Memorable Commencement Speeches

memorable-commencement-speech I collect commencement speeches.  Perhaps because I skipped both my high school and university commencements, and never got my pearls of wisdom that way.

When given the opportunity, people can wax and wane philosophically about the intersection of youth, life, and choices almost endlessly.  But at a commencement speech, you are required to entertain, inform, educate, and leave an impression within a very real time limit.  Here are some of my favourite snippets.  Feel free to leave yours below.

On fears and mortality

Steve Jobs, reflecting upon his cancer and brush with death.

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

… No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

On the benefits of failure and stripping away the inessential

J.K. Rowling, on feeling like a failure seven years after her university graduation.

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.

Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.

The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.

So given a Time Turner, I would tell my 21-year-old self that personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a check-list of acquisition or achievement. Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life, though you will meet many people of my age and older who confuse the two. Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone’s total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.

On living to be a hundred

David Mahoney on some life strategies if we are expected to live to a hundred.

1. Diversify your career from the very beginning.

Stop thinking of jobs in series, one after the other; instead, think of careers in parallel. That means planning your vacation along with your avocation, and keep them as separate as possible. If you want to go into business, plan an avocation of music or art; if you are inclined toward the law or the media, diversify into education or landscaping. If you want to be a poet, think about politics on the side, and study it seriously.

Don’t confuse an avocation with recreation. Watching basketball on television, or surfing the Internet for the latest interactive game, can be a lively part of life, but it’s not creative avocation. And don’t confuse a serious avocation with a hobby; do-it-yourselfing is fund, and so are clay modeling, and gardening and fiddling with old cars. Hobbies are ways to relax and to make friends, and everybody should have some; but a real avocation is a subtext to a career, and a part of your working week to pursue with a certain dedication. Why? Not only because it gives balance to your second quarter, but because it positions you for the time that will come, in the third or fourth quarter, to switch gears. And then switch them again – you’ll have the time, and public policy will change to give you incentives to keep working or avocating.

The point is to not be singleminded about career. Be double-minded, or triple-minded; to keep a pot or two on your back burners.

4. Pace yourself: it’s a small world and a long life.

The centenarian thinks about success differently, with a longer view. He or she measures success in getting to personal satisfaction, which does not always mean getting to the top of the heap. Making money is important, never derogate building an estate that you and your progeny can use. But developing long –term loyalties in all the strands of your career and avocation and hobbies and recreation pays off in that satisfaction. Those loyalties also make life easier later; you can get things done across the different strands, helping someone in your avocation who has helped you in your career.

Ask yourself along the way: Whose approval is important to you? Whose is not? The centenarians do not stop to smell the flowers; they carry the flower along.

On approvals and indifference

Bill Bullard at the UHS commencement on how to evolve beyond seeking approval from your superiors.

Finally, by their very nature, schools teach students to seek the approval of their teachers. Indeed, for all of our differences, this is one area that parents and teachers share; we are wired or we are hired to believe in you, to approve you, to prevent or mitigate the experiences of disappointment. “We believe in the promise of every child,” says our Mission Statement, a serious challenge to every adult in this community. And while it is a useful standard, it is also leads to a false relationship with the world that you should seek to correct in two ways. First seek people, work for people who don’t have to like you, people who can easily disapprove of you, people that you can’t easily please. Their skepticism or indifference will define you. Second, if you don’t how to do so already, begin working for yourself, and let the teachers be damned. But they won’t be – they’ll just be all the more approving because that kind of integrity can only command respect. After all, most of the work we devise is devised for students who are not working for themselves, so those that do surpass our expectations and teach us things that we’ve never thought of.

On choosing what to think, versus how to think

The late David Foster Wallace talking about the value of a liberal education: the freedom to resist sway and choose how to govern our little kingdoms.

If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.

… Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

picture source: winterland

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  • Gaurav

    Jim Lehrer’s commencement from my graduation – excellent speech, sounded even better in person (I just wish I hadn’t drunk that much the night before!). Relevant then, and you could even make the case that parts of it echo on today – http://www.upenn.edu/pennnews/article.php?id=188

  • Gaurav

    Jim Lehrer’s commencement from my graduation – excellent speech, sounded even better in person (I just wish I hadn’t drunk that much the night before!). Relevant then, and you could even make the case that parts of it echo on today – http://www.upenn.edu/pennnews/article.php?id=188