George Saunders

Down through the ages, a traditional form has evolved for this type of speech, which is: Some old fart, his best years behind him, who, over the course of his life, has made a series of dreadful mistakes (that would be me), gives heartfelt advice to a group of shining, energetic young people, with all of their best years ahead of them (that would be you).

And I intend to respect that tradition.

Now, one useful thing you can do with an old person, in addition to borrowing money from them, or asking them to do one of their old-time “dances,” so you can watch, while laughing, is ask: “Looking back, what do you regret?” And they’ll tell you. Sometimes, as you know, they’ll tell you even if you haven’t asked. Sometimes, even when you’ve specifically requested they not tell you, they’ll tell you.

So: What do I regret? Being poor from time to time? Not really. Working terrible jobs, like “knuckle-puller in a slaughterhouse?” (And don’t even ASK what that entails.) No. I don’t regret that. Skinny-dipping in a river in Sumatra, a little buzzed, and looking up and seeing like 300 monkeys sitting on a pipeline, pooping down into the river, the river in which I was swimming, with my mouth open, naked? And getting deathly ill afterwards, and staying sick for the next seven months? Not so much. Do I regret the occasional humiliation? Like once, playing hockey in front of a big crowd, including this girl I really liked, I somehow managed, while falling and emitting this weird whooping noise, to score on my own goalie, while also sending my stick flying into the crowd, nearly hitting that girl? No. I don’t even regret that.

But here’s something I do regret:

In seventh grade, this new kid joined our class. In the interest of confidentiality, her Convocation Speech name will be “ELLEN.” ELLEN was small, shy. She wore these blue cat’s-eye glasses that, at the time, only old ladies wore. When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it.

So she came to our school and our neighborhood, and was mostly ignored, occasionally teased (“Your hair taste good?” – that sort of thing). I could see this hurt her. I still remember the way she’d look after such an insult: eyes cast down, a little gut-kicked, as if, having just been reminded of her place in things, she was trying, as much as possible, to disappear. After awhile she’d drift away, hair-strand still in her mouth. At home, I imagined, after school, her mother would say, you know: “How was your day, sweetie?” and she’d say, “Oh, fine.” And her mother would say, “Making any friends?” and she’d go, “Sure, lots.”

Sometimes I’d see her hanging around alone in her front yard, as if afraid to leave it.

And then – they moved. That was it. No tragedy, no big final hazing.

One day she was there, next day she wasn’t.

End of story.

Now, why do I regret that? Why, forty-two years later, am I still thinking about it? Relative to most of the other kids, I was actually pretty nice to her. I never said an unkind word to her. In fact, I sometimes even (mildly) defended her.

But still. It bothers me.

So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:

What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.

Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.

Or, to look at it from the other end of the telescope: Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth?

Those who were kindest to you, I bet.

It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.

Now, the million-dollar question: What’s our problem? Why aren’t we kinder?

Here’s what I think:

Each of us is born with a series of built-in confusions that are probably somehow Darwinian. These are: (1) we’re central to the universe (that is, our personal story is the main and most interesting story, the only story, really); (2) we’re separate from the universe (there’s US and then, out there, all that other junk – dogs and swing-sets, and the State of Nebraska and low-hanging clouds and, you know, other people), and (3) we’re permanent (death is real, o.k., sure – for you, but not for me).

Now, we don’t really believe these things – intellectually we know better – but we believe them viscerally, and live by them, and they cause us to prioritize our own needs over the needs of others, even though what we really want, in our hearts, is to be less selfish, more aware of what’s actually happening in the present moment, more open, and more loving.

So, the second million-dollar question: How might we DO this? How might we become more loving, more open, less selfish, more present, less delusional, etc., etc?

Well, yes, good question.

Unfortunately, I only have three minutes left.

So let me just say this. There are ways. You already know that because, in your life, there have been High Kindness periods and Low Kindness periods, and you know what inclined you toward the former and away from the latter. Education is good; immersing ourselves in a work of art: good; prayer is good; meditation’s good; a frank talk with a dear friend; establishing ourselves in some kind of spiritual tradition – recognizing that there have been countless really smart people before us who have asked these same questions and left behind answers for us.

