Orange Alert

Is Kindness Still Relevant?

10 years after his Convocation speech went viral, acclaimed author George Saunders G’88 revisits its message.

April 14, 2023, by Dan Bernardi

George Saunders standing on the steps in front of Hall of Languages.
Author George Saunders' 2013 Convocation address to A&S | Maxwell students became an international sensation, and was the inspiration for his book, "Congratulations, by the way."

In May 2013, best-selling author and Professor of English George Saunders addressed graduates at the College of Arts and Sciences | Maxwell School Convocation with a simple but powerful message: Choose kindness.

At the time, Saunders never imagined the speech would one day become one of the most celebrated Convocation addresses of all time.

“When I finished writing the speech, I was proud of it and looked forward to presenting it,” says Saunders. But after the Convocation ceremony, he distinctly remembers walking about the Quad with little feedback – good or bad – coming his way. In fact, he specifically recalls an indifferent reaction from one gentleman who recognized him in the crowd.

‘Are you the guy that gave that speech,’ the man said. When Saunders replied ‘yeah,’ the man simply said, ‘huh.’

“It’s safe to say it wasn’t a huge success at first,” says Saunders. But three months after Convocation, a transcript of that speech was posted on The New York Times website, where it immediately went viral with over one million shares.

Want more Saunders? Watch the extended interview.

The message of kindness struck a chord with readers around the world, and the speech has since been immortalized, as websites including Business Insider, CNN, Vox, Esquire and many others rank it among their top ten Commencement addresses year after year.

“I think the simplicity was the thing because I wasn’t trying to be academic,” Saunders notes about its broad appeal. “I wasn’t trying to be intellectually persuasive. I was just speaking from the heart in the simplest way I could.”

The speech even inspired his 2014 book, Congratulations, by the way, where Saunders explores kindness and identifies his biggest regrets in life, which were failures of kindness.


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Dan Bernardi