Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, passed away on August 25, 2012, at the age of 82. Aside from being a person of historical significance, he’s also an alumnus of my alma mater, the University of Southern California, where he delivered the commencement address at my college graduation in 2005.
The speech was memorable for its equal parts of the man at the podium, my day of personal achievement, and the words themselves. What was not memorable, however, was the length of the address.
Every time I reread the full text, I’m surprised by the writing’s brevity. Unlike the much longer (but just as good) commencement addresses of Neil Gaiman and JK Rowling, Mr. Armstrong chose to honor the maxim of Friedrich Nietzsche, who wrote: “It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what others say in a whole book.”
Fittingly, Mr. Armstrong acknowledges this idea in his speech:
I would hope that you have come to appreciate the elegance of simplicity. A simple explanation is often the best, but even more often the most difficult to recognize.
Good storytelling is about simplicity. It’s about choosing the right words and moments and removing what doesn’t belong.
This idea subscribes to Aristotle’s Poetics, VIII: “…the structural union of the parts being such that, if any one of them is displaced or removed, the whole will be disjointed and disturbed. For a thing whose presence or absence makes no visible difference, is not an organic part of the whole.” If you’re a writer and haven’t read this crucial text, do yourself a favor and get it now.
Mr. Armstrong’s choice of words is efficient, poignant, and worth revisiting. I feel fortunate to have had such a valuable commencement speaker.
Here’s an excerpt from his address:
Custom dictates that the commencement speaker give a word of advice to the graduates. I feel a sense of discomfort in that responsibility as it requires more confidence than I possess to assume that my personal convictions deserve your attention.
The single observation I would offer for your consideration is that some things are beyond your control. You can lose your health to illness or accident, you can lose your wealth to all manner of unpredictable sources.
What is not easily stolen from you without your cooperation is your principles and your values. They are your most precious possessions and, if carefully selected and nurtured, will well serve you and your fellow man.
Society’s future will depend on a continuous improvement program on the human character. What will the future bring? I don’t know, but it will be exciting.
The author of “The Little Prince,” Antoine de St. Exupery, was a pilot in World War II which, unfortunately, he did not survive. Fortunately, his writings did survive and I will pass along his advice. In St. Exupery’s “Wisdom of the Sands,” he wrote: “As for the future, your task is not to foresee it, but to enable it.”
Thank you, Neil.