St. Paul, Minn. – On May 16, 2020, award-winning novelist, English professor, and writer in residence at Macalester College Marlon James addressed the class of 2020 during the College’s online Commencement experience. Read the full text of his remarks below:
So this is not the commencement speech I intended to give. In fact, it’s not the commencement speech I intended to write. This is not a day I was going to give it. This is certainly not the time. And as you can tell, it’s certainly not the place. This is not even the weather that we’re supposed to have, as far as I know. Saturday is supposed to be 71 degrees and sunny. This is not even the clothes that I was supposed to wear. And if you know me, you know that chances are the only reason—OK, not the only reason—but to me, one of the main reasons I go to commencement is because I get to wear a gown. I could go on listing all the things that were supposed to happen but did not.
You have a big list as well—all these best laid plans undone by one thing or another, leaving us scrambling, scratching our heads. And yet, here we are. Because, you know, these are the times that we’re supposed to be in. This is the moment we’re supposed to have to echo a commencement speech from a few years ago. This is your time and circumstances cannot take that away. So what an honor it is to address, even if it is in this format, the class of 2020. I can say I knew you all from back then.
If this feels as full circle for you as it does for me, it is because I gave your convocation speech way back in the Stone Age when you first came to Macalester. I welcomed you all in, and now I’m kind of kicking your ass out. Listen, class of 2020, it was real, seriously. But as L.P. Hartley wrote in his novel The Go Between, “the past is a different country. They do things differently there.” 2016 is not just a different country; it’s starting to feel like a different life, even though it laid the clear blueprint for 2020.
And I’m not just talking about our government. One could say that your time at Macalester was sandwiched between two catastrophic events, the 2016 election and the 2020 (for now) COVID pandemic, between the president and the plague. Sounds like a movie. Almost sounds kind of cute, except it’s too reductive. I mean, it’s not false, it’s just that it paints an incomplete picture of your time here, it paints an incomplete picture of your generation, what you’ve done, and what you’ve yet to do. Because I heard that the great thing about college, at least supposedly the great thing, is that you get four years to ready yourself for the real world.
Thing is if I remember, less than two months into your first year of college, the real world came crashing down. How’s this for real—friendsgiving? Something that went from a curiosity to an actual thing, because some of you haven’t been home for Thanksgiving since 2015. That doesn’t sound like you’re away from the real world. It sounds like you’ve confronted it head on or it confronted you, and maybe that’s a good thing, too, because it means you won’t go through 10 years of sexual harassment before you stumble upon Me Too. It means you don’t have to live a few years before you realize the need for Black Lives Matter. Or for saving this environment. But it also means you’ve seen upfront our quintessential American ugliness, and that’s before some of you and your friends went down to Charlottesville.
It really is a little stupid to say college prepares you for the real world, and not just because it implies that college isn’t real or that your college years was an escape—an escape from what exactly? How about this one: college is just a place where you exercise your privilege. Well, of course it is. But if there’s one thing you’ve learned these four years, if not from this disease, is that privilege is not exactly refuge. So I know I don’t have to be careful or beat around the bush to give you some news.
Ladies and gentlemen, 2020 is canceled. It’s not even June yet and it’s already over. So here I was sitting at home—that’s not true, this is actually not my home. In fact, sometimes I feel like I’m in the movie Get Out. “This is not your home.” But here am I sitting at home, thinking about words of encouragement. How do I encourage the youth, the young people? But you know what? If you’ve made it from 2016 to 2020, you already know how to encourage yourself. I thought about words of inspiration, but I’m literally sitting on a porch giving a commencement speech. So let’s move on to something else.
But seriously, class of 2020. You’re in a mess. Or rather, we’re in a mess. So what can I give you? All I can think of are some life lessons that I learned too late with a wish that you don’t take as long as I did to learn them.