Because kindness, it turns out, is hard – it starts out all rainbows and puppy dogs, and expands to include…well, everything.

One thing in our favor: some of this “becoming kinder” happens naturally, with age. It might be a simple matter of attrition: as we get older, we come to see how useless it is to be selfish – how illogical, really. We come to love other people and are thereby counter-instructed in our own centrality. We get our butts kicked by real life, and people come to our defense, and help us, and we learn that we’re not separate, and don’t want to be. We see people near and dear to us dropping away, and are gradually convinced that maybe we too will drop away (someday, a long time from now). Most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving. I think this is true. The great Syracuse poet, Hayden Carruth, said, in a poem written near the end of his life, that he was “mostly Love, now.”

And so, a prediction, and my heartfelt wish for you: as you get older, your self will diminish and you will grow in love. YOU will gradually be replaced by LOVE. If you have kids, that will be a huge moment in your process of self-diminishment. You really won’t care what happens to YOU, as long as they benefit. That’s one reason your parents are so proud and happy today. One of their fondest dreams has come true: you have accomplished something difficult and tangible that has enlarged you as a person and will make your life better, from here on in, forever.

Congratulations, by the way.

When young, we’re anxious – understandably – to find out if we’ve got what it takes. Can we succeed? Can we build a viable life for ourselves? But you – in particular you, of this generation – may have noticed a certain cyclical quality to ambition. You do well in high-school, in hopes of getting into a good college, so you can do well in the good college, in the hopes of getting a good job, so you can do well in the good job so you can….

And this is actually O.K. If we’re going to become kinder, that process has to include taking ourselves seriously – as doers, as accomplishers, as dreamers. We have to do that, to be our best selves.

Still, accomplishment is unreliable. “Succeeding,” whatever that might mean to you, is hard, and the need to do so constantly renews itself (success is like a mountain that keeps growing ahead of you as you hike it), and there’s the very real danger that “succeeding” will take up your whole life, while the big questions go untended.

So, quick, end-of-speech advice: Since, according to me, your life is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving: Hurry up. Speed it along. Start right now. There’s a confusion in each of us, a sickness, really: selfishness. But there’s also a cure. So be a good and proactive and even somewhat desperate patient on your own behalf – seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicines, energetically, for the rest of your life.

Do all the other things, the ambitious things – travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers (after first having it tested for monkey poop) – but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality – your soul, if you will – is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Theresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place. Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.

And someday, in 80 years, when you’re 100, and I’m 134, and we’re both so kind and loving we’re nearly unbearable, drop me a line, let me know how your life has been. I hope you will say: It has been so wonderful.

Congratulations, Class of 2013.

I wish you great happiness, all the luck in the world, and a beautiful summer.

Loving Relationships

There are many types of relationships in each of our lives—work, school, professional, casual. Most of us strive for some type of “loving” relationship. We have in our minds about how good or “right” a relationship is supposed to be.

The reality is, there are many kinds of relationships, and a given kind may fit a person’s needs at one stage of development but not at another. We choose partners who help us meet our present needs, fulfill our expectations, and if we’re lucky, become a loving relationship.

How do we know if we have a loving relationship? Here’s a few points to “check” your relationship to see if you are on the right path to a loving relationship.

1. You place the other person’s happiness on the same plane as your own—not less AND not more!

2. You have frank and honest dialogue that is not based on anger.

3. There is no reason or place for anger if the other person is genuinely interested in you and your happiness.

4. You have a mutual agreement to meet all of each other’s needs (within reason) not just the ones you feel like meeting.

Look for these clues in your own relationship to help determine if you have a loving relationship. There is no anger in a loving relationship. If you find anger in your relationship, you need to recognize it for what it is and calm yourself down. The degree of anger is indicative of the lack of mental health. Make sure you have an open and frank dialogue regarding the issues that make you angry. If necessary, seek help sooner rather than later—anger and anxiety are signs of mental disturbance.

