UND Today

University of North Dakota’s Official News Source

Chuck Klosterman at Commencement: Only you will remember you — and that’s enough

Because doing good work and building great memories can bring fulfillment, the UND alum and bestselling author tells graduates


Editor’s note: Chuck Klosterman, a prominent journalist, author, native North Dakotan and UND alum, delivered the graduation address during UND’s general commencement exercises on May 11. 

Klosterman, a native of Wyndmere, N.D., is a 1994 graduate who has written several bestselling books, as well as columns and cultural commentary for several national publications. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Journalism with a minor in English from UND.

Klosterman spoke at the doctoral and master’s degrees ceremony as well as at the undergraduate ceremony in the Alerus Center. He was also given an honorary degree from UND.

Above is a video, and below is a transcript, of the address Klosterman gave at the undergraduate ceremony, which was held in the afternoon.

First emerging as a rock music journalist and critic in the early 2000s, Klosterman has written extensively on topics of popular culture and sports across 12 books and hundreds of columns.


Good afternoon. Its amazing to be here. its unbelievable to me that I am here, in a way. Im very honored to have been asked.

You know, 30 years ago this week, I graduated from UND — which, of course, is a day I will never forget.

Although, unfortunately, the reason I will always remember this is because I was a jerk.

I thought I was too cool to go through the Commencement ceremony, and I thought I couldnt afford, like, $80 for the gown or whatever. So I went to my friend Brian Zindas house to watch a basketball game.

So for the past three decades, whenever I talk about this — because itll come up, especially if youre going to give a speech at a college — people will ask you, what do you remember about yours?

I always explain that the reason I have this vivid memory is because in this basketball game, which I think was March 15, 1994, this player named Kevin Johnson — who would later become the mayor of Sacramento — he had this amazing dunk over Hakeem Olajuwon on the left baseline where he came in and dunked over him.

You can find it on YouTube; its sort of like the defining moment in this guys career. So whenever I can tell this anecdote, I always mention, “Oh, I didnt go to my graduation, but I saw this amazing dunk by Kevin Johnson.”

This anecdote, though, is kind of a lie. I am kind of lying when I say it.

I did watch that basketball game, and I do remember it; but it’s not because of anything that actually happened in the game. It’s because I knew that I was purposefully skipping an event that was significant. I think unconsciously, I had convinced myself not to care about this experience, because I didnt want to believe that it mattered.

I didnt like the idea of some moment in my life having any kind of — I dont know, transformative meaning to it. I think I kind of just blocked it out.

And now I would guess, there are probably some of you who are in this same position right now — like, youre listening to this speech, and youre like, “Its boring.” “I want this to be done.” “This seems like a formal construct.” “Im doing this out of obligation for my parents.”

A whole bunch of stuff. You might sort of feel like this is something you just got to get done.

But heres the truth. Youre going to remember this day whether you want to or not, because thats how the human mind works.

I assume most you can probably remember something about the very first day you came to this campus, even if nothing particularly remarkable happened on that day. Without even trying, you remember what that day has come to symbolize.

That will also be true about today, regardless of how you feel about it.

To me, one of the amazing things about college is its an experience thats really isolated from the rest of your life.

Its kind of like this silo built within the context of your larger experience of being a person. Some of you here, particularly if youre a parent or maybe if you listen to a lot of satellite radio, are familiar with a geriatric British rock musician named Ozzy Osborne. Okay. If youre not, dont worry about it. Its not going to affect your enjoyment of this story.

He was in Black Sabbath. He bit the head off a dead bat. He bit the head off two live doves. He had a reality show when you guys were probably being born, I guess.

But in 1979, Ozzy Osborne met this brilliant young guitarist named Randy Rhoads. And, they started this kind of musical collaboration. And then in 1982, Randy Rhoads died in a plane crash in Florida.

Now, whenever Ozzy Osborne talks about this relationship, what he always mentions is how the little short window of time spent with Randy Rhoads feels like its as long and as profound as all the years that came before that and all the years that have passed since 1982.

And whenever I hear that story, when I hear him say that, it really makes me think of college. That’s a little bit what college is like, you know? I mean, the people you met and the experiences you had, like the relationships you forged, some of the ideas that you probably encountered for the very first time, the problems you may have had to solve — when you look back on this later in your life, its going to seem like this time at UND was a much longer, deeper experience than logic would dictate by looking at a calendar.

Its almost going to be like a separate lifetime within your life.

Now, the downside to this is, that technically means that this ceremony is kind of a metaphoric funeral for that part of your life. But on the upside, unlike a real funeral, after this one, you can go to the bar.

Now, I also realize that traditionally, the idea behind this kind of speech is to inspire people.

You know, its like you tell people youre going to give a college commencement address. Theyll say, like, how will you inspire the students? You know, and, you know, maybe that will happen. Maybe I will inspire you by accident, you know?

But I need to be honest; and honestly, there are real limits to the power of inspiration. Like, you can admire other people, you can respect other people. But all the inspiration you need is already at your disposal.

You dont need to be inspired by someone else in order to do great work. The work itself needs to be the inspiration, whatever that work may be.

If there is true greatness inside of you, you are the only person with the potential to unlock that, and the only key that fits that lock will be crafted by your own autodidactic desire — and your willingness to do the work, particularly when no ones around to give you credit or notice.

I mean, thats where inspiration really comes from — from the thing that youre going to do and sort of devote your mind to completing.

That said, I may not be perfect for inspiration, but I am relatively old. My beard is gray. I’m old. Ive made a lot of mistakes in my life. Ive had a lot of good fortune. I spent a lot of time wondering why my life turned out the way that it did.

