Graduation is only a concept. In real life every day you graduate. Graduation is a process that goes on until the last day of your life. If you can grasp that, you'll make a difference. - Arie Pencovici
Sometimes the keynote speech at graduation is every bit as educational as the years it took in class to merit the cap and the gown. A good speech has more staying power than the Black-Scholes model or the battle formations used in the Peloponnesian War ever will.
Sadly, not every institution attracts A-list speakers for commencement. We can't even remember who spoke at the various ceremonies we've attended, but they were decidedly C-list individuals (we have only a slight recollection of a former politician with an odd, lingering handshake.) And even if we had been given a powerhouse speaker like a former Prime Minister, a captain of industry or a celebrity, we still might not have been receptive to their advice. More likely we'd be worrying about tripping when we crossed the stage to get our degree, or wondering if the rented polyester gowns and hats had been laundered between wearings (given the back-to-back convocation sessions and the less-than-sparkling condition of the white faux fur stoles, our guess was that hotel bedspreads see the inside of a washing machine more frequently). Besides, we were 21. We knew everything.
Now that we are older, we are actively seeking out advice. We realize that we do not, in fact, know all the answers and that, "yes, we would like to hear about 5 steps to a guaranteed happy life, thank-you-very-much." Thanks to the power of the internet, we are able to enjoy the best commencement speeches from the comfort of our own homes, free from the hard metal folding chairs, itchy gowns, and having to go on job interviews with no skills under our belt.
We can venture back in time to 1983 and Margaret Atwood's deliciously dark speech at the University of Toronto:
. . . when faced with the inevitable, you always have a choice. You may not be able to alter reality, but you can alter your attitude towards it. As I learned during my liberal arts education, any symbol can have, in the imaginative context, two versions, a positive and a negative. Blood can either be the gift of life or what comes out of you when you cut your wrists in the bathtub. Or, somewhat less drastically, if you spill your milk you're left with a glass which is either half empty or half full. . . .You may not be able to alter reality, but you can alter your attitude towards it, and this, paradoxically, alters reality. Try it and see.
We have outlined some of the more pithy quotes coming from commencement addresses:
It's not the honours and the prizes and the fancy outsides of life which ultimately nourish our souls. It's the knowing that we can be trusted, that we never have to fear the truth, that the bedrock of our lives from which we make our choices is very good stuff. - Mr. Rogers, Dartmouth, 2002.
Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don't lose faith. I'm convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You've got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it. - Steve Jobs, Stanford, 2005
Take my word for it, happiness is temporary and fleeting. Joy, by contrast, is unpredictable. It comes from pursuing interests and passions that do not obviously result in happiness. - Guy Kawasaki, Palo Alto, 1995
Nothing important, or meaningful, or beautiful, or interesting, or great ever came out of imitations. The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself. - Anna Quindlen, Mount Holyoke College, 1999
There's No THERE, THERE. That's from the writer Gertrude Stein. She's right. There's not there. That elusive "there" with the job, the beach house, the dream, it's not out there. There is here. It's in you... right now. That real happiness, real contentment has to be IN you regardless of professional achievement and amount of wealth. - Brian Kenny, Ohio Northern University, 2007
You could invent a new kind of Success that includes children's poetry, butterfly migrations, butterfly kisses, the Grand Canyon, eternity. If somebody says "Your money or your life," you could say: Life. And mean it. You'll see things collapse in your time, the big houses, the empires of glass. The new green things that sprout up through the wreck -- those will be yours. - Barbara Kingsolver, Duke, 2008
So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life. - J.K. Rowling, Harvard, 2008
Now go out into the world and make us proud.