As I contemplate this national tradition, I find myself wondering what I would say if I were invited to be a Commencement speaker.
As you know, my own educational history is somewhat unusual. I went from a traditional beginning at Boston Latin Academy, where I excelled in my studies … to a period when I left school prematurely (because of my family’s financial circumstances, which would have prevented me from pursuing further education) … to the greater part of my life, when I took it upon myself to acquire the knowledge I had missed by not being able to attend conventional institutions of learning. So, I could literally say that I was a “self-taught” man.
In my early years, I am now somewhat embarrassed to say, I was not very kind towards those educational institutions. In part, I suppose, I had observed a number of graduates from these institutions who were no better off after earning their degrees. At the same time, one could say that I may have been somewhat envious of those who had been given the formal education that I had been deprived of, and so I mocked and derided these graduates and their schools rather mercilessly. In one of my published stories, in fact, I singled out the students of what you now call “Ivy League” institutions for their being graduated with larger egos, greater foolhardiness, and less common sense than when they began their studies.
My feelings toward traditional education changed, however, as years went by — especially after a number of institutions recognized my scientific accomplishments by awarding me honorary degrees. It felt good to be a “Doctor,” I must admit.
And, of course, some of my readers may also be aware that I helped start one of the major universities in the northeast, the University of Pennsylvania!
But, I digress… back to the subject of Commencement addresses. I suppose, if I were to deliver a Commencement speech now, from my vantage point as a statesman, business leader, inventor, and time traveler, these are a few of the points I would want to make:
- No matter what challenges and setbacks life may put in your way, always try to pick yourself up, get back on the horse (these days, I suppose that would be “get back on the motorcycle”), and find a way to start over again. You may not realize it, but for all of the wonderful accomplishments I am credited for, I also have just as many mistakes, detours, disappointments, disasters, fiascos and failures.
- There are always a wide variety of other avenues to explore, if one direction (for example, traditional education) is closed off to you. Being creative and resourceful is what allows you to get ahead in this world.
- Do not be afraid to introduce yourself to, and talk with, new people. A majority of the great people I had the privilege of knowing, both in America and Europe, were once total strangers to me. Sometimes I asked others for introductions, other times I found a way to do it myself. I could name-drop a few of the famous individuals I happened to know, but, dear reader, you could probably look them up yourself in the history books (or Wikipedia).
- Always be curious. (Or if you’d like a way to remember that, think “A-B-C.”) All of my scientific discoveries, and many of my achievements in government, business, foreign relations, writing and publishing, and even my own personal life, came about by wondering how things worked or what they meant, and how I could improve upon them. My most important goal in this world has always been to do things for the common good, to make things better either for individuals or for society as a whole.
- Little things count as much as the big ones. Don’t let anyone tell you that nothing is worth doing unless it produces world fame, immense riches, Nobel Prizes, Olympic medals, etc. The truth is, small things can bring great pleasure, too. Even simple pursuits like being a parent, working at a decent job, finding love, having fun with friends or family, doing volunteer work in your community, or engaging in a variety of other “ordinary” activities are very much worth striving for in your life.
- Be faithful, be honest, be humble, be dependable, be industrious, and be aware at all times that you have the power to do amazing things, if you get beyond fears, doubts, worries, and so-called impossibilities. Personally, I never would have accomplished what I did with electricity, had I allowed myself to say, “Nobody cares, it’ll never work, it’s never been done before, it’s a waste of time, it can’t be done, or I’m afraid I’ll fail.”
- So go out and show the world what you’re made of — flesh, blood, water, bone, electricity (yes, those sparks that flit about our body sending messages from brain to hand and foot, and vice versa), and, most mysteriously, a certain spirit of energy, vitality, or animation, that makes all the difference between a living person and a statue (and believe me, dear reader, there are numerous statues of Franklin out there which are not accomplishing a blessed thing!).
In conclusion, tell them “Ben Franklin sent you.” And you’ll have a sure-fire conversation starter wherever you go, that’s for certain!
Your humble servant,