Thursday, May 14, 2009

The all-purpose commencement address

by Richard L. Weaver II

Is it odd or simply ironic that after all the misery this university has foisted on you up to this point, that the university would add one more miserable hurdle — the commencement-day address — a custom dating back to the 12th century — that you must jump for you to gain closure on your years and years of misery? I think it may be oddly ironic. It was Garry Trudeau who said, “Commencement speeches were invented largely in the belief that outgoing college students should never be released into the world until they have been properly sedated.”

Anyone who graduated from college close to fifty years ago has to have some words of advice for those graduating today, and I am no exception. It’s not really, “do as I say, not as I did,” as much as, “things I wish I had known when I was your age.” When I give my talk on “Becoming a writer” to fourth and fifth graders, one of the questions I get is, “Did you want to become a writer when you were our age?” That’s a terrific question, and the answer is, “No, but I didn’t have someone come to my class when I was your age and talk about becoming a writer, either! I mean, it could have changed my life much earlier!” In much the same way, I wish I had had a commencement speaker willing to level with me!

Commencement addresses need to encourage graduates to make a commitment to excellence, develop strong character, and serve their community and the world. These encouragements are what is known as boilerplate expectations for such speeches, and, to me, these are fine expectations, but if you haven’t developed these traits along the way during your formal education, I really don’t see a whole lot of hope for you in starting now, so such advice, to me, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense at this point in your life!

Another, what I would call “pedestrian,” call to arms is to work hard, because you never know what’s coming next, but with hard work you will be prepared for it. Well, I know there are many different routes to getting where you are seated today, but I would suspect that for most of you, hard work — at least at some points — got you this far. If you haven’t developed a sufficient work ethic by this point in your life, I doubt you’ll be discovering it after graduation!

There are several other wrong pieces of advice, too. For example, the idea that this is the best, happiest, or greatest day of your life! Oh, come on, this is graduation day, nothing more. I hope it’s not the best, happiest, or greatest day of your life because it means your life is all downhill from here. When you look back on your life, it’s unlikely you will call it that because you’ve got weddings, anniversaries, the birth of your first child, and employment and promotions, among other things, to celebrate and label. Just wait, there is far more and far better to come!

A final piece of wrong advice is that your diploma is your ticket to opportunity. A diploma is nothing more than a piece of paper; it’s you who creates opportunities for yourself. There are many people out there who collected their ticket but never took the ride.. If you don’t expect anything as a result of your graduation, you will soon come to the realization that what you get in life will be what you earn, what you discover, and what you learn to appreciate. A life is not created by a diploma — a life is created by what you are willing to put into it. You are a better gauge of your potential for success than a mere piece of paper. Make a paper airplane from your diploma, send it skyward with a toss, follow that plane with your hopes and dreams, and a full life will be lost.

Okay, if all this is wrong advice, what advice is important and proper? The first piece of advice is an important one. Allow your college experience to be a launching pad into the realm of information, knowledge, learning, and understanding. When you stay informed, seek knowledge, learn from everything with which you have contact, and try to understand the world, you become the educated elite in our society and those upon whom our democracy depends for informed decisions, right thinking, and proper judgment. What you know now is nothing compared with what there is to know! Make a commitment right here, right now: never stop learning, growing, and developing.

My second piece of advice directly follows this first piece. Stop being so arrogant, possessive, and self-satisfied with what you know right now. The fact is that a large percentage of what you are certain of right now, is totally wrong and deluded. The only way to find this out is what I said previously: stay informed, seek knowledge, learn from everything with which you have contact, and try to understand the world. Seek answers. Question everything. Test your knowledge. Read things that are controversial and that are contrary to your beliefs, and listen to those who have something to say. Be skeptical, not cynical. You must exercise control over how and what you think, and choose wisely how you construct meaning from your experiences.

My third piece of advice directly follows from the first two pieces. Remain alert and aware, open and sensitive, flexible and responsive. There is nothing wrong with charting a specific course for achieving success, and I’m sure many of you know exactly what you plan to do. The problem comes when following such a plan blinds you to everything else that goes on in your life. Often, success doesn’t come from following your charted course; it comes from being alert and aware, open and sensitive, flexible and responsive — that is, ready to take a risk, grab a chance, capitalize on an opportunity, or try something off the beaten track. You never know what telling moment, inspiring spark, or arousing insight may change your life.

My final piece of advice is simple: be resilient. When my neighbor said she was given two-week’s notice because her firm eliminated her position, she said, “Now, maybe I can do something I really want to do.” That’s resilience. Ever since grade school you were told that if you worked hard, did well in school, and graduated from college, the world would be yours. The promise was a comfortable future, and what I’m here to tell you is — not that the promise is false, but there is no silver platter. There will be many failures and disappointments, and the more resilient you are, the easier it is to overcome losses, defeats, and catastrophes.

There is one thing for absolute certain about graduation, and this could be cause for celebration alone! When you leave here today, you will have something that no one else in the world has. There are going to be thousands of people out there with your same degree. There will be hundreds, perhaps thousands, too, doing what you will be doing for a living. After all, McDonalds and WalMart are two of the biggest employers in the world! I’m kidding. What will you have that no other person has? You will be the only person in the world who has complete control of your life! Not just now, not just tomorrow or the next day, but for your entire life. Whether it’s at a desk, on a bus or train, in a car, or at the computer, you are in charge, and what you do or don’t do will be the factor that makes all the difference in your life!

By controlling your own life, you are the one who chooses to continue to learn, step away from your arrogance, remain flexible and responsive, and be resilient. In these ways you will be making a commitment to excellence, developing strong character, and serving your community. Graduation is a great time to begin taking charge of your life.


At GraduationWisdom: The best graduation speeches and quotes, there is a video of Randy Pausch's commencement address [remember: he wrote "The Last Lecture"] as well as links to a number of others and their top-ten list of practical advice given by graduation speakers.

At Humanity. Org, under the heading “Commencement Speeches,” they have links to at least 36 different (outstanding) addresses by prominent individuals.

John Baldoni, at the website, “How to write a commencement address,” the author lists six suggestions for writing such a speech: 1) Check your ego, 2) Share your wisdom, 3) Be square, 4) Lighten up, 5) Dream along with them, and 6) Put yourself into it.
Copyright May, 2009 - And Then Some Publishing L.L.C.


  1. What did I gain the most from my college education? I suppose my professors would want me to say "knowledge" (of course, imparted by them). I beg to differ. College taught me how to learn. It taught me to be inquisitive, to search for alternate viewpoints and strengthen my ability to acquire more knowledge. I am a better person not for increased knowledge, but the ability to increase my knowledge through the tools developed while attending college.

  2. Hi Jimmy Lee,
    Thank you for your comment. That precisely and directly supports the first piece of advice I give in the "The all-purpose commencement address." I feel better now knowing that you, too, benefited from your college experience in the same way I did. Knowing how to strengthen our ability to acquire more knowledge allows us to meet the world and all the surprises it has to offer. Thanks for writing.


Essays, SMOERs Words-of-Wisdom, Fridays Laugh, book reviews... And Then Some! Thank you for your comment.