Commencement Speeches are Coming Too Late, Let’s Aim for Incoming Freshmen …in High School


Tony Balis of humanity.org posted a great article on commencement speeches that culminated from work he began in 1989. He listed speeches from 1936 to 2009. Balis states, “The commencement ceremony affirms each student’s search for knowledge. It often includes a graduation speech which seeks to put their recent hard (or not so hard) work into the context of their future. Yet — as we graduate from one year to another, one relationship to another, one experience to another — we always are learning.”

This article highlights some of the “better” points made by various commencement speakers and provides a commencement speech for incoming high school freshmen.

It isn’t about being a doctor, lawyer, President of the United States, accountant or CEO. It is about passion for what you do. What the world needs is more people who are passionate about what they do.

Whether the remarks above were given decades ago or just a year ago, they are as relevant and important, perhaps increasingly so, as the state of our world evolves. Ask yourself, have you found your passion? Are you equipped for life’s challenges? The links are to solutions for each question. Enjoy.

Sting (born Gordon Sumner), Berklee College of Music, Boston, MA, May 24, 1994
“There’s always something more to learn.”

Michael Josephson, http://www.CharacterCounts.org
“Listen to both your heart and your head. Pursue your passions, but don’t confuse feelings with facts. Almost nothing is as good or as bad as it first appears, and all things change. By all means, set goals and go after your dreams, but know that your ultimate happiness will depend not on your plans but your ability to cope with unexpected turns and unavoidable ups and downs. You may not get what you thought you wanted, but if you’re willing to adapt, you can get something even better.”

Paul HawkenPaul Hawken, “The Earth is Hiring”, Univ. of Portland, May 3, 2009
The living world is not “out there” somewhere, but in your heart. Life is creating the conditions that are conducive to life inside you. You are Brilliant, and the Earth is Hiring. This is your century. Take it and run as if your life depends on it.”

Barack ObamaBarack Obama, “Make Us Believe Again”, Commencement address at Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut, USA, May 28, 2008
“…And at first we didn’t get very far…It wasn’t easy, but eventually, we made progress…Through service, I discovered how my own improbable story fit into the larger story of America…You can take your diploma, walk off this stage, and chase only after the big house and the nice suits and the other things that our money culture says you should buy. …But I hope you don’t. …It’s because you have an obligation to yourself. …There are so many ways to serve and so much that needs to be done at this defining moment in our history. You don’t have to be a community organizer or do something crazy like run for President. …know that you’ll experience the occasional frustrations and the occasional failures. Even your successes will be marked by imperfections and unintended consequences. I guarantee you, there will be times when friends or family urge you to pursue more sensible endeavors with more tangible rewards. And there will be times where you will be tempted to take such advice. …But I hope you’ll remember, during those times of doubt and frustration, that there is nothing naïve about your impulse to change the world. …I can still remember a conversation I had with an older man all those years ago right before I was headed for my new job in Chicago. He said, “Barack, I’ll give you a bit of advice. Forget this community organizing business and do something that’s gonna make you some money. You can’t change the world, and people won’t appreciate you trying. But you’ve got a nice voice, so you should think about going into television broadcasting. I’m telling you, you have a future there.” Now, I’ve wondered, he might have been right about that TV thing, but he was wrong about everything else.”

Barbara KinsolverBarbara Kingsolver, “Your Money or Your Life”, Commencement address at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, USA, May 11, 2008
“The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. The most you can do is live inside that hope, running down its hallways, touching the walls on both sides. …The happiest people are the ones with the most community. … The hardest part will be to convince yourself of the possibilities, and hang on. If you run out of hope at the end of the day, to rise in the morning and put it on again with your shoes. Hope is the only reason you won’t give in.”

