FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE (5/03)
Text of Commencement Address by Miles Hoffman at Centenary College May 2003
"President Schwab, Mayor Dement, Bishop Hutchinson, members of the faculty, graduates of 2003, families of the graduates, ladies and gentlemen:
"It’s a beautiful morning in the Gold Dome, and I’m very happy to be here. I want to thank you for your hospitality, and I want to offer my warmest congratulations to all the graduates, who have worked so hard and looked forward for so long to this moment. I must tell you right away, though, that I was surprised when I was asked to be your Commencement speaker, because… well, twenty years ago in the heat of a very tense moment during a televised athletic event – it’s not easy for me to confess this… I made, in front of witnesses, what I can only describe as unflattering remarks about the professional efforts of a man named… Robert Parish. I was wrong, I admit it… but these things have a way of coming back to haunt you. In any case, President Schwab and the faculty must not have found out, or at least they were kind enough to overlook the incident, and here I am.
"And here I am indeed honored to be your speaker, and particularly honored to receive a degree from this remarkable institution. Now when I say remarkable, I mean it… but when we look at the history of an institution, of any institution, we must look with eyes wide open, because if we’re not honest about where we’ve been, how can we know where we should be going? For example: we all know that Centenary, which was founded as the College of Louisiana in Jackson, which is east of the Mississippi, is the oldest college west of the Mississippi, which is a little farther west than east of the Mississippi, which is where it was. And we’re very proud of that. But how many of you here today know, and how many would be willing to admit, that Centenary is also the oldest college west of Lake Catahoula? Or the oldest college just east of Lake Catahoula for that matter? And this is to say nothing of Lake Bistineau, which, to its credit, has remained east of Shreveport even though it too started out west of the Mississippi. And consider this: at the time Centenary was founded, only one United States president, George Washington, had died. But after the founding of Centenary, United States presidents started dying with frightening regularity. A coincidence? Perhaps. But as you leave Centenary and go out into the world, these are the kinds of questions you’ll need to answer. Especially if you can’t find a job.
"Speaking of going out into the world, this is a commencement address,
and tradition holds that in a commencement address the speaker should
use the opportunity to give the graduates a bit of advice – and
even to offer a bit of wisdom, if he’s got some available.
"In the realm of the practical, the first thing I’d like to say to you is… get yourself some nice stationery. First impressions do count, and when you’re hoping to capture somebody’s attention, a well-designed letterhead can literally make the difference between the in-basket… and the waste basket.
"Having said that, I suppose I should also mention that what you actually write on your nice stationery counts too. I know you’ve written plenty of papers and essays here at Centenary – that’s part of the charm of college, right? Pulling all-nighters and writing papers. But even if the phrase, “I will never have to write a term paper again” sounds to you like the most beautiful sentence in the English language — it does have a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? — it’s important that you continue to care about your writing and hone your writing skills. Because no matter what you choose to do, sooner or later you’ll need to write, and writing well will help you do well. To express oneself well in writing takes time, trouble, and above all, thought. Cleanliness, they say, is next to godliness, and clean writing is both the prerequisite for clear thinking and its proof.
"From writing we move to… reading. And here the truth is very simple: the more we read, the more we know. And the more we read the more we see, and the more we understand. I wonder — is there any one of us here today who can say with confidence and certainty, “I read enough” – who can say, “I know enough, and see enough, and understand enough”? I don’t think so — or at least I hope not. You’re about to enter that period of your life where virtually everything you read will be of your own choosing. So by all means read what pleases you and read what interests you, but read a lot. And remember that books are like people: you can’t always predict which ones will prove particularly interesting, or provocative, or inspiring, and you never know when an accidental encounter will turn into a life-changing experience.
"My last bit of practical advice, which is simple, and which may even seem simplistic to you, is this: whatever it is that you decide you’d like to do professionally, make sure you take the time you need to get very good at it. Why do I even bother saying this? Because people are impatient, and young people are particularly impatient, and because young people who are paying off student loans are even more impatient. Everybody wants to get a job, and everybody wants to start making money. But what’s worth remembering is that the fields that are the most interesting also tend to be the most competitive, and in most of those fields, the better you are at what you do the better the job you’ll get, and the more money you’ll make. We’re talking dollars and cents here. Now it’s also true that the better you are at what you do the more pleasure you’ll take from doing it — Aristotle made this point about two thousand years ago — and since you may end up doing it for a goodly number of years, that’s not exactly a trivial consideration either. So take the long view, and don’t just leap into the job pool with limited tools and self-limited horizons. If you need to stay in school longer, find a way to do it, and if you need more training or experience, find a way to get it, even if you’re champing at the bit. Be patient and get good, and down the road you’ll be happier and you’ll make more money. How’s that for practical?
"Now when I think of more general advice I’d like to give you, I think about some of the advice I was lucky enough to get when I was starting out – but also about some of the advice I wish I’d gotten. First of all, here I’ve been talking about making sure you get good at what you do, but how are you supposed to know what it is you want to do, or somehow should do, to begin with? For a few lucky ones this isn’t a problem – they’ve always known where they were headed, and they’ve always had their eye on the shortest, straightest, path to get there. For the rest of us, our path in life has often felt like the long and winding road – sometimes with a sense that the choices were too few, sometimes with a sense that they were too many. How do you choose? How do you know? Well, the very best advice I can give you is the advice Polonius gave to Laertes, “To thine own self be true.” That should always be your guide, and it should always be your goal. The only problem is, it’s not always so easy. It’s not always so easy to be true to yourself, to be honest with yourself. There’s a lot of noise out there around us, and there’s a lot of noise inside us, and it can be terribly hard to cut through it all. It takes all the intelligence and determination you can muster, and sometimes it takes an enormous amount of courage – the courage to resist outside opinions and influences and listen quietly to your own heart; the courage to embrace outside opinions and take them to heart; the courage to make choices that you know will disappoint or even anger people who love you; the courage to accept uncertainty and delay, and to ask yourself if something means enough to you that you’re willing to risk failing at it; the courage, even, to admit failure and to be willing to change course.
