Speeches, speeches… They’re the make or break part of most stiff ceremonies. They’re lengthy pieces read aloud from wooden podiums.
It’s both a gift and a curse to know and not know who the speaker is. When you know it to be some celebrity and you happen to be a fan, you’re guaranteed to be all-ears. Now, if it’s someone you don’t know, but your seatmates do (know), you’re probably glowing alight with mystery.
And if it’s someone whose name doesn’t ring a bell nor a gong, then with a bit of resignation, you relax. But then, who cares? You’re about to get your well-deserved diploma. You’ll march alongside friends.
Who needs to care or tolerate another boring speech? Only, this isn’t boring.
Speeches can be just as cool. In fact, if you do get the speech’s message, you can’t help but feel elated, if not enlightened. My own favorites were delivered by these three: J.K. Rowling, Wislawa Szymborksa, and David Foster Wallace.
‘The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination’ – J.K. Rowling
Rowling’s speech had been delivered in Harvard.
So, how did she start? She begun with a funny and sincere reference to her pre-speech agony (claiming it had been the culprit of her weight loss). And the thunderous laugh continued as she recounts her own commencement experience (it turns out, she remembers not a single thing from that day’s delivered speech).
Eventually, she went to hitting on things that she would have said to herself years ago. And as you might have guessed, these had something to do with the speech’s title.
As for all things favorite, it’s quite hard to pick the best line. Pushing my luck, I think this one got to be the king (or queen, if you like):
“So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”
“And many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know.”
Several parts of this speech are bound to unmask Rowling’s early failures and successes. It also contained life-anecdotes that could make you tear up a bit. The speech could have sufficed as an autobiography – only she was referring to her own journey in context to the graduates’ oncoming journey.
Apart from casting that wonderful speech, Rowling received her honorary degree courtesy of Harvard.
Further proof of this speech’s epic coolness is this Zen Pencil interpretation.