Bill GatesBill Gates, “Great Expectations”, Commencement address at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts USA, June 7, 2007
“…Radcliffe (residential college at Harvard) was a great place to live. There were more women up there, and most of the guys were science-math types. That combination offered me the best odds, if you know what I mean. This is where I learned the sad lesson that improving your odds doesn’t guarantee success. …One of my biggest memories of Harvard came in January 1975, when I made a call from Currier House to a company in Albuquerque that had begun making the world’s first personal computers. I offered to sell them software. I worried that they would realize I was just a student in a dorm and hang up on me. Instead they said: “We’re not quite ready, come see us in a month,” which was a good thing, because we hadn’t written the software yet. From that moment, I worked day and night on this little extra credit project that marked the end of my college education and the beginning of a remarkable journey with Microsoft. …Cutting through complexity to find a solution runs through four predictable stages: determine a goal, find the highest-leverage approach, discover the ideal technology for that approach, and in the meantime, make the smartest application of the technology that you already have-whether it’s something sophisticated, like a drug, or something simpler, like a bednet.”

Ken Burns, “A Vanguard Against this New Separatism”, Commencement address at Georgetown University
Washington D.C., USA, May 20, 2006

“…I am now absolutely convinced that he was right and that your future lies behind you. In your past, personal and collective. In the last thirty years of filmmaking, I have learned many things, but that the past is our greatest teacher is perhaps the most important lesson. …But for the most part we live, today, in a culture so dedicated to an all-consuming present, where people can name you ten brands of blue jeans or perfume or handbags, but can’t name you that many presidents, that we are all, I suppose, complicit in helping to eradicate our past and its valuable lessons. …As you pursue your goals in life, that is to say your future, pursue your past. Let it be your guide. Insist on having a past and then you will have a future. Do not descend too deeply into specialism in your work. Educate all your parts. You will be healthier. Replace cynicism with its old-fashioned antidote, skepticism.

William Allen White, Commencement Address at Northwestern University
Evanston, Illinois, June 1936

“Our American Constitution, for instance, is a national compact of our individual and of our social duties. It has worked in this country after a fashion. Yet the same Constitution, or nearly the same, has been adopted in a dozen other lands and has failed. Why has it held us to an essential unity? I am satisfied that our Constitution has stood up because Americans actually have established here a sort of code of duties. That has been the crystallizing principle that has held us together – duty of man to man, of region to region, of class to class, of race to race, of faith to faith. That duty has bred something more than neighborly tolerance. It has engendered a profound desire in very American’s heart to make life as pleasant as it may be made – not merely for himself, indeed not chiefly for himself, but for others. Thus we have found and cherished true liberty. …Now, as an ancestor, let me caution you, my heirs and assigns, that “new” political attitudes are symptoms of greed for power. They will fool you if you channel your thinking into narrow dialectics. Don’t take your logical premise from your class self-interest. Don’t build your logic upon a purely selfish structure. Don’t think as plutocrats. Don’t reason as members of the middle class or as proletarians. Such thinking is too sure of its own syllogisms ever to be just. Such thinking rejects the possibility that there is truth and that there may be reason in the contention of another class of society. This same discord that has torn as under so many peoples in Europe, where fifty years ago democracy seemed to be taking root, today is seeding in our land. …You must reorganize life in your America and point your achievement toward a fairer distributive system. Abundance is here for the taking. don’t bemoan your lost frontier. It is even now flashing on our horizon. A gorgeous land lies before you fair and more beautiful than man before has ever known. Out of the laboratory will come new processes to multiply material things for your America, to multiply them almost infinitely; but only if you will hold open the channels of free science, unfettered thought, and the right of a man to use his talents to the utmost provided he gives honest social returns for the rewards he takes. And now, in closing, on behalf of your fathers who are bequeathing to you their choicest gifts, let me say that your heritage is not in these great lovely cities, not this wide and fertile land, not the mountains full of undreamed of riches. These you may find in other continents. What we leave you that is precious are the few simple virtues which have stood us in good stead in the struggle of our generation. We will and bequeath to you our enthusiasm, our diligence, our zeal for a better world, that were the lode stars of our fathers. As our legatees we assign you our tolerance, our patience, our kindness, our faith, hope, and love, which make for the self-respect of man. These qualities of heart and mind grow out of a conviction that the democratic philosophy as mode of thinking will lead mankind into a nobler way of life…”

