Joe Pisani’s advice to the Class of 2020
There’s only one thing more painful than listening to a commencement speech: Having to give a commencement speech and stare at a sea of students eager to toss beach balls and party.
This year, commencements were canceled, so my sister Margaret devised a virtual celebration for my nephew Alex and his friend Jack, who graduated from St. John’s College. Joe Biden wasn’t available, so she asked me to deliver the address.
Here’s a sanitized version of my speech:
Friends, honored guests, doctors, lawyers, plumbers, mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, sisters, brothers, nieces, nephews, neighbors, household pets and esteemed graduates ... good afternoon.
We’re here to recognize your great accomplishment. You got out of college relatively unscathed. That’s more than most people can say. That’s more than I can say.
Commencement speeches are notoriously boring. This one will follow that honorable tradition.
At my commencement, UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim spoke about something or other. Nobody remembers. Whatever advice he gave wasn’t worth remembering because shortly afterward, he was accused of working with the Nazis.
What advice can I give graduates who already know everything? I looked for ideas in a book titled, “The Best Advice I Ever Got” by Katie Couric, which contained the profound thoughts of celebrities, such as “Follow your dreams,” “Don’t be afraid,” and “Take risks.”
Bill Cosby, who wasn’t afraid to take risks, said, “Don’t be your own worst enemy.” My mother, who only graduated from eighth grade, would have told him, “Take your own advice.”
Matt Lauer said, “Sometimes you gotta go off course.” He did.
This should teach you not to take advice from celebrities — not even Kim Kardashian — because they know nothing.
My father wasn’t a celebrity. He was a carpenter who lived the last 25 years of his life sober. He was always sharing AA wisdom like “Live and let live” and “A day at a time.” Some of the wisest people you’ll meet in life never went to college. Listen to them anyway.
Swim upstream and go against the current. If everyone else jumped off the bridge, would you? Years ago, my friends were going to Woodstock and wanted me to join them. I resisted the crowd. Now, when someone asks, “Were you at Woodstock?” I proudly respond, “Ahhh, I had more important things to do. I was in the dormitory, washing my laundry. But I have the album!”
The most popular course at Harvard is “How to be Happy.” I don’t have a degree from Harvard, but I know the secret to happiness — the attitude of gratitude. Say thank you to someone who holds the door. Say thank you to your waitress. Say thank you to your parents. Say thank you FOR your parents. Say thank you for your life. This habit leads to true happiness, not fake happiness that comes from drugs, alcohol and possessions.
When you put your head on the pillow, think about your day — the highs and lows, the triumphs and trials. What did you do well? What did you do poorly? You’ll never become a better person if you don’t examine your day.
Suffering may be part of life, but always remember, “This too shall pass.” In the meantime, get a dog, talk to your dog, love your dog. There will be days when your dog seems like your only friend.
If you want human friends, smile more. Never underestimate the power of a smile. You will help countless people by smiling. A smile can save someone’s life.
There are two types of people in the world. There are givers and there are takers. It’s better to be a giver.
And the most important lesson of all: Your life is not about you. That may sound like something Deepak Chopra or Eckhart Toole said, but it was St. Thomas Aquinas. You were put here for others. There’s a plan for your life and it’s better than your plan.
As they say, “With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it’s still a beautiful world.” So have a great life ... a day at a time.
Joe Pisani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.