Alan Alda gave this commencement speech at Carnegie Mellon University+ READ ARTICLE
All around the country today, distinguished men and women are looking at graduates like you from the heights of our achievements and spraying advice at you. It’s an indignity you have to suffer before they lift the latch and release you into the wild.
In settings like this today, you’re going to hear all over the country, many of the same themes. “Be true to yourself. Follow your passion. You are the future. Don’t make a mess of the world the way we did.” And I know these words because I’ve said many of them myself, often, and they’re good ideas. The only thing is they’re a little vague, I think, and every time I’m tempted to make a speech like that, I wish instead I could just give you a few good tips on how just to get through life.
Like the admiral last year who gave one of these speeches, his advice was so concrete, so simple. He said, “If you want to change the world, make your bed every day.” Isn’t that wonderful? I love that. I mean, it’s utter simplicity. I mean, if you can start off a day with a little discipline like that, there’s no telling what you can accomplish when the hard stuff comes your way.
The problem is I can’t really give you that advice myself, because I don’t make my bed every day. I do, I unscramble the covers, and I pull them up to the pillow so it looks sort of neat. But I don’t make it, you know, all so tight that you can bounce a quarter on it, the way the admiral does.
I’m looking at your faces. You’re thinking, “Why are they having this guy up here talk about making his bed?” There’s actually a reason for why I’m saying this.
I think it’s important, as you leave here today, if you haven’t already done it, to start paying attention to how your own particular brain works. You know, the admiral likes a hard discipline approach, the experience of being tough. He likes that and I’m sure a lot of you benefit from that, too. But I’m a little more flexible. I pull the covers up just enough so the next time I look at them, it’ll be a little gift to myself and I’ll get a little jolt of some happiness hormones when I look at it, and that’s good for me. That’s the way I like it.
The point is that there’s no good or bad way to start the day, I don’t think. But I think you can learn to get the most out of your particular– your own brain, if you pay attention to how it works. I used to push my brain. You know, sort of like the way a jockey would whip a horse, trying to make it run faster than it can run. But now I’m more tolerant of the way my brain works. I’m easier on it. I get it pointed in a certain direction, and it works in the background in its own time, and when it’s ready to come up with the goods, it lets me know.
But the thing is, it takes time. You know, I bring this up because if I’m going to pass anything on to you today it has to be real to me.
For instance, my grandson, Scott, is graduating today and that’s very real. That’s real to me, and so is the fact that he’ll be entering my field. He’s going to be facing a lot of uncertainty. But, you know, uncertainty is not always a bad thing.
In fact, I kind of welcome uncertainty. I think, instead of resisting it, you can surf uncertainty. You know, keep your balance, stay agile. Expect the unexpected bumps. It’s harder to do when uncertainty comes at you like a tsunami, but it’s a good principle to live by.
The thing is it’s not just Scott who’s going to be going out facing uncertainty in his chosen field. Every one of you here today is going to face uncertainty. It’s going to hit you. You’ll face it no matter what you do, and sometimes, it’ll make you rethink what you’re doing.
And here’s an interesting thing. Uncertainty usually comes from the outside, but sometimes it can come from your own heart. If you, suddenly, are up against a situation where you remember what your own principles are, what your values are, sometimes the choice can be difficult.
I’ll give you an example. My wife just wrote a book about people who were brought up in the Bronx, and I’m– <laughs> the Bronx, right. Good. Very good. Excellent. Read the book. You’ll love it. So I met one of the people in the book that she interviewed, and he told me such an interesting powerful story about this thing I was just talking about, about knowing your values and coming up against them, coming up against something in your own heart. He came from a working class family, and his father had lived through the depression, and his father told him constantly, “Be a plumber. People will always need plumbing.” But this was a very smart kid and he went to medical school and he was so smart that as a young man, he invented a device that would save lives, and a medical company offered him hundreds of millions of dollars for the patent to the device. The only thing was, they were going– for some reason, they were going to hold it back from putting it on the market for a whole year before they started selling it. Now, that meant that he could, either, release it to the public right away and start saving lives, or he could take the hundreds of millions and wait a year, and his father, who had lived through the depression and kept telling him, “Be a plumber,” his father said, “Don’t do it. Don’t take the money.” He said, “Think of all the people, the mothers and children who will die during that year, while this company is waiting to put it on the market. Put it out there now.” And then, every night when he went to bed, the father would say to him, “When you wake up tomorrow and you look in the mirror to shave, don’t look at yourself. Don’t think about your own image. Think about those mothers and children who are going to die, if you wait for a year.”
So what do you think? Did he take the money or did he put it out on the market? He had to make a decision. It was a very tough decision. And sometimes, you have to make really tough ones and they come at you unexpectedly like that. But you can certainly surf uncertainty better, you can find your balance better, if you know how to respond to your own principles.