Anderson CooperAnderson Cooper, Tulane University, 2010 Commencement Keynote
“I do hope at some point this weekend, if you haven’t already, you’ll look your parents in the eyes, hold them close, and thank them for their sacrifices. As hard as you’ve worked to get here, they have worked even harder. So parents if your kids haven’t said it, let me just say it for them, thank you. …I must admit I always find it odd to hear myself introduced as a TV anchor.. I never set out to be one and am always suspicious when of anyone who tells me that’s what they want to be. …its like a kid who tells me they want to be a politician. I think you should be a real person before you become a fake one. …After months of waiting, I decided if no one would give me a chance as a reporter, I should take a chance. If no one would give me an opportunity, I would have to make my own opportunity. …I wanted to be a war correspondent, so I decided to just start going to wars. As you can imagine, my mom was thrilled about the plan. I had a friend make a fake press pass for me on a mac, and I borrowed a home video camera… and I snuck into Burma and hooked up with some students fighting the Burmese government… then I moved onto Somalia in the early days of the famine and fighting there. …I figured if I went to places that were dangerous, I wouldn’t have as much competition, and because I was willing to sleep on the roofs of buildings, and live on just a few dollars a day, I was able to charge very little for my stories. As ridiculous as it sounds, my plan worked, and after two years on my own shooting stories in war zones, I was hired by ABC news as a correspondent. I was the youngest correspondent they had hired in many years. Had I gotten the entry-level job I’d wanted, I would have never become a network correspondent so quickly, I probably would never have even become one at all. The things which seem like heartbreaking setbacks, sometimes turn out to be lucky breaks. …While I don’t remember commencement, I do remember my senior year of college feeling paralyzed, because I thought I had to figure out my future all at once. Pick a career, start down a path I’d be on for the rest of my life. I now know it doesn’t work that way. Everyone I know who is successful, and by successful I mean happy in their professional or personal life, every successful person I know could never have predicted when they graduated from college where they’d actually end up. …I’m not saying you should take it easy and just see what happens. You need to outwork everyone around you. You need to arrive early, stay late, you need to make yourself indispensable – you should also probably get rid of those Facebook photos of you passed out on bourbon street. …But as you consider what to do now, you shouldn’t necessarily feel that your next step is the most important one you’ll ever take. It’s not. You will go down many paths that go nowhere. Especially you English majors. You will try things on and realize they don’t fit. And that’s how it should be. Learning what you don’t want to do, is the next best thing to figuring out what you do want to do. …Anyway, I’m not much for giving advice. Especially after reading some other people’s speeches. I’ve quoted this before, but I think it’s one worth repeating. This is what Goldie Hawn told graduates several years ago. “while you are continuing to walk down that sometimes-bumpy road of life, develop the art of laughter and joy. Keep in your backpack of treasures the whole you, the best you. The “you” that won’t fear failure, because lessons learned are the only way to grow.” I know. I just threw up in my mouth a little bit too.”

All of these commencement speeches, and many more I read for this posting, have inspired me to give my own, very short speech. But my commencement speech isn’t for college graduates. My commencement speech is for junior high graduates – those entering into high school – and for any high school class, freshman, sophomore, juniors or seniors. So here goes:

Carl Nielson, Commencement Speech for Incoming Freshmen…in High School

http://www.careercoachingforstudents.net  http://www.nielsongroup.com  http://www.successdiscoveries.com
“Your past is a part of your future. Your first kiss (if that has happened already), your favorite book, favorite TV show, favorite movie. Your parents. Your teachers. All of this is going to impact your future. If it is a strong positive past, it will serve you well as a foundation for the future. If your past was less than ideal, it can serve you well as a motivator for creating that better future for yourself. Either way, the future is totally in your control – others do not have control of your future – only you do.