Take the time to examine your needs and the needs of your partner. Be sure to agree to honor, respect and help meet the needs of each other. Sharpening and deepening our awareness of what we are doing, and how we are doing it, can help us make our relationship more nourishing and supportive, with less anger and anxiety, and ultimately lead to a LOVING relationship.


I walked into a bike shop in Philly the other day and while waiting for my turn to talk with Mike, the owner, I couldn’t help but hear the conversation between him and a customer.

Mike is an expert on all things bikes. Mike’s exuberance displayed the passion he has for his business as he fit the young man with a Brompton Folding Bike.

I observed that the customer did not share the same excitement about the bike that Mike displayed. As I watched the customer, he appeared to withdraw a bit, perhaps second-guessing his choice.

Mike noticed the change in body language and attitude. He hesitated just a moment and I could barely make out the next comment, “This is the bike that … and Lou Reed and Al Gore and … ride!”

Immediately, the customers trepidation dissipated, his expression brightened and he responded, “Really? Al Gore?”

Nothing had changed—just a change of perspective—the same bike and the same young man.

However, everything had changed.

From that moment on, the young man looked at the bike differently. He was having a different experience. I’m not a mind reader, but he may have been thinking, “Al Gore and me have the same bike, cool.”

This is the power of perspective. Changing perspective changes everything. The potential customer perceived the bike differently from that moment on. Sure, the owner’s passion about his business helped, but it wasn’t until he changed the customers PERSPECTIVE, that the sale occurred.

This demonstrates how the power of just a few words can present an entirely new experience. This holds true for anything in life. A chance encounter, then something occurs that changes our mood, albeit temporarily.

That is the problem. Allowing chance or the shifting sands of one’s unconscious to dictate one’s mood, actions, attitude and consciousness is a risky endeavor. Similar to lifting your hands off a steering wheel while driving, hoping the road goes your way. Being aware of your own psychology and taking responsibility is an ongoing, active event—always correcting the steering of an out of alignment car.

Instead of being a victim of circumstances or waiting for someone to say the right thing, CHOOSE your perspective. Choose your attitude and you’ll find yourself like the young man who walked out of the bike shop with a smile on his face.






To be rational is not to be sensible, which originally meant 'sensitive and aware' as it still does in French and Spanish, but which now means 'unpretentiously thought­full'. Rational does not even mean reasonable, which con­veys the sense of being open to persuasion by sensible people: it means thinking along prescribed lines without any thought for sensibility in either sense. The difference for instance between real scientists and the routineers of science is that the real ones are sensible in the French and Spanish sense; whereas the routineers, being merely rational, have become the destroyers of our civilization.

Though one cannot and should not be rational about love, if only because it is an emotional and therefore unassessable concept, one should be sensible and reason­ able whenever its appearance threatens a hitherto settled and agreeable habit of living. Sure tests can indeed be found for recognizing true love from false, but cannot be classed as rational since they apply to irrational situations, and must therefore be neglected by all legal and academic institutions. For example, true love recognizes no alternative. It is not enough for a man to say: 'Y ou are the most beautiful girl 1 have ever seen.' An Eastern princess once countered this criticism of the past with: 'Ah, but my younger sister is said to be even more beautiful than I'-and then watched her suitor's face carefully.... Nor does true love dwell emotionally on the future. '1 would die for your sake' means little; many noble hearts risk their lives for those of ignoble strangers. Even the hope that both lovers will die together is unrealistic: what matters is life, not death.

Nor should love be put to any test: tests imply doubt. Nor should two lovers ever debate which of them is the more important or responsible. Though one of the two may have contributed a three-quarters part in power and wisdom, the whole would be incomplete without the other quarter, which thus becomes three times more valuable in terms of love than any of the other three. True love, in fact, neither plans the future nor presumes on the past, but takes everything as it comes.

All the above may have been sensibly and reasonably written, but not being a poem is unlikely to convince anybody of its truth.

