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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

"The Three Questions" and a graduation speech by Kaye Spencer

With graduation on my mind since my oldest grandchild graduates from high school this month, I've decided to share the graduation speech I wrote and delivered to the class of 2007 (the school from which I retired two years ago).

photo courtesy

Good evening, graduates:

A favorite short story of mine, The Emperor’s Three Questions, was written by the Russian author, Count Leo Tolstoy of War and Peace fame, and published in 1903. His short story has been retold in a children’s version by Jon J. Muth, under the title, The Three Questions. The story is about identifying what in life is truly important, which is what I want to talk about for the next few minutes.

Everyday, we’re all faced with making decisions about one thing or another, and it is often difficult to decide what to do, let alone determine the best thing to do. Each day is filled with tiny milestones and some days, like tonight, represent more significant events in our lives.

Graduation is just one of many memorable points in your lives to this point. Other milestones you've achieved so far might be:
  • your first birthday;
  • your first day of kindergarten
  • your last day of kindergarten;
  • learning to read;
  • the first 3-pointer you ever made in a basketball game;
  • your first car;
  • your first love;
  • your first heartbreak;
  • and so on.
You’ve now arrived at your first graduation ceremony, and you will embark upon countless adventures and experiences from this moment on. You’re also going to face worries and grapple with questions that have no definite answers.

  • What’s going to happen to me now?
  • Should I start out at a 2-year college or go straight to a 4-year?
  • Maybe I should go to a technical school.
  • Should I take some time to get a job and figure out what I want to do?
As you grow older, questions will still be there, and you’ll still be looking for answers.

  • Did I make the right career choice?
  • Did I marry the right person?
  • Should I get married?
  • Should I change jobs? Change careers?
  • Do I want children?
  • Should I...?
  • Why did I...?
  • Why didn’t I...?
While these are important questions, and they are infused with emotion and influenced by circumstances, they are not the questions. Ultimately, there are only three questions in life—The Three Questions—because according to Tolstoy, everything else is inconsequential in the larger scheme.

The first question is this:    When is the best time to do things?

The second question is:      Who is the most important one?

And the third question is:   What is the right thing to do?

So, when is the best time to do things? How can we really know? It’s important to plan and consider all the options; weigh the pros and cons. There’s just not a simple answer.

Who is the most important one? That’s easy, you say. The important ones are the people you care about; your friends and family. While I agree that’s true, the question is, who is the most important ONE? Now that’s more complicated. And you might argue that it’s impossible to choose just one important person in your life.

It is a dilemma. Now, let’s go on to the third question.

What is the right thing to do? This question prompts even more questions.
  • Is this a moral question?
  • An ethical question?
  • Or is it a spiritual question?
  • Maybe it’s legal question?
  • Perhaps it’s even a financial question.
  • You may be wondering how anyone can possibly resolve this conundrum in light of so many influencing factors to consider.
It’s just one puzzling question creating another!

How did Tolstoy solve the riddle of The Three Questions? While it is up to each of you, individually, to find your own personal answers to life’s mysteries, Tolstoy’s answers are quite straight-forward. To paraphrase, Tolstoy said,

Remember then that there is only one important time, and that time is now. The most important one is always the one you are with. And the most important thing is to do good for the one who is standing at your side, for who knows if you will have dealings with any other person in the future. For these, my dear graduates, are the answers to what is most important in this world.

To the graduates of the world, I wish each of you all the best as you search for your own answers to life’s Three Questions.

Until next time,

Kaye Spencer


  1. Kaye, I love this. Until this moment, I was unaware of Tolstoy's story (mostly because Tolstoy scares me) and Jon J. Muth's children's adaptation. The Three Questions really do encapsulate life's choices, though, don't they?

    I know you made an impact on some young lives with your graduation address. I'm an "old person," and I'm still grappling with all the questions you mentioned. Let's hope some of those graduates are smarter than I am. They have long lives and all the potential in the world ahead of them. :-)

    Thanks for sharing this with us!

