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The Best Laid Plans

Mississippi State University Summer Commencement - 1992
"If you're sitting out there now with a nice, neat little outline for the next ten years, you'd better be careful. Life may have other plans."

Thank you, Dr. Zacharias, for those kind words, and thank you especially for this privilege to be here at this moment to address the 1992 graduates of Mississippi State. It is an honor for me to be here on this campus of this University that I love so dearly.

To the graduates, congratulations on this day. Your hard work and perseverance have brought you to this point, and you are to be commended. Congratulations are also in order for your parents and families and friends, and make sure you give them all a big hug before today is over. Tell your parents thanks and you love them. Take plenty of pictures. It's a great day, and one that you can never repeat.

Commencement speeches are usually given by people who are either old or wise. I am neither. I'm here because I've written three books, and because these books have been purchased and read and enjoyed by many people. And I'm very grateful for this. And if you've bought the books, I say thank you. My children say thank you. The next one will be out in March.

Commencement speeches usually fall into three categories. First, you have Peace Corps speeches in which the speaker attempts to motivate you, the graduates, to forsake jobs and money and credit cards and ignore your student loans, and go off to the Third World and teach starving people how to grow food. There's nothing wrong with the Peace Corps. I wish I had joined.

There's nothing wrong with the Peace Corps speech, except few people listen. Second, you have the good citizen speech in which the speaker attempts to motivate you to become productive, vote properly, run for office, enjoy paying taxes and in general build a new society. The world is at your feet. The future is yours. You can move mountains, etc., etc. Though I really can't remember, I think I heard one of these fifteen years ago when I sat where you are now. It was quite dull.

Third, you have the current affairs speech in which a distinguished politician or statesman or diplomat talks about the current mess in world politics and what we should do to solve the problems. I served seven years in the state legislature, so I cannot be classified as a distinguished politician. And if you watch CNN, then you know as much about the world as I do.

So , I will ignore tradition and try to say something you might remember for more than twenty-four hours.

When I sat out there fifteen years ago, I was rather smug and confident, perhaps even a bit arrogant because I, at the age of twenty-two, had already figured out my life. I had it all planned, and was certain things would fall neatly into place. I had earned my degree in accounting. I had been accepted to law school where I planned to study tax law and one day soon make lots of money representing rich people who didn't want to pay taxes. My goal was to become a successful lawyer, and there was no doubt it would happen. Everything was planned.

For those of you who have read The Firm, you might be shocked to learn that I was not heavily recruited when I finished law school. There were no law firms throwing money at me. In fact, no one offered me a job.

Undaunted by this, I returned to my hometown of Southaven, hung out my shingle and declared myself ready to sue. I worked hard, treated people fairly, and soon was very busy.

In those days, I never thought about writing books. I had never taken a course in creative writing, never studied the craft, never thought about being an author. I was a lawyer, and then I became a lawyer and a legislator. There were political aspirations, and I dreamed of building a big law firm. Life was pretty much on track, and it was good.

But one day, quite by accident, I stumbled into a courtroom in Hernando, Mississippi, and witnessed something that would eventually change my life. I didn't realize it at the time, and that's usually the way it happens.

What I witnessed inspired me to create in my imagination a courtroom drama set in a small town in Mississippi. It could be Starkville or Oxford, Ripley or West Point, Kosciusko or Brookhaven. You know the town because you've lived there. In 1984, I wrote the first page of the first chapter of A Time to Kill. It was a hobby, nothing more. Three years later, I sent the completed manuscript to New York, and immediately wrote the first page of the first chapter of a story that would eventually become The Firm. It was just a hobby.

But that was about to change. Good luck was about to strike. Opportunity was determined to interfere. The Firm caught the attention of some publishers and some movie producers, and a year after the manuscript arrived in New York, I abruptly quit law and said goodbye to politics. I was suddenly bored with these vocations. My wife and I sold our house in the suburbs and moved to a farm outside Oxford.

Fifteen years ago I had it all planned, and thank goodness it didn't work.

If you're sitting out there now with a nice, neat little outline for the next ten years, you'd better be careful. Life may have other plans. Life will present you with unexpected opportunities, and it will be up to you to take a chance, to be bold, to have faith and go for it. Life will also present you with bad luck and hardship, and maybe even tragedy, so get ready for it. It happens to everyone.

In a few hours, you will say goodbye to each other and scatter. Many of you will not return here for a long time. Four years passed before I came back, but as time has gone by, I find myself drawn back to this place more and more. If you love MSU now, you will love it more ten years from now. And you'll find yourself returning for almost any reason, and walking across the campus wondering where the years have gone. I come back now as often as I can to give talks, read from the books, and yes, to watch baseball. Not far from here is a dilapidated pickup truck that a friend purchased for a hundred dollars and spray painted by hand. It has no engine, and the tires are flat. Someone installed a few rows of benches, and I am happiest when I'm sitting on top of it watching the Bulldogs play. Time, deadlines, telephones, and appointments are all very unimportant in the left field lounge, and that's one reason I keep coming back. There are other reasons.

I hope you come back too. MSU needs your continuing support and loyalty.

Good Luck to you all. My hope for you is that the next fifteen years will be as much fun as the last fifteen have been for me. God Bless you.

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