The Saturday Read ‘A Short Guide to a Happy Life’ by Anna Quindlen

Do you remember who spoke at your graduation ceremony? The Saturday Read this week is for all of you who forgot, but would welcome a bit of ‘life advice’ in this season of ‘Pomp and Circumstance’.

In 1999, author Anna Quindlen was invited to deliver the commencement address at Villanova University. And then this happened:

“Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and author Anna Quindlen has withdrawn as the commencement speaker at Villanova University this Sunday because of what she said were objections by a “vocal minority” to her support of abortion rights.

Quindlen, who was also to have received an honorary doctorate of humane letters, said in an interview yesterday that she did not want to “ruin the day or cast a shadow” on the graduation ceremony.”

A graduate student requested a copy of the prepared text and posted it on the Internet. (This was before Facebook, Twitter et al.) The post went viral, and the resulting essay was published in 2000 as ‘A Short Guide to a Happy Life’.

Seventeen years later her words still resonate. In the opening paragraphs she signals her values, and offers a hint at why she withdrew.

“My work is human nature. Real life is really all I know…Don’t ever confuse the two, your life and your work…The second is only part of the first.”

Real life collided with an opportunity to address Villanova’s Class of 1999, the alma mater of several of her family members. Fortunately her publisher provided an avenue for Ms. Quindlen to share her personal life experience with a broader audience, to encourage ownership and balance.

“When you leave college, there are thousands of people out there with the same degree you have; when you get a job, there will be thousands of people doing what you want to do for a living.”

“But you are the only person alive who has sole custody of your life. Your particular life. Your entire life. Not just the life at your desk, or your life on the bus, or in the car, or at the computer. Not just the life of your mind, but the life of your heart. Not just your bank account, but your soul.”

“People don’t talk about the soul very much anymore. It’s so much easier to write a resume than to craft a spirit.”

Some may disagree that a resume is easy to write, especially a recent grad who has spent the past months engaged in the job search. A resume is limited to a list of accomplishments, full of key words designed to cut through the barrier of digital applicant screening. It’s the values expressed in that experience that define who you are, your spirit.

The recurring theme of ‘Short Guide’ challenges the reader to question commonly held definitions of success.

“You cannot be really first-rate at your work if your work is all you are.”

“So I suppose the best piece of advice I could give anyone is pretty simple: get a life. A real life, not a manic pursuit of the next promotion, the bigger paycheck, the larger house.”

“Get a life in which you are not alone. Find people you love, and who love you. And remember that love is not leisure, it is work.”

‘A Short Guide to a Happy Life’ is a compact book to be kept close for a periodic reread. It’s a reminder to all, at every career stage, that “Life is made up of moments, small pieces of glittering mica in a long stretch of gray cement.”

One of those moments is revealed in the recollection of a conversation with a homeless man on the boardwalk in Coney Island, New York.

“And he stared out at the ocean and said, “Look at the view, young lady. Look at the view.”

Commencement is the beginning of a life of learning, sometimes from the most unexpected of teachers. Enjoy the Saturday Read, and don’t forget to enjoy the view.

 

 

 

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