- Robert Graves

Getting the Most Out of Your Marriage

Couples enter into marriage full of hope. They may be aware that problems will inevitably arise, but they usually feel confident they’ll be able to keep their relationships on track.

There’s reason to be optimistic. Decades of research into the dynamics of relationships have finally established solid principles for helping marriages work - as opposed to the largely speculative, opinion-based approaches of traditional marriage counseling.

Four signs of a problem marriage
At the Family Research Laboratory in the University of Washington Department of Psychology, Dr. John Gottman and colleagues have identified four types of interaction that indicate a problem relationship. They include criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and most serious of all, stonewalling.

By learning to spot and control these patterns early on, you can significantly improve your chances of having a happy relationship.

Criticism, for example, often begins with a complaint (“We don’t go out as much as we used to”) which sharpens into an accusation (“You never take me out anymore”) and finally becomes a personal attack (“You only care about yourself”).

The downward spiral can be triggered for many reasons, including a lack of confident, clear assertiveness.

Mutual respect is the key
Dr. Gottman’s research, conducted with long-term support from the National Institute of Mental Health, has also found that there are six key areas of conflict, and that a remarkable 60% of all perceived problems are in fact not solveable at all.

An enlightened marriage counselor can help couples realize when this is the case and develop the mutual respect required to make marriage work. “It was a big relief,” one patient remarked, “to learn that we don’t have to completely change ourselves to stay married.”

In addition, a marriage counselor who is also a trained psychotherapist can identify serious emotional problems that should never, ever be compromised with or adjusted to.

Sooner is better than later
The benefits of marriage are well-established. They include higher income, more satisfaction, and a healthier, longer life - unmarried women, for example, have a 50% higher mortality rate than married ones.

If a couple want to enjoy those benefits, it makes sense to see a marriage counselor before the stonewalling impass is reached, where one partner accuses while the other sits there without saying a word.

It’s hard to heal a marriage when either spouse refuses to communicate.


How to Manage Stress for Success

Stress is a normal part of life in general and work in particular. Any perceived challenge puts your body into a state of physiological alert, ready for action.

This is productive in moderate doses. Stress keeps you focused and solution-oriented. It’s a key factor in success.

Prolonged stress, on the other hand, is unhealthy - and common on the job. In fact, workplace stress is now “a worldwide epidemic,” according to the World Health Organization.

The good-stress, bad-stress spectrum
The transition from a positive state of stress to a negative one is gradual, often unnoticed. Everyone takes work home on weekends, don’t they? What’s wrong with some cynicism, it’s just being realistic, isn’t it?

The process can eventually lead to burnout, a state of emotional and physical exhaustion. Burnout reduces productivity and saps energy. It leaves you feeling hopeless, irritable, and resentful. It threatens your job and your relationships. It kills.

Studies at Manchester School of Management in England show that burnout doubles the risk of cardiovascular death and even certain forms of cancer.

Recognition is the key
Fortunately, burnout happens slowly. The earlier you realize that stress is becoming too much and do something about it, the better.

“Life is 10 percent what you make it,” said Irving Berlin, “and 90 percent how you take it.” That’s the key principle in reversing stress back to an optimum level and keeping it there.

I’ve helped many New York professionals develop the ability to manage stress better in a variety of ways. By changing the situation through better communication with others, for example. By changing their outlook. And by altering their responses to stress.

How to tell if you have burnout
If you have already burned out, your symptoms may go unrecognized. That’s a form of denial, and it’s dangerous; you have to admit the existence of a problem before you can overcome it.

Typical symptoms of burnout include:

Finding worried thoughts about work taking over your life;
Being distant, distracted, forgetful, or easily angered;
Thinking about quitting your job, running away, taking a drug overdose, or injuring yourself;
Feeling depressed, sad, tearful, or that life isn’t worth living;
Losing your appetite and finding it difficult to sleep;
Managing your stress level by overindulging in food, alcohol, sleep, cigarettes, or recreational drugs.
Changing your job or career is one way to get relief from problems like these; but unless that’s a realistic option, getting professional help is the right way to go.