The Five-Minute Commencement Speech

Or, what IR theory can teach you about living a happy and productive life.

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - JULY 14:  Students throw their mortarboards in the air during their graduation photograph at the University of Birmingham degree congregations  on July 14, 2009 in Birmingham, England. Over 5000 graduates will be donning their robes this week to collect their degrees from The University of Birmingham. A recent survey suggested that there are 48 graduates competing for every job.  (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - JULY 14: Students throw their mortarboards in the air during their graduation photograph at the University of Birmingham degree congregations on July 14, 2009 in Birmingham, England. Over 5000 graduates will be donning their robes this week to collect their degrees from The University of Birmingham. A recent survey suggested that there are 48 graduates competing for every job. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

It’s late May, and thousands of young adults are donning academic robes, receiving their diplomas, and making the transition from students to alumni. If you are one of those happy graduates, this moment is a significant rite of passage; henceforth it will be the Development Office, not the Registrar, that asks you for money. Meanwhile, your grateful and newly impoverished parents will be making the transition from human ATMs to empty nesters (unless you have younger siblings or become a boomerang kid).

This year I’ll be among those beaming throngs of moms and dads, as I watch my son receive his B.S. in neuroscience at Wesleyan University. Of course I’m thrilled, and immensely proud. But there’s a downside to this joyful occasion: I’ll be forced to sit through another commencement speech. I’ve heard a fair number of them over the years — and from luminaries like Bill Clinton, John Hope Franklin, and Ted Koppel — but I can’t say I was much moved by any of them. All I remember is that I wish they had been shorter.

Which got me thinking: what would I say to a group of graduating college seniors, in the unlikely event that I was invited to give a commencement speech? This time last year, I explained How to Get a B.A. in International Relations in Five Minutes. In a similar spirit of brevity, this year I humbly offer The Five- Minute Commencement Address (or, “What IR Theory Can Teach You about Living a Happy and Productive Life”).

Here’s what I’d say:

“Congratulations to the Class of 2015. (Pause for cheers, applause, and general rowdiness.) I thank you for inviting me to speak to you on this happy occasion.   I also want to offer my compliments to President ______ and the faculty of this distinguished college, and of course, a special shout-out to the families that helped you reach this important milestone.

No doubt some of you are upset the selection committee didn’t get Jon Stewart, Amy Schumer, Kanye West, or someone from the cast of Game of Thrones to speak here today. I don’t blame you; I’d rather listen to them too. But they’re not here and you’re stuck with me.

Well, if I can’t be a famous celebrity, I can at least be brief and stick to what I know. So I am going to spend the next five minutes telling you how a few ideas from the field of International Relations can help you lead a happy and productive life.

Lesson No. 1: Change is the new constant.  

Until a few centuries ago, human society changed very slowly. It took more than 50,000 years for the world’s human population to reach 1 billion, but that number has doubled three times since 1800. For most of human history, people were born, lived, and eventually died without experiencing significant social or technological change. And until a few hundred years ago, most people were unaware of the vast majority of societies that shared the planet with them.

By contrast, today we live in a globalized world of mutual awareness and where the pace of change is positively dizzying. None of us know what will be humanly possible a few decades from now, or how scientific advances and diverse cultural forces will reshape attitudes, social interactions and political institutions.

My advice: get used to it. Embrace it. IR theory tells us that globalization may wax and wane somewhat, but the pace of change is not going to slow. Nothing is forever — not vinyl records, not CDs, not the latest smartphone app — and some of our cherished notions about politics and society are headed for the dustbin of history too. Norms and beliefs and theories that millions once held sacred seem like barbaric relics to us today, and some ideas you think are unquestionably true right now will look foolish to you a few years from now. This process is called learning, and if this university taught you nothing else, I hope it taught you that changing your mind is not something to fear.

Lesson No. 2: Learn to write and talk well. 

The history of diplomacy and international affairs is filled with conflicts that arose from misunderstandings, and failures to communicate. Some of these mistakes were inevitable, because humans are not perfectly rational and we frequently misread the available evidence. But blunders and misperceptions occurred because people didn’t communicate clearly, or because they were misled by noxious ideas disguised by clever or confusing rhetoric.

The lesson? No matter what you end up doing, honing your ability to communicate clearly is invaluable. I’m not talking about PowerPoint, Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook or whatever eventually replaces them: I’m talking about words and prose and poetry and the capacity to express complicated and nuanced ideas in clear, well-organized language.

