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If You Were To Give A College Commencement Speech This Month, What Would You Say To The Grads?

Congratulations! Because you are known as a thoughtful and insightful — even occasionally inspiring — person, you’ve been asked to be a commencement speaker at one of the state’s universities. You’re surprised and even a little intimidated that you’d be asked (“Who me?”) because you are not particularly well-known and don’t do a lot of public speaking. But you’ve decided to say yes to what might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to maybe — just maybe — have a positive impact on a few people you’ve never met.

What would you say in your speech?

Speaking as Captain Obvious I can state that this is not just another graduation year. The students have likely spent the last year off-campus learning virtually, probably at home. The pandemic has made a mess of the economy and also the normal patterns of our social interactions. There is deep political divisiveness in the country. There is increased social unrest. The job market for these newly minted grads is iffy at best and many jobs and many workplaces are experiencing various kinds of challenge and change.

No one quite knows yet what this so-called “new normal” will look like and that weighs heavily on many of those twenty-something grads who will be in your audience. There is a different kind of anxiety this year and it’s not just about immediate job prospects. It’s about uncertainty and change. It’s about ambiguity. I’ve written in this space before about what has been called the age of “VUCA.”

Some of the can’t-miss catch phrases and nuggets of wisdom that might have been inspiring 5–10 years ago in commencement speeches (“Find your passion”; “Be true to yourself;” “Make a difference in the world;” any phrase that contains the word “journey”) might be perceived by these new grads as trite, as anodyne. Cliched.

However, even though many commencement themes are repackaged versions of what might be considered timeless principles, there have been some compelling and profound commencement speeches given over the years. The famous Steve Jobs commencement at Stanford in 2005 comes to mind when he talked about his own mortality in light of his cancer diagnosis.

As you think about what you might say in your speech perhaps there is some guidance or inspiration in some important messages from other commencement speakers from the past, without plagiarizing them, of course. Here are some excerpts from a few of the ones that resonate with me:

  • “Empathy and kindness are the true signs of emotional intelligence. For many of you who maybe don’t have it all figured out, it’s okay. That’s the same chair that I sat in. Enjoy the process of your search without succumbing to the pressure of the result.” (Will Farrell — Southern Cal, 2017).
  • “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.” (JK Rowling- Harvard, 2008)
  • “Do all the other things, the ambitious things — travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers (after first having it tested for monkey poop) — but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.” (George Saunders — Syracuse, 2013)
  • “Life is an improvisation. You have no idea what’s going to happen next and you are mostly just making things up as you go along.” (Steven Colbert — Northwestern, 2011)
  • “Learn from every mistake because every experience, encounter, and particularly your mistakes are there to teach you and force you into being more who you are. And the key to life is to develop an internal moral, emotional G.P.S. that can tell you which way to go.” (Oprah Winfrey — Harvard, 2013)
  • “If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.” (Admiral William H. McRaven — Texas 2014)

What do you think? Do any of those ideas or themes germinate something from you? What about other important messages of wisdom or lessons learned you’ve found valuable in your life that could show up in your talk? Perhaps a practical way of getting the creative juices flowing is to ask yourself “What’s something really important that I know now that I wish I had known when I was in my early 20’s?”

By the way, I do have a couple of additional thoughts I offer for your consideration which were not called out in the commencement oldies-but-goodies excerpts above…

One is a premise suggesting caution about embracing absolute certainty on certain issues. Believing we are 100% correct on a particular matter (not scientifically proven facts) can close oneself to new and potentially conflicting evidence or other ways of thinking about an issue. When we never examine our own assumptions or beliefs or logic chains about a political, spiritual or moral issue it can be an impediment to listening and learning. And to critical thinking. And to curiosity.

That’s not to suggest to those new grads that they should not have a firm set of values and principles that provide personal guidance for their actions. Yes, there is “black and white” and non-negotiables for some things. That’s what Ms. Winfrey was talking about in her statement about having a “moral GPS.”

Of course, what is “moral” to one person can be seen as amoral or even immoral to another person but when someone only reads or thinks about one point of view and embraces it with 100% certainty that it is THE answer, it can result in the tribalism or polarization we are experiencing today. I’m pretty sure that terrorists are 100% certain that their beliefs and actions are correct and justified.

As Billy Joel expressed in his 1993 song “Shades of Grey” “The only people I fear are those who never have doubts; the more I find out the less that I know…” New grads going into the world would be well served by acquiring what Hemingway called a “shock-proof” BS detector.

One other commencement theme to pass along, this one from a friend who teaches at the university level. He sees and hears a lot about college student anxiety. One of his suggestions for advice to new grads has to do with how we should go about restoring meaning in our post-pandemic lives. He refers to it as “short interval thinking.”

Many of the cadences in our lives (work; social; learning) have been disrupted by the chaos of the last 14 months. Because of the changes and uncertainties that will continue to impact our routines and our expectations, it’s folly to expect that we can somehow rapidly orchestrate a long-term reset across all spectrums of our personal lives. That might be especially true for new grads who are already facing a major transition in their lives. A shorter-term focus paradoxically is likely to help us make sense of the changes and make necessary adjustments for achieving longer-term success for whatever we deem important in our lives.

Was this helpful? Did some of the ideas in this note aid you in developing your thinking about what key message(s) to include in your commencement speech? Remember — you don’t have to aim for changing lives through a brief talk. Being pragmatic and authentic is at least as important as being profound and if you create some “a-ha’s” among the grads and the parents you’ve succeeded.

About the author: Mike Hoban is a business topics writer and leadership coach/ advisor. He is actively working at becoming a world-class grandpa to his five young granddaughters. In addition to his 35+ years experience as a leader, consultant and business owner he has also published extensively in Fast Company and wrote a business column for 12 years. Many of his recent commentaries — including several about leading during the COVID crisis — can be found on his LinkedIn page: https://www.linkedin.com/in/mike-hoban-b5756b6/He can also be reached at mjhoban99@gmail.com.

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Mike Hoban

Mike Hoban

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Mike Hoban is a West Michigan-based leadership coach and advisor who also writes about business topics.