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John Goldman '71


Thank you, President Smith, for your kind introduction. To the Board and Faculty of Swarthmore College, please know that I cannot begin to express my heartfelt appreciation for this recognition. And to the Class of 2017, congratulations! This amphitheater is full of joy, love, and unbridled pride for each and every one of you – because you are in fact GRADUATING!

Let me begin with a confession: when I learned that, upon receiving an honorary degree at Swarthmore, you’re expected to share words of wisdom, the responsibility seemed daunting.

Then I had an epiphany. With apologies to my fellow speakers, I figured that the graduates and attendees at prior commencements probably didn’t remember much about the words spoken and, at best, might vaguely recall who one of their speakers was. To be honest, I didn’t recall much, if anything, from my graduation in 1971.

So, I’m going to buck convention. I do not expect you to remember me at all, and I am not here to tell you what you should do with your lives. However, I will ask a few things of you.

First, I’d like you to imagine that you don’t have this – your mobile device. Not for a minute or for an hour, but forever.

How would you feel? Disconnected? Uncertain? Perhaps uncomfortable? In truth, the life you will lead will probably not be comfortable, nor certain, nor seemingly connected. I’m fairly sure that your journey from Point A to Point B is not going to be linear. Detours, hurdles, breakdowns – they’re all out there. In fact, my guess is that whatever you think will happen in the next year or month or week might not happen the way you expect. And that’s just fine.

My life journey had plenty of twists and turns. Fifty years ago, when I stepped foot on this campus, I was sure I would be a scientist. But I ended up with a degree in economics. I then believed I’d be a lawyer. Yet, after two years as a paralegal, I became disenchanted and decided I needed to go to business school to “change the system.” I thought that being in the public sector would be a good way to better society; that’s where I started, but then I ended up in retail and finally in the insurance business before devoting my time to community work. That, I guess, is about as far from a straight progression for a career as I could have imagined.

But my experience echoes something else, which is that change is the one fundamental constant in our lives. And change is happening faster and with greater intensity now than ever before. I mean, it was only a decade ago that the first iPhone was manufactured. Can we possibly imagine what our existence was before the iPhone?

Here’s the good news: you’ve just gone through the past four years or so getting ready. Ready for those unsettling, unpredictable moments. And ready for the many deviations and transformations that you’ll go through. You’ve already experienced a lot, from cramming for finals, to injuries on the field, to first dates and broken hearts and much more. Swarthmore has prepared you, encouraging you to think before you know and to take on whatever faces you. You have the intelligence, the curiosity, the willingness to experiment and, yes, maybe to fail. I am confident you’ll triumph and be better for it.

Fourteen years ago, our daughter faced a sudden and debilitating onset of Lupus. During that first week, she barely clung to life, as the disease attacked her brain, her bone marrow, and her kidneys, all at the same time. Her life – and ours – was turned upside down. And while she survived, she deals with a chronic illness every day. But today, she is a successful author, a wonderful wife, a terrific mom, and a person who truly lives each moment in the present.

She taught me two enduring lessons. First, you can’t control everything from the neck down, but you sure can decide what happens from the neck up. And second, it is the spirit in how we live that guides us through our days. 

So here are my two essential truths: life is uncomfortable, and life is rife with change. Yet, it is the wandering, unexpected journey that propels us forward, allows us to grow, makes us better human beings, and creates that awesome sense of fulfillment.

As promised, I am not here to tell you what to do. But I do have a final few asks.

I ask you to be brave. I ask you to be bold. I ask you to believe in yourself. And I ask you to relish each and every step along the path before you, no matter how circuitous and difficult it may seem.

To the Class of 2017, congratulations again, thank you all very much.

Watch: John Goldman '71