Commencement Memories

2013 May 27

Commencement Memories

I’ve noted a habit within me around commencement time every year — which is, naturally, for my mind to drift back to my own commencement experience. There’s one thing I remember quite clearly that truly shaped my life that I heard from my commencement speaker at MIT in 1989. His name is Paul Tsongas. I had no idea who he was, at the time. You can find the entire transcript of his speech right here. He describes himself well by sharing the thought after a few minutes into his commencement speech:

“When I graduated from college, if the speaker had announced that one of us sitting there would be elected to the United States Senate at the age of 37, and come down with cancer at the age of 42, I would have been absolutely and totally certain that neither event would happen to me. And yet, both did.”

That line caught all our attention, especially me. What isn’t remaining in the transcript online is something he adlibbed that stuck to me. It was to the effect.

“Look to your left. Look to your right. In twenty years from now, or maybe even sooner, one of your fellow graduates will have passed away for some unexpected reason. All you get to control right now, is what you do with your life right now.”

It was the kind of point made, that someone who had experienced life as he had done so … that made it much more than a generic comment to generate inspiration in a younger generation. It was the first moment that I felt that all of my youthful invincibility and training acquired through achieving the “college dream” instilled by my working class parents, might be somewhat of a mirage. And true to Senator Tsongas’ point, as I got older I understood his simply stated prophecy — which is a simple fact of life — that some of us get to keep on going, and some of us don’t. His message spanned many themes of national security revolving around his thoughts around Soviet Union and China, and also touched heavily on the rapid evolution of the financial markets at the time. Yet what I remember most, is that one point he gave to all of us about our inherent mortality. Which was especially brought home when I returned to MIT as a professor around the same time that Senator Tsongas passed away at the young age of 55. So when one of my mentor Mits Kataoka shared his thoughts about life as being lived in four quarters, and how I shouldn’t waste my second quarter, you could say that thanks to Senator Tsongas, I was more than ready to hear, understand, and try to act upon that knowledge. Thank you, Mr. Tsongas! -JM