So I’ll tell you. I’ll tell you what he did. He didn’t take the money, and decades later when he told me the story, he was really happy about it because he did what he thought was right, and it makes him feel good to know that.
Well, here’s the thing, that was many years ago. In those days, we had time to think things through. We had time to consider these things. You don’t have that luxury so much anymore. All of a sudden, now, things are going really fast.
Let me give you an example of how fast things are going. I love this example. A few years ago, the Internet was flooded with copies of a graduation speech that Kurt Vonnegut had given at MIT. It spread across the country. It spread all over the Internet, all over the world, and it did that in just a few hours. That’s how fast it was. It was quoted everywhere. And I’d like to read some of it to you. I love it because it gives very simple advice, clear cut every day how to live your life advice. He said, “Here’s a few words for the graduating class:
If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it. The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proven by scientists. Whereas, the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering thoughts. 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 imagined.
Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts. Don’t put up with people who are reckless with yours.
Remember compliments you receive. Forget the insults. If you succeed in doing this, show me how.
Stretch. Get plenty of calcium. Be kind to your knees. You’ll miss them when they’re gone.
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.
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.
Be careful whose advice you buy. 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.”
Now, the thing about this charming piece by Kurt Vonnegut is that it wasn’t written by Kurt Vonnegut.
It was written by a newspaper columnist in Chicago, called Mary Schmich. Some unknown person had posted it on the Internet saying it was written by Kurt Vonnegut and it spread all around the world, in hours, with his name attached to it. Schmich said, “It went to Italy and France to Israel and Brazil to places I didn’t know had electricity.” And she said, “Even Mr. Vonnegut’s wife, the photographer Jill Krementz, received it, emailed it to several friends and then asked her husband, “Why didn’t you tell me you spoke at MIT?” And he said, “Because I didn’t.”
Somebody said it was the most widely distributed piece of email in the history of the Internet.
But after only a few hours of bouncing around the world, it was identified as a hoax, and in a flash, the Internet was flooded with retractions. By the end of one extraordinary day, vast numbers of people had accepted and then rejected a worldwide hoax, and that’s what makes this Internet event a great image for the age we live in now.
There are probably just as many lies going around now as there ever were, but these days they’re traveling at the speed of light and with the help of an engine for repetition that works on a scale unheard of in human history. The lies stick. People are still sending around that talk, saying it was written by Kurt Vonnegut.
All right. So big deal, you may be thinking. You may be thinking it’s just a few jokes about youth and beauty and trivial things. But think about it. It could be selling you anything. It could be a cult religion that could separate you from friends and family, or a quack medicine that could leave you paralyzed, or bogus political information that could decide an election.
Being able to know what’s true and what’s a lie is a lot harder to do now, harder than ever before.
So now, more than ever, you need the wisdom of a trusted partner or a friend or a mentor, somebody who can remind you of what counts.
Now, more than ever, I think, you need to know who you are and what you believe in, and who you are is a tough one. Because most of us have many people inside us. But in your finer moments, you aspire to things that make sense. Even while you’re enjoying a momentary distraction, you know that down the road, something’s going to come along that’s going to require skill, ability, and you’re going to know you can’t wing it. So you’re going to be prepared for it. You’re going to know that one of the deepest pleasures comes from knowing how to do something that’s hard well, and you’ll be prepared. You’ll take the time that it takes to learn it.
We have a challenge about time now.
So let yourself be all the you’s that you are. But don’t let them crowd out the smart one. And as for what you believe in, values are really not so much what you say as what you do. The more you bring those two things into line, the easier it’ll be to get where you’re going.
You know, you may say you want to go to Chicago, but it’s going to be hard to get there if you keep buying tickets to Las Vegas.
I think we don’t realize how important time is. When we couldn’t communicate at the speed of light, we didn’t think about it that much.
But things do take time, like the time it takes for your brain to work on a problem, and chemical reactions take time. Mourning a loss takes time. In fact, all the transitions of our life take time. Getting your brain or your body in shape takes more than a weekend, no matter what they tell you in the brochure.
It takes time for a species to adapt to changes in the environment that we cause, which makes us one of the most dangerous species that’s ever lived. We can make changes in the environment so rapid that nature doesn’t have time to replenish species that can live in that changed environment.
And I don’t want to kid you into thinking I’ve got this all worked out, that I know how to do it. I’m still working on it myself. But this is what I aspire to, so this is real to me, and I’m passing it on to you.
So as you make the transition from this page in your life to the next chapter, I wish all of you what I wish for Scott. I wish you health, happiness, resilience, love, laughter, patience, cash, strength, plenty of time, and a friendly relationship with your own brain, and if all else fails, floss and wear your sunscreen. Thank you and good luck.
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