Here’s the bad news: although some of you do this well, most of you still can’t despites spending four years in college. I don’t mean to be cruel, but it’s true. I’ve been teaching for thirty years at some pretty snooty universities, and the quality of the average student’s writing at places like Harvard or Stanford or even the University of Chicago is still pretty poor.

Now for the good news: this is a fixable problem. It takes work, practice, and a willingness to listen to advice, but all of you can get better at using words effectively. Read Strunk and White, read the late William Zinsser, and read my colleague Steven Pinker (but with caution). Try to imitate writers whose style you enjoy, until you develop one of your own. Strive above all for clarity: there’s no point in writing anything if your readers can’t figure out what you’re trying to say.

The same goes for public speaking. You don’t have to be Demosthenes to succeed in life, but learning to be clear, coherent, concise and comfortable speaking to others is a real asset. Some people do this with ease; others only with difficulty, but anyone can get better at it. If you do, it will pay off.

Lesson No. 3: Be reliable.

In international politics, states cooperate more readily when they believe that their partners will live up to their promises and abide by prior agreements. There’s a vast literature on this topic, and one of the things it teaches is that if states want to work effectively with others, a reputation for reliability helps.

What’s the lesson for all of you? Woody Allen once said “80 percent of success is just showing up,” but he left out two key words: “on time.” If you’re really charming, attractive, or happen to be an eccentric genius, others may forgive you if you are chronically tardy, can’t meet a deadline, and make lots of careless errors. But for us mortals, a reputation for being reliable and timely will make you the person that others turn to time and again. And fewer people will yell at you.

Lesson No. 4: Think strategically and plan ahead.

World history is filled with suffering that occurred because national leaders didn’t think through what they were doing and didn’t have a coherent reality-based plan of action. Germany started two world wars for foolish reasons, lost them both, and millions of people died in the process. The Soviet Union threatened world revolution and built a vast military machine, which led the world’s most powerful states to join force to contain it until it collapsed. George Bush consciously decided to invade Iraq without the slightest idea of what he would do once Saddam was defeated. These governments (and many others) allowed myths, delusions, and wishful thinking to guide their decisions, and the world paid an enormous price for their blunders.

Learn from these idiotic mistakes, and try to avoid do something similar in your own lives. You can’t eliminate all forms of uncertainty or avoid all misfortune, but you can avoid a lot of pitfalls by thinking carefully about your goals and developing a clear and coherent strategy for achieving them. Here’s a tip: when you’re making big life choices, ask a few other people to see what they think, including some people who might not automatically agree with you. You don’t have to take their advice, but they might spot flaws that you’ve missed. Don’t you wish George Bush had done that back in 2003, or even when he first decided to run for office? 

Lesson No. 5: Choose your allies carefully.

In the dog-eat-dog world of international affairs, states choose allies in order to better survive and prosper. The same is true of life in general. None of us lives in complete isolation, and we all depend in on help from our peers, our bosses, our assistants, our husbands or wives, and our friends. I haven’t the slightest idea whom you should work with, fall in love with, join on vacation, or invite over for dinner, but I do know that your choice of partners will be among the most significant decisions you will ever make. Find the right group of intimates, and you’ll be equipped to weather hardships when they come and seize opportunities as they arise. Make bad choices in this department and you’ll spend a lot of time bailing yourself out (or in therapy). Look for people you can trust, and especially those who will tell you when you’re doing something foolish (like marrying the wrong person, or running off to join the Islamic State).

Of course, if you want to be part of an effective alliance network you have to be someone whose friendship others cherish. To do that, strive to be a mensch, which Leo Rosten defines as “a person of integrity and honor.” A true mensch is both admirable but also enviable, because those who care for others and act with integrity are usually a lot happier than those who think only of themselves.

I promised to be brief and I know you are eager to get on with the rest of this celebration, and then with the rest of your lives. But I will close with one request: please do a better job of managing global affairs than my generation did. We did a few things right for sure, but we screwed a lot of things up too, especially in the years after 9/11. Perhaps worst of all, we didn’t hold those responsible to account for their mistakes. We were quick to condemn our enemies and to punish them when we could, but my generation was even quicker to forgive those American leaders who blundered, erred, or misbehaved. I hope you’ll improve on that record — we set the bar pretty low — and that the education you received over the past four years will help you on your way.

Thank you for listening, and congratulations!”

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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