That doesn’t mean you’re not going to screw up. You should screw up. You should make a mess. You should continue to have errors of judgment. You should fail. You should stumble. You should trip. You should miss. You should lose. What I want you to do is learn from these things faster than I did. Here’s one: most of us, and by that I mean me, didn’t realize until our mid-thirties that up to this point, our entire lives were being dictated by a 17-year-old. My 17-year-old self. The education I’ve had; my first, second, and third jobs, relationships; even politics were all planned around ambitions, dreams, and fears of a 17-year-old boy who didn’t know anything about the world.
Some of you are 21, some of you are younger, some of you are older. But are you still pursuing the dreams of a 17-year-old? Or have you allowed life to change you? Are you leaving college in a shape unrecognizable from the one you entered it? If so, good. If not, you’ve got some work to do. At this point, are you still locked into what you feel you’re supposed to be doing? If you are, you also have some work to do.
Graduation is a milestone. There’s no question about that. It’s a turning point, and I call turning points, you’re faced with a decision, “do I take risk or do I take stock?” There are people who have this idea that you’re a risk-averse generation, to which you can just say, “okay, boomer.” Because it smacks of b.s., doesn’t it? You want risk-averse? Look at my generation, Generation X. We did a lot of things, mostly make great music, but we didn’t risk much. We like to think we did. But here we are again, needing a Black Lives Matter. Needing a Me Too. Meaning, whatever problem it is out there that needed solving, we didn’t solve it. We can’t even say we sold out, really, ’cause that would mean cashing in. And we’re about to become the poorest 50-somethings this nation has ever seen. I don’t know when we started playing it so safe, or why, since we really didn’t get anything out of it. Don’t be us. And before you or anybody else misinterpret what I’m saying, this is not yet another older person saying it’s all on you now. There’s always been something disingenuous about all the people admonishing younger people to fix their mistakes. To fix other people’s messes. To right the wrongs that people giving speeches, like this one, committed. If it all feels like a con to you, that’s because it is.
Always be suspicious of anybody all too eager to dish out responsibility, but not very eager to dish out power. Or rather, always be suspicious of anybody all too eager to dish out responsibility while they’re holding on to power. Republican or Democrat, red or blue, you’re being led, or rather, you’re leaving decision-making to people who will long be dead before you feel the lasting effects of their decisions. Demand more from your leaders. That’s a start. Vote for your leaders. That sounds even better. And yet, like Cardi B said—no, I’m not going to use Cardi B’s actual words, this is a family friendly broadcast—of all the ways you can think of supporting your candidate, voting seems to be the one you’re least interested in. It’s all well and good that you’re stoked for whoever. But where were you, where are you going to be at the ballots? Don’t ignore your political sovereignty.
Your enemies don’t. Also, this might be the time to tell you that you actually have enemies. And they recognize the value of things you don’t. Take, for example, books. Friends of books are always wrestling with the importance of them. Do we even need literature. Enemies of books? They know full well how important books are. That’s why they keep trying year after year to get rid of them. You don’t see the power in your vote? Funny. Your enemies do. You know who these people are? People who don’t care that their pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness harms yours.
Better yet, stop waiting on leaders and lead. Why should the old lead the young? Experience? What has led us to think this? I’m starting to prefer wild dreamers over wise thinkers. That means you. Wild dreams, the wilder the better. Aim high and miss. Shoot for the stars and crash. Take a giant leap and end ass-up.
The problem isn’t that too many of us aim high and miss. The problem is that too many of us aim low and hit. I’m going to say that one more time for the people in the back. The problem isn’t that we aim high and miss. The problem is we aim low and hit.
The terrible truth about mediocrity is that we always get there one purpose. It takes steady, consistent work to be ordinary. It takes actual effort to get to the middle of the road. And contrary to the idea that mediocrity is the end product of laziness, mediocrity will result in you breaking a sweat. Effort by itself means nothing. It’s about as useful as talent. Don’t get me wrong. Talent is incredibly important or I wouldn’t be here. But click on Spotify and you will hear dozens of mediocre musicians. Stream online and you’ll find hundreds of mediocre TV shows, perfectly ordinary movies. And if you go to the bookstore or whip out your Kindle, you can find tons of perfectly middling books. All the product of effort, all a result of not aiming high and missing, but aiming low and hitting.
