"My humanity is defined by yours.” Elie Wiesel, Dartmouth Commencement, 2006
In 1990, as I sat at my college graduation in my pale blue cap and gown not listening to the commencement speaker, I never dreamed that more than 25 years later, the internet would disseminate pearls of wisdom delivered to freshly minted graduates, and my generation would read and recirculate them with zeal.
As I eagerly awaited the moment of being declared a college graduate (so I could hurry up and get on with my “real” life), a controversial commencement speech was being delivered at Wellesley College by then-First-Lady Barbara Bush. The speech itself was not the subject of controversy; it was the speaker whose invitation to keynote sparked a protest by 150 students at the women’s college who, according to the New York Times account, were “outraged” because Mrs. Bush “did not represent the type of career woman the college seeks to educate.” Her accomplishments were, they complained, a result of her marriage to a successful politician, not a result of an independent career.
Today, new outraged college seniors protest commencement speakers they don't like, and many of those potential speakers never deliver their keynotes. But maybe those college seniors should consider listening to the speakers they don't want to hear. Despite the controversy, Barbara Bush delivered to the Wellesley College class of 1990 one of the best commencement speeches of all time—according to NPR whose list includes the Dalai Lama, Vaclav Havel, Steve Jobs, and 296 others.
But why, in our 30s, 40s, and beyond, are we still—or maybe for the first time—fascinated by commencement speeches? What is the message we want ourselves to hear? While graduation would seem to be a time ripe for practical advice, commencement speakers tend to deliver a more profound message. According to two psychologists at Arizona State University in a 2011 paper in the journal Current Psychology, commencement speeches typically draw on timeless themes of optimism, goodness, and altruism. The two most frequent messages in the ninety speeches they analyzed were “Help Others” and “Do the Right Thing.” Next on the list in descending order of frequency were “Expand Your Horizons," "Be True to Yourself," "Never Give Up," "Appreciate Diversity," "Cherish Special Others," and "Seek Balance.” None of this is news, but we always seem to need a reminder.
In a culture in which the pursuit of happiness is embedded in our historical narrative, the pursuit of meaning can seem to get short shrift. Yet the messages in the speeches we deem “great” are not about acquiring wealth, becoming successful in business, or even accomplishing great work—although many commencement speakers have done those things, and many graduates will go on to do those things, too. Finding meaning in life through cherishing and supporting the people in our lives is often the message of great commencement speeches.
J.K. Rowling, addressing Harvard’s graduating class of 2008 declared, “… life is not a check-list of acquisition or achievement. Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life…” Amy Poehler, addressing Harvard’s graduating class of 2011 told them, “You can’t do it alone. … No one is here today because they did it on their own.” A compelling short film and internet favorite titled, This is Water, was created from the 2005 Kenyon College address by the late David Foster Wallace, and beautifully dramatizes the central thesis, “…the really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom.”
Whether marking a beginning or reflecting on an end, the message we seem to need is the same. In his eulogy for Beau Biden, President Obama exhorted, “…with every minute that we’ve got, we can live our lives in a way that takes nothing for granted. We can love deeply. We can help people who need help. We can teach our children what matters, and pass on empathy and compassion and selflessness.”
Wellesley graduates twenty-five years ago heard a similar message, “… as important as your obligations as a doctor, lawyer or business leader will be, you are a human being first and those human connections—with spouses, with children, with friends—are the most important investments you will ever make.”
If you were to write a commencement speech, what would you say? Here is a variation of an exercise I use with students and clients: Imagine that it is some time in the future and you are nearing the end of your life. You are asked to make the keynote address at a college commencement. In a sci-fi twist, the “you” of today will hear this speech. What “future-you” says in this speech has the power to shift the way “present-you” (the real you of today) thinks and acts. What would you write to yourself in that commencement speech?
Perhaps the best commencement speech of all time is the one that you write to yourself.