For thousands of freshly-minted Millennial college graduates, only one things stands between them and getting on with the rest of their lives: the commencement speaker.
As their final gesture, colleges and universities seek out speakers to offer parting words of advice to the graduating class. These speakers, generally, have distinguished themselves in their chosen fields, and are called upon to share what they’ve learned in achieving their success.
At their most basic commencement speeches are brimming with platitudes. Or speakers will impart platitudes while telling their fidgety Millennial audience that they’re going to dispense with the same old platitudes. There will be pandering references to local landmarks (Julie Andrews to University of Colorado Boulder: “I made my way to the pub to kiss the buffalo”) or the school’s athletic teams (President Barack Obama to Ohio State: “I’ve been told to ask everybody, though, please be careful with the turf. Coach Meyer has big plans for this fall”) and pop culture references (Julie Andrews: “These hills are truly alive with the graduating class of 2013”).
The best commencement speeches manage to be witty, insightful and inspiring.
What does this have to do with you who may have long since graduated? Well, maybe everything. Because no matter at what point you are in your life, whether you are starting a new job or entering retirement, commencement speeches remind us to maximize our potential, to be our best selves, and to make a difference. In short, they are not just for Millennials anymore.
Below are words of wisdom from this year’s class of commencement speakers. Stay inspired!
President Barack Obama (Ohio State University): So you can’t give up your passion if things don’t work right away. You can’t lose heart, or grow cynical if there are twists and turns on your journey…It’s those folks who stay at it, those who do the long, hard, committed work of change that gradually push this country in the right direction, and make the most lasting difference. So…whenever you hear those voices saying you can’t do it, you can’t make a difference, whenever somebody tells you to set your sights lower — the trajectory of this great nation should give you hope. What generations have done before you should give you hope.”
Stephen Colbert (University of Virginia): “This week’s Time magazine called you lazy, entitled narcissists who are part of the me me me generation. Your generation needs everything to be about you and that’s very upsetting to us baby boomers because self-absorption is kind of our thing. We’re the original ‘me generation’… You may learn sooner than most generations the hard lesson that you must always make the path for yourself. Every generation must define itself. If you must find your own path and we have left you no easy path then decide now to choose the hard path that leads to the life and world that you want.”
Twitter CEO Dick Costolo (University of Michigan): Speaking of his formative years taking comedy improv classes at Chicago’s famed Second City: “There were four people up on stage. These guys are improvising they’re in a laundromat. The scene ends and (the director) asks all of us in the room, ‘What do you see up there on that stage right now?’ We describe what we see; it’s this big, empty stage. (The director) says, ‘So far today, you guys have improvised that you’re in an apartment, an apartment, a Laundromat, and an apartment. What are you afraid of? You need to make more courageous choices. The reason the stage is completely empty is so that you can go out there and be in the Keebler Elf factory, or be on the Space Shuttle as an astronaut who have never even tried to fly a plane before. Make bigger choices. Take courageous risks.”
Domino’s CEO Patrick Doyle (Central Michigan University): In preparing for this talk, I went where most people go these days—the Internet. I Googled “commencement addresses” and watched a handful. They all said the same thing: Follow your passion I’m not going to say that, because it wouldn’t be helpful. The world just doesn’t work that way. It is the rare few who can follow their passions and make a good living…And how do you know, today, exactly what your life’s passion is, anyway? I know people today who, at 50 years old, are still wandering around wondering when they’re going to find something in their lives to be passionate about….”
President Nike Brand Charlie Denton (Utah State University): “Three questions: First, what do you want to do? Then, what should you do. And finally, what do I hope you do... I hope you won't be afraid to fail, that you’ll remain curious, and that you'll always ask the question, “why or why not?” I hope you will never be satisfied with the status quo. That you’ll seek a different path, solution, or direction. That you’ll always look to make it better.”
Flex-N-Gate Corporation President Shahid Kahn (University of Illinois): “Almost always the hard road is the right road. Forty-some years ago, some people were concerned that as a foreign student and as a potential immigrant, I was taking a U.S. citizen’s job at a blacksmith’s shop. Yes, I did take that job. And in the process, created thousands of jobs right here in America.”
AOL Co-founder and Revolution CEO Steve Case (University of North Carolina): “You have your diploma, but you aren’t quite sure what the future holds. A half-century ago, most graduates committed to a job and a career path, and stayed on that track for their whole lives. Things are different today. Most of you will not only have multiple jobs – you likely will have multiple careers. So the key is to keep learning. Be curious. Be open. Be flexible. Let your life unfold as a series of chapters. Don’t be so fixated on a specific ending that you neglect to open the door when opportunity knocks.”
The Dalai Lama (Tulane University): "I always believe that the very purpose of our life is happiness ... an existence based on hope. Now you start your real life. It could be more complicated, with more difficulties. You should not demoralize. ... You must keep optimism and self-confidence."
There will be more speeches in the weeks to come. We’ll check in later to see what the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Deepak Chopra and Ed Helms have to say to Millennials.
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.