, cumulatively, is happier, less happy or just about the same in relation to happiness as it was a hundred or two thousand years ago before electric lights, automobiles, airplanes, television or Diet Pepsi.

No instrument has ever been invented to measure the happiness waves emanating from thousand-year-old skeletons. And just as I question whether people over the world were any happier before they had all these toys, I doubt we're any smarter than people were a thousand years before.

No instrument has been invented that measures the smart waves coming from mummies, either. It probably took as much intelligence to invent the slingshot as the atomic bomb. You have to consider the possibility that technology hasn't really improved the human condition overall or made us any happier, either. Are we getting more work done with all the time we save on the job? Not that I notice.

It was assumed that computers would reduce the amount of paper we consume. Computers are chewing into stacks of stationery like no amount of carbon paper or Xerox machines ever did. Has our ability to communicate with each other on the telephone and the Internet brought communities, families, friends closer together? I don't think so.

We've built ribbons of major highways everywhere. We've paved America to relieve traffic on smaller roads. Is traffic reduced anywhere you know of? Have automated tellers made lines shorter at the bank? Now that you pump your own gas a lot of places, have they reduced the price of a gallon of gas because they don't have to pay someone to pump it? Did you get better marks because it was easier to find information you needed on a computer than it used to be to find it in a book?

President Clinton said in a speech in New Hampshire that most of the work in the world that used to be physical labor is now technological. Maybe. I'm skeptical. I use a computer but I can't help remembering that behind every technological device there is someone who makes something or does something with his or her hands. It's fine to talk about how much easier it is to distribute information and to communicate with each other but if no one makes anything, writes anything or has any interesting ideas, what difference does it make how easy it is to communicate? Communicate what?

We desperately need to concentrate on the content of what's being communicated, rather than the method of transportation. The idea of e-mail is terrific. The thought contained in most messages sent over it is close to zero. When I'm working, my computer beeps when I get an e-mail message. Last week I was deep into writing something and the damn thing started beeping. I stopped what I was doing, went to MAIL, hit some keys, waited and pretty soon the message came up. The father of a technician I never heard of at CBS had died, the message said, and there would be a service Friday at a funeral home on 81st Street and Madison Avenue. Well, it's a tragedy for the technician and his father but hundreds of thousands of people I don't know die every day and I don't want to be advised, individually, on my computer, about each one. There isn't time to be sad for the whole world.

The internet is a garbage dump of monstrous proportions. I go to the dump in my hometown often enough to know there's some great stuff there, but I'm not interested in spending my time sorting through it. I few weeks ago I saw a guy throwing away two perfectly good IBM electric typewriters. I've gone to the dump on the internet and have yet to find anything worth the time I spent. I've never found anything as good as those two old IBM typewriters.

The intensification of our ability to transmit information has exceeded the mind's ability to take it in, too. Do I know more than my grandfather knew because there is more available for me to know? Afraid not. Do you know more useful things than I know because during your learning years you had available to you the great resources of computers? I've talked to a few of you today and I don't want to be insulting but, if you have vast knowledge in your head you did a very good job of not making me feel inferior by hiding it from me.

I use my LEXIS-NEXIS, but it's not magic. Wednesday I spent 45 minutes looking for something on my computer. I finally gave up, went one flight upstairs to the CBS library and found what I wanted in a book in three minutes. I worry about everyone taking their facts from just a few sources, which is happening with computers. Will we end up with one big reference pool so that everyone goes to the same place for information and no new information from the past ever turns up?

My friend Harry Reasoner once gave me some good advice about commencement addresses. He said "You can start out funny but you should end up sad." I have a sad thought to end with today.

Something that has surprised and dismayed me is what happens to friends. You'll find that by the time you've reached my age, you've made more friends than you have time to keep. It seems unfair and wrong, but its true. I had fifty reasonably close friends when I was in college here at Colgate. Seven were killed in World War II, but over the years I kept in touch with about ten of them. I didn't lose touch with the others because we no longer liked each other; we lost track of each other because there wasn't time enough in life to be friends with everyone you felt friendly towards. Fortunately, there isn't time to hate everyone you don't like either.

But that's the big reason this is a sweet-and-sour day for you. It's sweet because you've gained a major objective in your life; it's sad because as I speak, you're seeing many friends for the last time.

And that's all the sad stuff I'm going to say. It hasn't been a long speech, I know that, but I've been in the audience during a lot of commencement addresses and when people commented about them after they were over, I don't ever recall hearing anyone say, "It was good, but it was too short."

I hope you'd feel good to know how honored I am to have been asked to speak to you.

Bookmark and Share

Posted on: 01/12/19



Top 10 Speeches
Best Speeches | Year
Graduation Advice
How to Write One
All Speeches


Best Quotes
Top 15 Themes
Funny Quotes