Congratulations, By the Way: Some Thoughts on Kindness

by George Saunders

This book is an expanded version of a commencement speech to the Syracuse University class of 2013.

“What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.”

“Or, to look at it from the other end of the telescope: Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth? Those who were kindest to you, I bet. It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.”

“In your life there have been High Kindness periods and Low Kindness periods… It’s an exciting idea: Since we have observed that kindness is variable, we might also sensibly conclude that it is improvable.” Saunders encourages us to increase our “ambient level of kindness.” — What a cool choice of words.

“I can look back and see that I’ve spent much of my life in a cloud of things that have tended to push ‘being kind’ to the periphery. Things like: Anxiety. Fear. Insecurity. Ambition. The mistaken belief that enough accomplishment will rid me of all that anxiety, fear, insecurity, and ambition. The belief that if I can only accrue enough—enough accomplishment, money, fame—my neuroses will disappear. I’ve been in this fog certainly since, at least, my own graduation day… Kindness, sure—but first let me finish this semester, this degree, this book; let me succeed at this job, and afford this house, and raise these kids, and then, finally, when all is accomplished, I’ll get started on the kindness. Except it never all gets accomplished. It’s a cycle that can go on… well, forever.”

“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.”

“Do all the other things, of course, the ambitious things—travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers (after having them 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 Ghandi’s, bright as Mother Teresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret, luminous place. Believe that it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.”

This is a really short book. The pages are unnumbered. Amazon says there are 64, but I counted 26 pages of text and 26 pages of illustration. They must be counting the copyright page, the title page, and the end papers. In any case, it is attractively packaged in a hardcover format, presumably to be given as a gift for graduations, Christmas, or other occasions.

The entire speech was reprinted as an article in the New York Times on July 31, 2013.  It reminds me of another short book, which was also published as a New York Times article: Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing.

Saunders, George. Congratulations, by the Way: Some Thoughts on Kindness. New York: Random House, 2014. Buy from

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