Standing before graduates and cast in the role of "some old fart, his best years behind him," American writer George Saunders looked to redefine traditional notions of success and failure.

Saunders delivered a poignant convocation address at Sycracuse University, which was published this week at The New York Times and has ricocheted through social media. Random House has even said it will even publish an expanded form of the speech in a book entitled Congratulations, By the Way in the spring of 2014.

The best life, Saunders argued, wasn't the most ambitious, the most prosperous, or the most notable. Rather, it was the most benevolent: "You could do worse than: Try to be kinder."

"What I regret most in life are failures of kindness," admitted Saunders to the eager-faced Syracuse graduates. "Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded… sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly."

For being so "facile," his words on kindness are arresting. The vista of Saunders's moral vision opens to us with expansive beauty. Yet, if we were to be honest, we know that we betray our own desires for it. We love virtue and are beholden to vice.

Why do we fail to be kind when we know kindness to be so intrinsically right? And why does Saunders's advice feel, well—so impossible?

Saunders suggests we cure selfishness to attain to the measure of kindness. We medicate ourselves with art, education, prayer, meditation, and friendship. We abandon the notion that "we are central to the universe." We fight our Darwinian "built-in confusions," which "cause us to preference our own needs over the needs of ...

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