"The issue of disappointing those who love you is a particularly tricky one, one that can often get messy and painful. And since we’re all gathered here under one roof, parents and children, it seems to me a perfect time to address it. In my own case, my father, who was a doctor and scientist, was not particularly thrilled when I informed him, late in my senior year in college, that I had decided to go into music rather than medicine. He once told me when I was in college that I should just face the fact that I was cut out to be a scholar. What’s funny is that not long after that conversation, I had one with the wife of my former violin teacher, who told me I should just face the fact that I was cut out to be a performer. As it turns out, neither one of them was necessarily wrong, but neither one of them was completely right. We watch our children grow up and we think we know them through and through, but that’s our big mistake. We love them and we want what’s best for them, but we get into big trouble – and we can cause big trouble -- when we think we always know what’s best for them. Try as we may we always see them – as my father saw me and as I see my own children – through the filters of our own experience and understanding, and inevitably those filters block from our view important aspects of their personalities, of who they are. Again, it’s not that our picture is wrong, it’s just that it’s incomplete.
"Ahh, but here’s where we come to the big mistake that the children make. The children, who have spent so much time and energy working on becoming individuals, with their own whole and distinct identities, are so painfully aware of the incompleteness of their parents’ picture of them that they make the mistake of assuming that their parents don’t understand them at all. And sometimes this leads them to throw the baby out with the bathwater and to reject any and all advice… including, unfortunately, advice that could smooth their way and save them a lot of trouble. Then again, with a little luck and lots of effort, tangled strands can also get straightened out, and this subject always reminds me of one of my favorite stories. Years ago I was walking in Central Park, in New York City, with my friend Ozzie. Ozzie’s father was a doctor, and at the time Ozzie himself was in medical school. He was happy about being in medical school, but that happiness was a relatively recent development, and as we walked along he said to me, “You know, it took me years, but I finally realized that I wanted to be a doctor, even though my father wanted me to be a doctor.” So there’s another kind of courage.
"And here’s something else to keep in mind. The best and most productive choices you can make will always be the positive ones, the choices where you move toward a goal, rather than the ones you make because you’re trying not to be something, or because you’re avoiding something. For example: don’t be reluctant to choose a path just because some of the people you’ve seen on that path are unappealing to you. Suppose you really like the idea of going to law school. Well, people love to take potshots at lawyers, and although most lawyers are perfectly ethical and even admirable individuals, there’s no question that there are any number of unsavory or even downright rotten characters in the legal profession. But so what? There are unsavory and rotten characters in every profession, plenty of them, and if you’re not an unsavory character yourself, you’re not suddenly going to become one because you decide to go into law. If you love the law and you want to pursue it, the only person you hurt by not pursuing it is yourself. And the word “love” reminds me that these issues aren’t just limited to career choices. I’ll tell you a another story: Some years back a woman I knew was considering marriage to a good friend of mine, but she was conflicted. She was in love, and indeed wanted to get married, but was afraid, and during the course of a long phone conversation I had with her she kept advancing arguments against marriage. To her credit, she realized that her arguments were based more on fear than on reason, but she kept advancing them anyway, and I kept doing my best to shoot them down. Finally she exclaimed in frustration, “But 50% of marriages end in divorce!” This was too much for me, and I replied, “Yes! And 75% of violists play out of tune. Does that mean I should stop playing the viola?” She was married about a year later, I’m happy to say, and she’s never looked back. (I’m still playing the viola, too.)
"With all this talk of being true to yourself, however, and choosing your path, it’s worth mentioning that sometimes your path chooses you. And sometimes it chooses you when you’re not expecting it, but if you’re lucky, and you’re somehow open to it and able to recognize it, you can take advantage of it when it comes along. A friend of mine used to talk about having faith in what she called the “imprevisti,” which is Italian for the “unforeseen.” Yes, it’s good to do all you can to ask, and to seek, and to know, but it’s also good to trust that interesting things may be just around the corner, and it’s important not to lose either patience or hope. Timing is funny. So often in my life opportunities haven’t materialized as soon as I had hoped or expected, and I’ve had to deal with frustration and disappointment. But if those same opportunities did finally materialize later, it would usually turn out that the timing was far better, and that I was far better prepared for them than I would have been earlier. The timing of my meeting my wife is my favorite example of this. I remember vividly a day when I was 18 years old, away at college and lonely and miserable, and wondering if I would ever find my ideal soulmate, the woman who would bring me love and fulfillment. I wondered where she might be and what she might be doing at that very moment, and the times being what they were – this was 1970, which was really still part of the 60s – I’m afraid I assumed that she was probably – well, never mind what I assumed she was doing. It turns out, in fact, that at that very moment she was a five-year-old running around in pigtails and a fluffy pink ballet costume, and I’d have to wait almost twenty years to meet her. What can I say, it was a tough twenty years, but ultimately the timing was just right.
"And speaking of timing, I was informed earlier this morning that if I attempted to speak for more than a certain number of minutes a trap door would open under my feet and I’d find myself in Claiborne County. I’d rather stay here and have lunch, so let me just say once more to the graduates, Congratulations! I know that your families are proud of you and that Centenary is proud of you, and I know that as you have proved that pride justified in these past few years that have gone by so quickly, so will you prove it justified in the many years to come. I close by borrowing the words of the great poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who once wrote to a young poet, 'Your life will find its own ways, and that they may be good, rich, and wide, I wish you more than I can say.'
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