    1. Kathleen,

      Tolstoy's work is a force to reckoned with, that's for sure. This children's book and the Dr. Seuss, Oh the Places You'll Go make great graduation gifts... well, with $20 tucked inside. lol

      I'm in the "old person" camp, too, and I'm as far away from figuring out answers to life's questions as I was when I graduated high school. *grin*

    2. Kaye, I served in the military. The stint left me with a permanent physical reminder, but I would enlist again. One thing I learned: As long as you're willing to pay the price, sometimes breaking the rules is the right thing to do. :-)

    3. Kathleen,

      I used to tell my students that they had to learn the rules before they could bend them. I also told them that not all rules are worthy of being rules. They not only need to be broken, they need to be smashed into smithereens. :-)

      I had my heart set on going into the Air Force. I'd been in our local Civil Air Patrol for years. I'd soloed (sp?) in a small aircraft at 16 yrs. I had the uniform, the discipline, the 'want to'. And then that darn head injury. *shrug* As John Lennon said, "Life is what happens when you're making other plans." :-)

  2. Loved the questions and the answers. Life is full of moments, moments we all cherish. We cherisht them, I think, because we subconsciously have answered the three questions they way we needed to. How much richer life is when we are conscious. We all impact others, but teachers have so many wonderful lives they support in their hands. Thank you for the reminder. Doris

    1. Doris,

      Forrest Gump's mother summed it up well: Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're going to get.

      So true, so true.

  3. What a profound speech, Kaye. That Tolstoy, boy, he really had a clear vision about what was important in life.
    I think it's astounding how we all make major decisions that will effect the rest of our lives at such a young age: What to do for a living, who to marry/or not, and where to live. Good thing we can change our minds about some of these decisions. Sometimes I still wonder if I made the right decisions about some of my the path I didn't take.
    What an honor to be asked to make this speech, Kaye. Thank you so much for sharing it with us.

    1. Sarah,

      It is crazy how we're supposed to know what we want to do with our lives when we're in the 18-19-20 year-old-range, and I'm wayyyyyyy past those years and I'm still trying to figure out what I want to do, where I want to be, how I plan to get there...

      I know I didn't make many right decisions over the course of my life, but man-oh-man, there's little I'd change. There is really only one *thing* I wish I'd have done and that was join the military. I was ready to go and then suffered a head injury which put a stop to those plans. But it turned out that I ended up with a career in education, and I'm satisfied that was a good decision.

      I like this saying: We must let go of the life we've planned in order to live the life that is waiting for us.

  4. Kaye, I love this post. I had never heard of the three questions. Now you have me thinking, and that is SOOOO dangerous. LOL

    Odd how society blindly follows along in the ways of the past, expecting kids to know their hearts and minds at 18 or 20 about what they'll want for the rest of their lives. My daughter dropped out of college. She knew better than we did about what she needed. In the profession she chose--a very different one than we were used to--the acting/casting/photography/directing/teaching/younameit--the best education is hands on experience. She was already working at the job she wanted and loved--so why quit and go to college when she was getting the hands-on experience she needed? She knew so many friends who started out going to college and realizing that after 2-3 years, they were not doing what they thought they wanted to do. More often than not.

    It's too bad we don't have the luxury of having more knowledge and wisdom at an earlier age. This is very thought provoking--thanks for posting--I learned something and I'll be mulling this over for the rest of my life, I suppose. These answers change and morph into something else with different thoughts, don't they? So interesting!


  5. Cheryl,

    My youngest son went to college for a couple of years. He didn't want to be there. He wanted to work, and had worked since late junior high. So, he applied for a job with a railroad and got it. He quite college and has worked for the railroad for 11 years and is quite satisfied and successful.

    My brother hated school, and didn't do well with academics. But give him a piece of machinery/car to work on and he was happy. He did go to a 6-month diesel mechanics school, and was hired by Caterpillar when he graduated. That was 20+ yrs ago and he has since changed companies and they have sent him all over the world to work on heavy equipment.

    Moral to the story: college is not the only route to achieve satisfaction and live a good life.

    HOWEVER, getting that high school diploma is the first step because it opens doors that are otherwise closed to a person.