Commencement speeches get a bad rap. They “suck,” proclaimed actor James Franco on Huffington Post. “Here's one thing I've learned, it's that no one remembers their commencement speaker's speech.”
Ira Glass, creator of “This American Life,” concurred. And he was giving his speech at the time. "I believe that it is a doomed form," he announced after taking the podium at Goucher College in Baltimore last week. "Commencement speakers give stock advice which is then promptly ignored. The central mission of a commencement speech is in itself ridiculous, to inspire at a moment which needs no inspiration. Look at yourselves at this moment, something incredible is happening right now."
Michael Bloomberg’s recent commencement address at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill would seem to be a case in point. He hits all the graduation speech clichés, from pop culture references (“I decided to ‘Slow-Jam the Commencement Address.’ Unfortunately, I couldn’t convince Branford Marsalis to join me”) to university inside jokes (“I challenged Chancellor Thorp to a Rubik’s Cube contest”) and dissing a rival school (“not only did you see an NCAA Basketball Championship during your time here, but in your senior year – Duke lost in the first round to a 15 seed”).
Emmy and Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin caused a kerfuffle when it was discovered his commencement speech at Syracuse University was actually recycled from previous speeches as well as his former TV series, “The West Wing.”
But Credit.com founder Adam Levine offered a spirited defense of commencement addresses in a Huff Post response to Franco. “I can personally attest to the fact that they are not all forgotten,” he wrote. “When I graduated Stanford University in 1971 (am I really that old?), Eric Sevareid, one of the most literate and respected journalists of his time, was the commencement speaker. His speech was eloquent, indeed poetic. I remember it to this day some 40 years later, parts of it verbatim. I remember it because it inspired me, it challenged me, and it made me realize that what we did mattered. It wasn't just about where I was going -- it was about where we were all going.”
Graduates are not the only ones who could use a little inspirational boost. Who among us in this challenging economy or facing any number of personal and professional challenges couldn’t benefit from a call to maximize our potential, follow our dreams, and be true to our best selves?
Here are just a few words of wisdom culled from commencement speeches to the Class of 2012:
· Condoleezza Rice (Southern Methodist University): “As an educated person, you have an opportunity to spend your life doing what you love. As you work to find your passion, you should also know that if you haven’t yet found it, it might indeed find you.”
· DISH Network Chairman Charlie Ergen: “I’ve found failure to be my very best teacher.”
· Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen (University of California at Berkeley Haas School of Business): “The answer isn’t in a spreadsheet…Know your Zen…Surround yourself with people smarter than you.”
· Neil Gaiman (The University of the Arts): “Make good art…and while you’re at it, make your art. Do the stuff only you can do.”
· Brian Williams (George Washington University): “You don't actually have to build a rocket or go into space, but please take us somewhere. Please keep us moving. Push us, lift us up. Make us better.”
· Andy Samberg (Harvard University): “Relax, dude! You just finished college at Harvard. You worked so hard. Trust me, you’re going to kill it."
Donald Liebenson writes news and features for Millionaire Corner. He has been published in the Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Los Angeles Times, Fiscal Times, Entertainment Weekly, Huffington Post, and other outlets. He has also served as a marketing writer for Chicago-based Questar Entertainment and distributor Baker & Taylor.
A graduate of the University of Southern California, he is married with a college-age son. He also writes extensively about entertainment.