Say Yes: A Commencement Speech

Today, May 28, in Panamá’s Ciudad del Saber, the Balboa Academy will hold a graduation ceremony for the class of 2016. The class of 2014 invited me to be their commencement speaker, one of the greatest honors of my life. My speech went on to form part of the wonderful collection of writings titled The Yes Book.

I floundered for several weeks, searching for something meaningful to share with you on this special day. But the harder I tried, the more elusive my quest became. Although I seldom suffer from writer’s block, I was now adrift in a sea of useless ideas, crossing out page after page of false starts.

When I thought about my difficulties, I traced them back to when you were ninth-graders and, for reasons that still remain a mystery to me, the class of 2014 earned a special place in my heart. Because of this, when you invited me to be your commencement speaker, the honor soon became a millstone around my neck, and the weight of delivering a message of consequence grew heavier each passing day.

I was on the verge of panicking when, unexpectedly, inspiration struck. The muse greeted me the instant my wife and I stepped into the home of a fellow teacher. There, stenciled on the living room wall in large, attractive letters was the phrase:

You are living your story.

I let out a long sigh of relief because I knew that, at last, the drought had ended. There, calling out to me, was the idea I wish to share with you today.

You are living your story.

As I have often told you, we have the power to make our stories wondrous — full of love, light, hope, and beauty. This is one of the main reasons you’ve been going to school all these years, and certainly one of the reasons you’re going off to college — the more educated you become, the more control you’ll have over your narratives. There is nothing in life more empowering, I assure you, than the ability to chart the course of our stories.

When I reminisce about you as ninth-graders, I think about how malleable you were back then. Eager to please your new teachers, you were easy to bend, mold, and shape. Your eyes glowed with excitement every day. Your hearts brimmed with high expectations of everyone and everything: your schoolmates, your teachers, and the world. Yes, beyond a doubt, as ninth-graders you were naïve and easy to fool.

Over the last four years, however, a small measure of cynicism has trickled into your lives. By that I mean that you now mistrust the values your elders have been trying to teach you. But we need not be concerned over this. It is only natural. It happens to everyone on the road to adulthood. I say that we don’t need to be concerned because I have witnessed that you and your Balboa Academy schoolmates have an optimistic outlook. I’ve seen your selflessness in the houses you’ve built for others, the people you’ve clothed and fed in times of need, the countless smiles you’ve placed on the faces of the less fortunate, and the work you’ve done to slow down the clock of ecological doom. Wherever you go from here, then, please endeavor to keep cynicism at bay, and please, continue your efforts to make the world a better place.

Remember, then, that it is important to study the stories of others as you live your own.

As your Spanish teacher, instead of making you jump through grammar hoops, by way of poems and stories I tried to fill your hearts with the beauty of language. I also wanted to make these great achievements of the human imagination an essential part of your lives. I wanted you to understand that a poem, a story, or a novel can serve as a beacon during those times when we’ve lost our sense of direction, because, I now warn you, your life, like everyone else’s, will contain painful events. As César Vallejo wrote in Los heraldos negros: “Hay golpes en la vida, tan fuertes … ¡Yo no sé!” (“There are in life such hard blows . . . I don’t know!”) Sentiments such as the one the Peruvian poet expressed with sparking clarity can put things into perspective and help us get our lives back on track when our stories have been momentarily derailed. Great tales, when closely examined, reveal our potential, our strengths, and even our claims to sainthood.

Remember, then, that it is important to study the stories of others as you live your own. You have often heard me speak with reverence of the Aristotelian concept of imitatio. In this construct, the Greek philosopher advises artists who aspire to greatness to imitate the best models. That’s the starting point. The outstanding painters, sculptors, architects, musicians, and writers of the Renaissance took Aristotle’s message to heart, raising the level of human expression to the loftiest heights in Western civilization.

What Aristotle suggested for artists over two millennia ago works well for writing our own life stories. To succeed, all you need is the commitment and the discipline to follow these five steps: pick a worthy model, study your model intently, learn the vocabulary necessary to understand and discuss your model, and then write your story following the example. Ah, but then comes the hard part: you need to keep revising until your story surpasses the quality of the original.

If you follow Aristotle’s teachings conscientiously, imitating excellent models as you live your own story, you can achieve anything.


To demonstrate that I practice what I preach, before committing these thoughts to paper I consulted a few outstanding models of commencement speeches. For me to presume to offer better advice that what these contain would be absurd. And since I wholeheartedly agree with the wisdom they impart, I will take the liberty to capsulize them for you.

President John F. Kennedy pleaded with the Harvard class of 1963 to believe in and to work for world peace. “No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings,” he stated on that occasion.

More recently, the novelist Barbara Kingsolver, speaking at Duke University, told the class of 2008 to reject the emphasis that modern society places on accumulating wealth. In doing so, she said, we commit to using less resources and the healing of the planet will begin.

The Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Russell Baker advised the 1995 class of Connecticut College to take the time to listen to the life that surrounds us, as well as to what’s in our hearts.

In addressing Syracuse University’s class of 2013, the writer George Saunders stressed the importance of being kind. In his speech, he asked, “Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth? Those who were kindest to you, I bet.”

Getting closer to the crux of today’s message, Steven Jobs urged Stanford’s class of 2005 to have the courage to follow their hearts and their intuition. “Stay foolish, and stay hungry,” he counseled.

I was delighted to discover that the idea that we live our stories was at the heart of several of my models.

Conan O’Brien told Harvard’s class of 2000 not to fear making mistakes. He said, “Fall down, make a mess, break something occasionally. And remember, whatever happens, the story is never over.”

The actor Bradley Whitford, who played the role of the president’s adviser in the television series The West Wing, urged the class of 2006 of The University of Wisconsin to take action. Only in taking action, he noted, can we become the heroes of our own stories.

And I’ll conclude with the model that most closely resembles the spirit of what I’ve tried to share with you today. Speaking at Knox College to the class of 2006, Stephen Colbert told the graduates to avoid cynicism. He highlighted the need to trust others, as well as the need to believe in ourselves and in our communities. “Cynicism,” he said, “is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or be disappointed in us. Cynics always say no … for as long as you have the strength to, say yes.”

And so, in parting, I ask Balboa Academy’s class of 2014 to always say yes to finding and imitating exceptional models, to say yes to working for world peace, to say yes to living in simplicity, to say yes to taking the time to listen, to say yes to committing acts of kindness, to say yes to staying foolish and hungry, to understand that it’s okay to occasionally make a mess of things, to say yes to taking action, and, more importantly, to go forth and make your life a story that inspires others.

[Featured image: Silvio Sirias]