‘Tis the season, and I’m a sap for commencement speeches — I choke up, feel wistful, get inspired. People of note from all walks of life command the podium as the sky fills with flying mortar boards, offering dos, don’ts, and wisdom to the graduates. I find what they choose to share fascinating. A few of my favorites are below.
Summa Cum Laude: Advice, Like Youth, Probably Wasted on the Young, Mary Schmich, June 1, 1997. Turns out my top pick is a commencement speech that wasn’t. Mary Schmich penned a satirical address for her column in the Chicago Tribune. It made the Billboard Top 100 in a Beat poetry-style single by Baz Luhrmann, Everybody’s Free to Wear Sunscreen. This tongue-in-cheek piece is full of timeless wisdom, some of which found its way into the “Now You’re 21” coming-of-age letters I wrote to my kids.
If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it. The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience.
Don't feel guilty if you don't know what you want to do with your life. The most interesting people I know didn't know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives. Some of the most interesting 40-year-olds I know still don't.
Don't be reckless with other people's hearts. Don't put up with people who are reckless with yours.
Accept certain inalienable truths: Prices will rise. Politicians will philander. You, too, will get old. And when you do, you'll fantasize that when you were young, prices were reasonable, politicians were noble and children respected their elders.
Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it. Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it's worth.
Magna Cum Laude: 2001 Commencement Address at Middlebury College, Fred Rogers, May 27, 2001. This wasn’t on my radar until I saw the documentary Won’t You be My Neighbor which came out last year. In his address, Mister Rogers offers this reflection:
...In fact, from the time you were very little, you've had people who have smiled you into smiling, people who have talked you into talking, sung you into singing, loved you into loving.
So, on this extra special day, let's take some time to think of those extra special people. Some of them may be right here, some may be far away. Some may even be in heaven. No matter where they are, deep down you know they've always wanted what was best for you. They've always cared about you beyond measure and have encouraged you to be true to the best within you. Let's just take a minute of silence to think about those people now.
At the end of the documentary, this same reflection was posed to Mister Roger’s family and colleagues. Their responses sent the theater audience scrambling for Kleenex.
Cum Laude: 2005 Commencement Address at Stanford, Steve Jobs, June 12, 2005. He stood before the graduates, having temporarily beaten the cancer that would ultimately take him and offered, “Three stories from my life. That’s it. No big deal. Just three stories.“ He went on to tell the audience about “Connecting the Dots,” “Love and Loss,” and “Death.”
He closed with:
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.
...and referring to the final issue of The Whole Earth Catalog, 1971:
On the back cover of their final issue was a photograph of an early morning country road, the kind you might find yourself hitchhiking on if you were so adventurous. Beneath it were the words: “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.” And I have always wished that for myself. And now, as you graduate to begin anew, I wish that for you.
Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.
Sigh. Sniff. Smile.
Sunday Morning Reflection
What’s in your commencement speech?
If you could offer only one tip for the future, what would it be?
Sunday Morning: 105