So, I do have some advice for you, and you can accept it or discard it.

The degree to which you feel good about your life is dependent on how you choose to view that life, and that will ultimately be dictated by one of two things: either by your own self-perception or through the perception of other people.

And this wont necessarily be your choice. I mean, some people are just naturally good at blocking out the rest of the world and ignoring the noise around them.

But there are also certain jobs and vocations where what people perceive is kind of the totality of the equation. Like, I’m a writer, so its really hard for me not to think about how my work is being received and judged by other people. In fact, its weird. I had to give a speech this morning for the graduate students, and while I was giving the speech, I had this weird thought creep through my mind.

Its like, what if I have a heart attack during this speech and die right here on the stage while Im talking about this? And you might think thats weird, but heres whats weirder. The second thought was: That would help book sales.

I was like, this is what Im thinking about when Im worried about dying in public!

So if you find yourself in a position similar to this, where a lot of how youre going to view your success or your own sort of belief in yourself through the eyes of other people — understand, you will be told by lots of people that you should just kind of block out all the negative criticism — that theyre just anchors on your experience, and youve just got to block that out.

And of course, that is good advice. But heres the catch. You also have to block out the compliments.

Like, you cant go through life with this idea that anything negative said about you is fake and anything nice about you, any compliment is somehow, irrefutably true.

You have to realize that its all kind of fake. If youre going to try to block out people trying to pull you down, you got to be wary of people who seem to be trying to pull you up, but who might just be talking, being nice.

Advice Two: Before you go to bed tonight, open the Notes app on your phone, and list the 10 things that are the most important to you — and try to be as specific as possible. Like, these should be 10 values or ideas that right now kind of define your worldview as a person.

So after you take these 10 things into your phone, do something else: wait 10 minutes, go back and reread them; and try to accept something that will be hard to accept: in 10 years, you will disagree with much of this list. And 25 years after that, you might disagree with all of it.

Try to remember this exercise as you go through life.

Think of this paradox whenever you meet people who seem diametrically opposed to you, but in truth, might be closer to the person you will eventually become.

I realize, this possibility to some people might seem impossible and just too difficult to internalize. Maybe youll make a list, and youll look at it and youll be like, “These 10 qualities are not arbitrary. They are not temporary. They are moral imperatives that will never change.”

And you might think, “When I look back on this list when I’m an old person, I’m going to feel exactly the same as I do right now about all of these things.”

And, you know, that might happen. That could be true; its not impossible.

But if that happens, something has gone wrong. Because people are supposed to change.

Never aspire to be a completely finished person.

Three: Money cannot buy happiness. Thats a cliche, and its a cliche that is true. Some of the richest people I know are fundamentally miserable.

But its important to remember that just because a cliche happens to be true, it doesnt mean the opposite of that cliche will generate the opposite experience.

Money cant buy happiness. Thats true. But poverty cant buy anything.

I mean, it might buy you the respect of people who arent going to help you anyway.

Now, life seems random and chaotic. Im guessing youve already recognized this from the the 20-some years youve lived on the Earth. On a day-to-day basis, it often feels as if existence is kind of driven by entropy and dictated by forces beyond any of our control.

Everything feels crazy all the time. It just seems like life is happening in this extemporaneous way that is just like atoms and molecules bouncing around in these goofy fashions.

Yet when you look back on your life, even if you look back on the life youve lived already, it will somehow seem like a perfectly crafted novel.

Like, all the things that youve done in your life, when you look back, when you look back in the rearview mirror, will appear to be what you absolutely had to do in order to have the life you have now. It will all fit together in this way that will just seem mechanically, expertly put together like perfect gears that fit and moved and kind of put you in the position you are now.

So take comfort in the fact that as you go through life and you have to make hard decisions, once enough time has passed, whatever decision you made will seem completely correct.

In the future, whatever arbitrary decision you make in the past will inevitably seem like the perfect move. Like you couldnt have done anything else, and everything about your life would be completely different if you hadnt made this one decision.

This will be true 99% of the time, with 99% of the decisions and problems you face.

Now, of course, I also understand that by saying 99%, I am latently conceding that theres a 1% chance that some random decision you make might have a rippling effect that will destroy your entire life. And if if that does happen — well, you will really remember how much you hated that part of this speech.

The last thing Im going to say here might seem a bit dark, and it might not be exactly what you want to hear, but bear with me, because this is actually important.

In 50 years, no matter what you do and what you accomplish, theres a very high probability that no one will remember and no one will care.

This is not a criticism of you or of anyone else. Its just how history operates, and imagining otherwise is pure narcissism.

Like, there have been 12 Americans who have walked on the moon. Walked on the moon.

Yet I would guess most people here cant name more than three; and that might be optimistic.

So the idea that what you do and the things you accomplish, youre somehow going to live forever through the lives of other people, through your children, through their children, through books — you can believe that. But thats not really how it works.

There are so many lost figures of the last century, from the 20th century, who did amazing things. And theyre just gone.

But there will be at least one person who will remember, and there will be at least one person who will care. And that person is you. You will remember and you will care.

The size of your reality is the size of your memory.

And the metaphysical essence of your life is how those memories make you feel.

So the key is having as many memories as possible.

Try to remember everything. Try to remember every detail of your life, even if it seems kind of unimportant. You know, youre moving out of an apartment or a dorm now; remember what that place looked like. Remember who were the people you interacted with on a day-to-day basis. Youre going to have to get jobs, and you can remember those first days for a few weeks, and they might just dissolve; but try to hang on to them.

Because even if youre the only person who remembers your life, it will be worth it. Because your life will always be important, as long as its important to you.

Thank you very much!