George Saunders's Advice to Graduates

Friday, May 09, 2014

Last Spring, author George Saunders gave a speech to graduates of Syracuse University that went viral when it was reprinted on The New York Times website. That speech has now been published and illustrated as the book Congratulations, By The Way: Some Thoughts on Kindness (Random House 2014). Saunders discusses his speech, the advice he gives, and why he thinks it hit such a nerve.

Pop-Up Book Club! We're asking you to read the Saunders speech on before he's on (it's short), then call in and discuss with him during Friday's show. Read the full speech here.


George Saunders

Comments [29]

Kelsey from San Francisco

I LOVE this speech and shared it far and wide! My recent work is a voluntary effort to promote kind gestures for people we know- a neighbor, a colleague, a friend, a stranger- anyone we know who is having a difficult time with something we don't have much experience in. Illness, loss, being unemployed, you name. When life sucks, it's great to have people there for you. Here's our site:

May. 12 2014 04:43 PM
Sylvia from Pennsylvania

He was probably following the transcript of the speech. Usually the people on stage have the written version of the whole program.

May. 12 2014 10:24 AM
Ayun Halliday from Brooklyn

I was getting rather fed up with the red robed man seated behind him, who was tuned out for the whole speech, obliviously rehearsing his own speech in his mind, flipping through the pages of his binder and looking offstage even when Saunders was encouraging the students to stay in the present moment.

Some available topics for this year's speakers to take on: "Look Like You Give a Damn" or "Do You Not Realize We Can See You?"

I'd like to suggest that those who were underwhelmed by this speech check out Saunder's piece on "Borat" (a film I enjoyed) in the New Yorker's "Shouts and Murmurs". It's brilliant, and you will find a very strong argument for kindness (and against cruelty) there.

May. 12 2014 07:19 AM
Clare from Manhattan

Wonderful piece.

May. 11 2014 12:40 PM

I applaud Mr. Saunders' choice of topic. The truth is real kindness is a measure of maturity. It requires strength and confidence, and those are not so easy to acquire. It is definitely not a matter of mere "niceness." It entails truly having the other person's interest at heart.

May. 09 2014 01:05 PM
Janie from Westchester County

This is the most important discussion this country could ostensibly have. Murray Bowen, founder of family therapy movement, predicted in the 1970s that America was going into a 'cultural regression.' As a person in the twilight years who works full time teaching in the arts, coaching excellence and performance, with children and adults, I have to say that MORAL values have certainly declined in our culture. Because the media plays such an important part in our lives(especially children's lives), our values are often influenced by what we see. It's the old argument about our "in your face" self righteous bully pulpit that the American (which America) way is the right way. Whooops. What happened to dignity and humility. To consideration. To respect for difference of opinion but equality for all. I was raised with values that taught it was a joy to give/be kind and share the inner joy of how it FEELS to value peace and justice for all. Yikes. What have we done? I do agree with the caller who said that inherently human beings do want to show generosity of spirit. But in our cultural milieu it poses a very difficult challenge to model and emulate. The Donald Trump model and arrogant greed of the Wolves of Wall Street notwithstanding; hmmmm. Maybe kids really do see through it. I hope so. BRAVO Mr. Saunders. My deep gratitude. I am going to read everything you have ever written. And thanks to Brian for guesting you.

May. 09 2014 11:37 AM

The dean of the college of architecture and planning at my university spoke at my commencement. He wanted to prepare us budding architects for the recession we were graduating into (1994) by suggesting that most of us consider entering into another profession. For me it was a perfect bookend to the orientation speech I received 5 years earlier when the very same person urged students of architecture and planning to do it for the love of it - because it was likely to be a challenging and financially dissatisfying career - or consider another major. Message: you don't Really want to be an architect, do you?

May. 09 2014 11:26 AM

"Mr. Bad from NYC"

"I'm available for commencement speeches too! I have two prepared already, the first is about not farting in elevators and the second is a somewhat lengthier address on the etiquette of hailing a taxicab and the metaphysical implications of such."

LOL, that about sums it up pretty well.

May. 09 2014 11:25 AM
Lourdes from new york

I feel that college kids these days feel a low level desperation: that college is a place where they have to hit all the right points to have a prayer of getting a job at the end. And that can make them self centered. I told my daughter just a few months ago that getting a high gpa, a job, having a good career, are all good goals. But maybe another goal is to practice grace under pressure. making that a goal puts things in a different perspective. And thinking about it now, grace under pressure is related to kindness. Because inherent in that is consideration for others.

May. 09 2014 11:19 AM
Amy from Manhattan

I appreciate Mr. Saunders' urging kindness on the graduates & on all of us, but it bothers me that he seemed to think "Ellen's" story ended when she moved away (although he did say something in this segment that sort of acknowledged it didn't). She may well have been teased at the next school she went to, & her parents may not have been as nice as he imagined. If the insults reminded her of "her place in things," who taught her that that was her place?

On what was happening in the '70s, remember, it was the Grateful Dead who ended a song w/"What I want to know is, are you kind?"

And I think kindness can certainly be active. I like Mr. Saunders' distinction btwn. "nice" & "kind." What he regretted sounded like not being *actively* kind.

