Pomp and Reality: Real advice for today’s graduates

The end of May and June marks graduation for millions of students around the world. These students are eager to make their mark in a new phase of life, whether it’s at university or in the real world.

Most of these graduations, especially at universities, will feature a keynote speaker charged with inspiring the graduates and entertaining the families. Many of these speeches will be what graduates want and expect to hear, filled with platitudes and clichés, such as “follow your dreams or passion,” “you have unlimited potential,” or “today is the first day of the rest of your life.”

While this approach is inspiring in the moment, the best speeches I have heard are the ones that deliver unconventional wisdom and give a bit of tough love—these are the things new grads need to hear. Here are a few of my favorites that fit this bill.

David McCullough Jr., Wellesley High School, 2012

David McCullough Jr. was a high school English teacher best known as the son of a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian. In 2012, he delivered a 12-minute commencement speech at Wellesley High School, in one of the most affluent towns in America. To the surprise of the audience, his theme was “you are not special,” poking fun at and highlighting the downside of the students’ privilege. After the video of his speech went viral, McCullough went on to write a book, also titled You Are Not Special. Here were a few of his words of affirmation:

“No longer is it how you play the game, no longer is it even whether you win or lose, or learn or grow, or enjoy yourself doing it. Now it’s ‘so what does this get me?’ As a consequence, we cheapen worthy endeavors, and building a Guatemalan medical clinic becomes more about the application to Bowdoin than the well-being of Guatemalans. It’s an epidemic.”

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David Foster Wallace, Kenyon College, 2005

In 2005, the famous American author and professor gave a speech entitled “This Is Water,” that has since become legendary. Wallace encouraged graduates to maintain perspective and challenged them to constantly question their own beliefs. One of his best lines was:

“A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.”

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Shonda Rhimes, Dartmouth, 2014

The award-winning producer focused her 2014 speech on the reality of her experience as an exceptionally busy working mom and the importance of doing, not dreaming. Specifically, Rhimes encouraged students to convert their passion and ideologies into action—here were some of her best lines:

  • “Ditch the dream and be a doer, not a dreamer.”
  • “Anyone who says they can do it all is lying.”
  • “A hashtag is not helping. Volunteer some hours. Focus on something outside yourself. Devote a slice of your energies towards making the world suck less every week.”

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Steve Jobs, Stanford, 2005

Having recently survived his first bout with cancer, the legendary Apple founder delivered an emotionally vulnerable speech that has become one of the most watched of all time. Jobs shared many memorable quotes that day and the tenor of his speech seemed to hint at heightened awareness of his own mortality—including these highlights:

“Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.”

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life … Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.”

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Natalie Portman, Harvard, 2015

Rather than delivering Hollywood glitz, the Academy Award winning actress gave a raw, introspective speech at Harvard commencement in 2015. In particular, she highlighted the importance of purpose and humility—here are a few of my favorite quotes:

  • “Your inexperience is an asset in that it will make you think in original, unconventional ways. Accept your lack of knowledge and use it as your asset.”
  • “Achievement is wonderful when you know why you’re doing it. And when you don’t know, it can be a terrible trap.”
  • “Getting out of your own concerns and caring about someone else’s life for a while reminds you that you are not the center of the universe.”

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While these speeches are all amazing, my favorite passage of a graduation speech comes from a middle school graduation speech given by John Roberts, Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

In 2017, Roberts was the speaker for his son’s class from Cardigan Mountain School in New Hampshire. His speech was titled “I Wish You Bad Luck” and featured the following gem:   

“Now, the commencement speakers will typically also wish you good luck and extend good wishes to you. I will not do that, and I’ll tell you why. From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted.

“I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either. And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then, your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship. I hope you’ll be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion. Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.”  

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The world faces a unique set of challenges today. The best thing we can give today’s graduates is the inspiration and motivation they need to live life to their full potential, as well as the clear-eyed reality that doing the work is always hard, no matter how talented they may be. Long term success requires humility, tireless resilience and understanding that the world does not revolve around us, even if graduation day does.

This post originally appeared on Robert Glazer’s Friday Forward newsletter and is reprinted here with permission.

Contributed by Robert Glazer, a former EO Boston member who is the founder and chairman of the board of Acceleration Partners, a global partner marketing agency and the recipient of numerous industry and company culture awards. He is the author of the inspirational newsletter Friday Forward and #1 Wall Street Journal bestselling author of five books: ElevateFriday ForwardHow To Thrive In The Virtual WorkplaceMoving To Outcomes and Performance Partnerships. He is also the host of The Elevate Podcast.

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