Commencement Wisdom

As a person who does a great deal of public speaking, I love this time of year because I have the opportunity to read and listen to a wide variety of commencement speeches.  While I have no personal experience giving this kind of speech, I can only imagine that this is one of the hardest speaking assignments as each speaker must work to find just the right balance of wit, wisdom, and originality.  Because many commencement speeches focus on advising graduates how to live well in this world, I thought it would be more than appropriate to share some of the best quotes from a few college commencement speeches given this year. Columnist David Brooks spoke at The University of the South at Sewanee, and shared these words. "Commencement speakers are always telling you to find your passion.  Your passion will find you. Relax and wait for it. … Don't think about what you want from life, think about what life wants from you. If you're observant, some large problem will plop itself in front of you. It will define your mission and your calling. Your passion won't come from inside, it will come from outside."

TV Journalist Katie Couric spoke these words at Randolph Macon College in Virginia.  "The losses I've experienced have taught me something else: We are all terminal. You have to appreciate the gifts that every day of your life will bring. Your family. Your friends. A beautiful sky at sunset. A perfect ear of corn in August. The first snowfall of the year. A baby's tiny hand. Be grateful for the time you have and savor the joy that comes your way.  Look for those in-between moments … not big events, but the little ones when you're laughing with a friend, taking a walk, helping an elderly neighbor with her groceries."

James Sprung, gave the graduating senior speech at The Cooper Union for Advancement of Science and Art in New York City, and shared these inspiring words.  "Hope. Hope is everything. A fresh way to approach a dull or dangerous thing. To do a dull thing with hope will never be preferable to doing a dangerous thing with hope. To do a dangerous thing with hope is what I call art. Hope is a way of doing. A way of being done."

Author and environmentalist, Bill McKibben, reminded the graduates at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida that commencement is not an end, but a beginning. "This is not an end, commencement. It's an opening. Your minds have been brought alive, and hopefully your hearts have been brought alive as well by the education for the last many years. Do not let those hearts and those minds go back to sleep."

Twitter CEO, Dick Costolo, helped graduates at the University of Michigan remember that often in life we do not fully realize the full impact we are having on those around us.   "Not only can you not plan the impact you're going to have, you often won't recognize it when you're having it."

All of these speeches have something wonderful to say us all, but by far my favorite commencement speech this year was given by Jon Murad at Harvard University's commencement.  Mr. Murad earned his master's degree this year from the Harvard Kennedy School and was chosen by his peers to offer the Graduate Student Address.  Jon is proud to be a “cop in the Bronx in New York City.”  He was given a year's leave and a scholarship by the New York Police Department to get his graduate degree at Harvard.  He also earned his bachelor's degree from Harvard eighteen years earlier.    Now that he has graduated, he will return to his old job of being a cop in the Bronx.  His speech is a wonderful reminder that one of the highest callings in life is serve others, whether in one's job, volunteer work, or any other way we can find to give back to the world.

What follows is an extended quote from Murad's speech, but I highly recommend that you watch his speech in its entirety.  It's a great investment of a little under seven minutes of your time.   The link to the speech  on YouTube is: “I'm probably not the only municipal cop in the country with 2 Harvard degrees, but I'm surely in a tiny cohort, but that's not a boast but a lament. If there is something special about this place [Harvard] and the lessons that we learned here, and I believe there is, then America, the world needs people like you in these roles.  Because John Adams was dead wrong, success doesn't mean rising to the top, it means changing the world. And here's the secret: everyone changes the world, everything ripples. It's how we do it that counts.”

Congratulations to all the 2013 graduates.  May all of us go forward remembering that passion must come from the inside, that our losses often teach us what's most important in life, that hope is everything, that we need to keep our hearts and minds awake, that often our greatest impact on others is hard for us to see, and that finding ways to serve the greater good is the key to a well-lived life.