May. 09 2014 11:17 AM
Mr. Bad from NYC

I'm available for commencement speeches too! I have two prepared already, the first is about not farting in elevators and the second is a somewhat lengthier address on the etiquette of hailing a taxicab and the metaphysical implications of such.

May. 09 2014 11:17 AM
Kirsten from Nj

I read this speech to my 7 year old. He loved the part about swimming in the river with monkey poop. Would love to see this become a children's book.

May. 09 2014 11:16 AM
elsie from Brooklyn

The reason why this guy is so beloved (among white guys with pseudo-literary pretensions) is because he is entirely mediocre. A decent enough guy (if you don't mind the fact that he used to be a devotee of Ayn Rand and Republican politics) who writes prose that is mildly cheeky, semi-well-written, and entirely inoffensive. He's really little more than a master of the obvious, and Americans like this. Mediocre people make us feel like we could be famous too. They make us feel like we're smart because people like Saunders mirror our mediocrity and discomfort with critical thinking. If Saunders were actually smart, profound or critical of society in any way whatsoever, we wouldn't even know his name.

For the record, kindness would have done little for the likes of Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot, not to mention any Wall Street banker today. Kindness? What silliness. How about justice?

May. 09 2014 11:14 AM
Frances Genovese from NYC

I cannot believe the obvious and sentimental musings of Saunders were published as a book. A Hallmark card would have been the proper form. Anyone who wants to read a great speech that reflects the world as it was, and was becoming for the graduates and everyone else should read Joseph Brodky's Commencemnt Adress to Class of 1984, Williams College reprinted in: "Less Than One, Selected Essays".

May. 09 2014 11:13 AM

"Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible"
HH the Dalai Lama

May. 09 2014 11:11 AM
Marcy from Upper East Side

I've worked in the restaurant industry for too long and continue to be shocked by how UNkind and downright nasty people can be. It makes me really sad.

This discussion is refreshing.

May. 09 2014 11:11 AM
BL Producer

@MorganPar - someone made that video!
-Jody, BL Show-

May. 09 2014 11:11 AM

George Saunders should make a video on the speech like "This is Water," the excellent video about David Foster Wallace's address to the 2005 graduating class of Kenyon College.

ps. I'm a filmmaker

May. 09 2014 11:08 AM
Nancy from Harlem

The flip-side of Mr. Saunders' anecdote is the continuing prevalence of bullying.

Glad the issue is getting sunlight now, and Mr. Saunders suggests one solution.

May. 09 2014 11:07 AM

"I was really surprised that my speech went viral."

LOL, you're not the only one, pal.

"It was kind of a last minute thing."

LOL, we guessed that.

May. 09 2014 11:05 AM
John A

Author had it right. My commencement speaker was the brilliant catholic theologian Theodore Hesburgh. His message was Totally Lost on 21y-o me. Know how to reach your audience always (although I may have been a little too simleminded back then).

May. 09 2014 11:05 AM
Mr. Bad from NYC

What a lightweight.

May. 09 2014 11:01 AM

... And “they” have blocked Ayaan Hirsi Ali from giving the commencement speech at Brandeis this month because she has written in the past of the degradation of women by Islamic practices and this might be considered “hurtful” to some Muslims in the audience???? (See her piece in the WSJ today on the Boko Haram Islamists’ kidnapping of girls trying to get an education. Link below)

I guess you must be a cool looking old white guy with the requisite longish hair and a beard … who wastes your commencement speech harmlessly musing about alienation among 7th graders. (Or maybe they should be concerned that this was his unconscious estimation of the level of the students gathered before him.)

May. 09 2014 10:54 AM
John A

Worth reading, thanks. But please describe How viral it really was.
I have been seeing viral messages of being more selfish for far too long.

May. 09 2014 10:40 AM
John from NJ

I think Saunder's point is well-received when you notice the "unkind" remarks already posted here. It would be ironic if it wasn't so sad.

Become broad, not trivial. More people need to hear that. Thanks, George.

Also, if you thought his speech was interesting or on the right track, you should read his other essays. His fiction ain't bad either. One of his essays that I HIGHLY recommend (I've shared it with many friends), is entitled "The Braindead Megaphone". So important. Search it out.

May. 09 2014 10:38 AM

Thank you Mr. Saunders for making the speech at SU.

May. 09 2014 10:36 AM

In his speech Mr. Saunders relates to the situation that occurred to him in seventh grade.

Should this have been a graduation speech at middle school instead of a college?

May. 09 2014 10:21 AM
kate from Glen Ridge

After Hurricane Sandy it seemed the strong/unaffected got really nice. With neighbors helping everyone with so much residual mutual benefit.The roads still seem less aggressive and people letting each other into traffic with sweet generosity and mutual little waves of thanks.

May. 09 2014 10:11 AM

That's it???
THAT went viral??? (LOL, and it was expanded into a book??!!)
It was all downhill after the monkey poop.
Underwhelming fluff ... and that's being "kind".

(Well, at least he didn't repeat ad nauseam the required phrase "give back" ... to young people who haven't "gotten" it yet.)

Things are worse on campuses than I thought if these are what college graduates now hear after 4 years of supposed scholarly pursuits.

May. 09 2014 06:07 AM

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