So if it’s not about talent and it’s not about effort, what is it about? It’s hunger. How badly do you want it? It’s stakes. How high are yours? If your stakes aren’t high enough, fake it. It’s how hard are you prepared to work? That’s not the same as effort. Scratching a butt takes effort. Hard means the lasting systemic change, or even a paycheck.
Part of the reason—OK, maybe the only reason—why so many of us flounder in our late twenties to early thirties, call it our first midlife crisis, is that we have this idea of who we’re supposed to be and what we’re supposed to do and think we have a plan. Or we have none of these things and think we have a problem. This is where I would bring God into this, or rather religion. We may not all be practicing Christians, but many of us are still practicing Calvinists. Believe in this idea that there are these set signposts, these set milestones and as you hit each one, it means you’re living a meaningful life. So if you think you’re flailing around, that means you lack focus. You lack a plan.
Well, let me ask you something. How many carefully laid out plans went kaput this year? You’re not flailing around, you’re swimming. You’re not blooming late, you’re already blooming. This whole planned-out idea is still based on the idea of predestination, God or the universe—or you—have laid out a plan, or you’re worried because you don’t have one.
And there are other beliefs we’ve trapped ourselves into. “Find yourself.” “Be authentic.” “Tap into what makes you you.” “Discovering yourself is a key to making it all work out.” This is total crap. What exactly is this “all” that you’re supposed to work out? And why does it have all these requirements, and who told you that once you’ve found yourself you’ll find everything else? My generation did all these things, and we have very little to show for it. Sounds like another faulty rule book you need to toss.
We have these goals and we have these interests, and we have these ambitions and we have these hobbies. We have these things that make practical sense and these things that amount to nothing more than dreams. And if you’re pursuing the former in all these things, as I said, then you might be pursuing the wrong things. A really good book that I read years ago says, “Make room for interests and opportunities open up.” “But interests change,” you say, “Hobbies get boring. Dreams are impractical.” Absolutely. That’s why you should follow them. As your interests change, you change. This is what you want. Let my generation be the last to win things like long service awards.
Harvard professor Michael Puett, whose book The Path I recommended to you guys four years ago, wrote, “Rather than going into all of this thinking, ‘I can be anything I want to be,’ the approach should be, ‘I don’t know yet what I can become.'” But that’s a statement of anticipation, it’s not a statement of worry. Forget what makes sense and go for what might not. Embrace the ridiculous. Forget what you think you should do and consider how different situations reveal different things to learn about yourself. Over time, the one thing you’ve got more than the rest of us, you will open up parts you’ve never imagined, out of which will emerge options you would have never seen before.
Because the truth is, yes, you do not live in a stable world and you don’t get rewarded because you put in the effort. You live in a capricious world where anything can happen. “Lottery or car crash,” goes a Bjork song. If the world is constantly shifting and changing, then stop tying your expectations to outcome. Stop banking on a future that might not bank on you, and start to work on the present. Go out being the best human you can be. Be a person that affects others. You’re not in some “either-or” situation where either you shape your own fate or your fate shapes you. You’re not here to shape fate. You’re here to shape yourself.
Because as I said before, the tragedy here will not be that your carefully laid plans fell apart. It’s that you put too much stock in carefully laid plans and not enough stock in yourself. Keep an iron grip on your life and you’ll miss the people, note the plural, you’re supposed to become. You might miss the moment that can change the course of your life. Follow a plan set by an 18-year-old and you’re going to miss out on a future an 18-year-old could never have guessed.
I should know, because I still remember when some of you first came into my class with those 18-year-old ideas. The world has changed. You’re also changing. If you’re leaving Macalester a completely different person than you came, then good. It means you’ve already done the hard part. Now go out and do the rest. No, like right now. Go. Like get out. The Class of 2024 is coming and you really can’t be here. Like leave, really, please.
All I’ve got left to say is, congratulations, class of 2020. As we say in Jamaica, “walk good.”
Learn more about Macalester College at macalester.edu.
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