Words worthy of putting into practice daily


Editor’s Note: This is the final installment of a multi-part series from Nicole recounting a commencement speech by writer George Saunders. The first two parts were published in the last two issues.

Nicole Guttermuth

Nicole Guttermuth

A New Day

By Nicole Guttermuth

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 OK. 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 Teresa’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…”


Here is what I love about this speech: Saunders measures success in quality rather than quantity. Life isn’t about the job title bestowed upon a person or the amount of a paycheck that gets direct deposited every other week.


I’m not saying these things are not important. As a newly single mom trying to support two girls, believe me, my paycheck is “über importante” to me. However, once I get all the bills paid, I have to sleep at night, and I have to wake up and look at myself every morning in the mirror.


For me, in my life, I want and need to know that I have done — am doing — something of importance to other people, something that makes a difference in someone else’s life.


When I was a little girl — and forgive me if I’ve shared this before — my mom always said it is nice to be important, but it is more important to be nice. These, and the wisdom of Saunders, are words worthy of putting into practice.