Even though you’ve taken several history classes already, you can only see and feel your own past clearly right now – your own past is like a drop of water in all the oceans of our great world. What that means is, don’t let your personal experiences overwhelm you. Don’t let your current self perception dictate what you do tomorrow. The majority of teenagers feel inadequate and insecure. Some show their insecurity through shyness. Others through egotistical behaviors. The insecurity comes partially from being intelligent and partially from giving too much power to the concern for others’ perceptions. The intelligent part refers to the fact that you recognize your current ignorance about yourself and the world around you – that’s smart. Giving too much power to others comes from a lack of self-confidence. A lack of self-confidence is coming from the fact that you haven’t walked through the fire much, say, relative to your parents. The more you do…that is, the more activities you engage in – especially outside your comfort zone, and the more you do for others, will give you fire-walking experiences…without much of the fire that can burn you. If you choose to disengage or to follow others rather than lead yourself, you’ll still get experiences. They will come along slower and they will probably include the kind of fire-walking that tends to burn.

Give yourself permission to study and enjoy history. To give you an idea of how important history is, place yourself into the future, let’s say about 30 years. Today becomes the past. Your entire high school experience is part of your past. Now let’s say you are extremely successful 30 years into the future. How did that happen? How did you become extremely successful? Was what you did in high school a part of why you are so successful 30 years out? Did any world events during your school years frame your thinking and shape your motivators? Now that you are successful, how do you define success?

As you emerge into adulthood, life experiences will be overwhelming at times. For some of you that time has already happened. You will continue to experience overwhelming events through your entire life. It isn’t a matter of “if” you have a hard life. You will have a hard life. The real question is “how will you lead your life?”. Will you see your life with happiness and gratitude? To answer the question for myself, my life has been a journey. Not an easy journey. I’ve come to realize that that isn’t good or bad. I’ve chosen my view of acceptance of life’s hard work and have developed an appreciation for myself and for so many people that have been in my life.

There was a time I thought I wasn’t too intelligent. It was during junior/senior high school. I learned many years later that I had many intelligences and in fact some were much higher than average. Instead of being egotistical about my abilities, I am humbled by my abilities. I also see everyone else with the same colored glasses…each of you are extremely talented and above average.  You see, I’ve been running a quasi-experiment for 30 years without really knowing it. In my work as a consultant to corporations, I help CEOs and managers select the best person for a particular job or position in those companies. In all of my work, I never measure IQ or “intelligence quotient” to  predict how well a particular candidate will perform. What I measure has more to do with something you already have right now. Your talent.

Your talents are already established. All you need to do is add a little ingredient called Life Skills and use your moral compass. Together, your talent and a solid foundation in specific life skills guided by a moral compass will take you to a successful future – I guarantee it! Don’t let anyone convince you that you aren’t smart enough. You are smart enough – regardless of your grades today. What will count most is that you find what excites you. Because what the world needs is more people who have come alive. For success to find you requires finding what excites you. There are many paths. You will take several of them to find your success in life. You can do it by chance or you can take control. Either way you’ll get there. One path is much slower than the other path. But in the end it is your choice.”

In closing, remember the words stated by many including Drew Brees at the Loyola University New Orleans, 2010 Commencement: “Love what you do. You will know it when you find it. Enjoy the journey.” But be sure to include quality research at the beginning of your journey and you’ll find your journey to be awesome.” Link to Drew Brees’ speech: http://www.loyno.edu/news/story/2010/5/3/2115

I hope you found this entire article helpful including the links to the full commencement speeches. More 2010 commencement speeches are available at http://www.forbes.com/2010/05/03/commencement-graduation-speakers-2010-leadership-speech.html

Carl Nielson is the developer of Career Coaching for Students™, the premier career exploration program for high school and college students. Nielson is the founder of Success Discoveries (www.successdiscoveries.com) and The Nielson Group (www.nielsongroup.com), an international corporate organizational management consulting firm. Prior to consulting, he served over 20 years in corporate human resources management. He holds a degree in organizational psychology from Texas A&M University. Find Carl on LinkedIn.

If you are looking for true career coaching for students, look at http://www.careercoachingforstudents.net. Are you past the high school and college years? Check out free resources at Success Discoveries. Professional career coaching services offered. See what a real career coach looks like.

Copyright © 2010 Success Discoveries, LLC
Career Coaching for Students™ is a trademark of Success Discoveries, LLC
Life Skills for Students™ is a trademark of Success Discoveries, LLC

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