The best commencement speech I know of

Posted on May 15, 2015

(Last Updated On: May 19, 2017)

It’s the time of the year when all the famous people start giving commencement speeches. I usually watch a few of these each year, especially from people I’m a fan of. A lot are great, but I’ve always found myself siding with the comedians on this. “Most of you are probably drunk, and, like when I was your age, will not remember this speech. You not only will not remember it 10 or 20 years from now, you probably won’t remember it 10 or 20 minutes from now.”

For me, a lot of this has to do with feeling too many commencement speeches hit the same points.

  • “Bet on yourself”
  • “Believe in yourself”
  • “Have faith in yourself”
  • “Trust your gut”
  • “Go make a difference”
  • “Do something that matters”
  • “Trust things will work out”
  • “Never give up”
  • “Don’t let fear hold you back”
  • “Be willing to fail”
  • “Fail, fail, fail again”
  • “I want to tell you three stories.”

Even at 22 years old, I think people have heard the above quite a bit already.

Depending on what school the speech is being given at, there is often alluding to how many great things previous graduates have done. Or how the current students are in a great position. “Go change the world!”

The reality is, once one gets off campus, most of adulthood is not grand or inspirational. It’s a routinized grind.

I’m going to pause here, because this is where I could see someone denouncing this post as cynical, or depressing. And I want to right away point out it’s not. (It’s in how you look at it. Which is what I’m getting to.)

Listen to the people these speeches often reference. Sometimes it’s the people who give the speeches. Look up Steve Jobs advice on entrepreneurship.

“It’s so hard, any rational person would give up. It’s really hard. And you have to do it over a sustained period of time…It’s a lot of worrying, constantly.”

In Walter Isaacson’s book on him, referencing when he was running Pixar and Apple simultaneously, Jobs said each night he’d come home, he was so exhausted he couldn’t speak. He actually thinks the workload and stress from this period caused his cancer. (Science disputes that.)

Or the current person getting a lot of attention for his work is Elon Musk. I’ve written about being a big fan of his as well. Watch some interviews with him. Half of them he looks like he hasn’t slept in who knows how long. When asked for advice about how he goes about managing everything, “Well, I don’t recommend this.” “It’s not good for quality of life.” In the same interview, you’ll hear Bill Gates say how for a long time he didn’t believe in vacations or weekends. Elon’s advice to USC graduates? “Work super hard…like every waking hour.”

Atul Gawande, who is a standout of the medical world, and given a few commencement speeches, says the way he gets so much done is by stealing time, often from his family. Wife and kids are at church? He’s probably writing.

I recently read a biography on the Wright Brothers. To test their gliders, they needed a location with solid wind and sand. Kitty Hawk had plenty of it, but also other things:

“Orville wrote, the mosquitoes appeared “in the form of a mighty cloud, almost darkening the sun.” It was by far the worst experience of his life…The agonies of typhoid fever were “as nothing” by comparison. There was no way of escaping the mosquitoes.

‘The sand and grass and trees and hills and everything was fairly covered with them. They chewed us clear through our underwear and socks. Lumps began swelling up all over my body like hen’s eggs. We attempted to escape by going to bed, which we did at a little after five o’clock. . . . We put our cots out under the awnings and wrapped up in our blankets with only our noses protruding from the folds, thus exposing the least possible surface to attack.’

That’s only one example of the tough times these guys, rockstars of the 20th century, went through.

Even for the “grandest” people, it’s not that grand. They’re grinding too.

Back to new college grad: Most will have to worry about getting a job, any job, before they can worry about changing the world. Most are going to go through intense phases of doubt, drudgery, being at a job where you may very well feel you’re not making a difference, times where you’re all but assured things won’t work out (Wilbur Wright, after a failed attempt, is on record saying men wouldn’t fly for at least 50 years), where you realize what failing over and over again actually feels like. (There are interviews where Elon Musk is in tears.) Not everyone can start a company, be self-employed, change the world, whatever. Not everyone has the psychological make-up to be that way. Even if you do, you’re probably still slogging through the mud as much as many others. Few are immune to “Day in; day out.”

There is a reason so many people around graduation time talk about the “real world.” You’re about to go into the “real world.” The “real world” this, the “real world” that. This is why my favorite commencement speech, the only one I’ve ever listened to more than once, is by David Foster Wallace. It’s all about the “real world.” The world all people, college grad or not, will experience. How do you handle it? You’ve spent four years or more learning “how to think,” what does that even mean? How do you apply it to this mystical real world?

You may think this has nothing to do with what this site is about, but it really does. One of the best things anybody who works with people in a health manner can do is learn how to empathize. How to see someone else’s point of view. I’m sure for some this comes naturally, while others have to learn it, and others spend their lives misanthropic.  This speech, to me, gives a framework for how to empathize. How to see behind your assumptions. Big point: It’s hard. For instance, you, as a new graduate, hopefully, at some point, realize most of the United States does NOT have a bachelor’s degree. Only 30% of adults do. Meaning, unless you live in some kind of bubble, most of the people you interact with will not have the educational background you do.

A lot of recent graduates, at least that I come across, often think of this as “Well, other people are lazy. That’s why I have a degree and they don’t.” Or, “Those people are morons. Not my problem.” If you’re trying to help the mass market, trying to really make an impact, then 70% of the population is your problem. How do you talk to them? How do you help them? How do you transition from 22 years or more of focusing on adding value to yourself, to suddenly having to add value to all these other people, many of whom you have nothing in common with? Hard to do it by only degrading them.

The fitness world is known for denouncing people as “lazy.” “People just want an easy fix.” “Nobody wants to put in the work.” You get the idea. It’s one reason I think a lot of people like trainers and nutritionists are formerly overweight. They can more easily empathize with the weight-loss process, opposed to those who have always been in shape. Who inevitably resort to, “Just don’t eat so much. It’s simple” …”Just go to college. Ugh, people are idiots.”

Whether a doctor, trainer, nutritionist, anything health oriented, you are going to be working with many, many people, who you initially have no idea how to relate to. If nothing else, most of the clients or patients will be forty years older than you. Using the degree point again, to be a health practitioner of any kind, you likely are educated more than not only 70% of others, but more educated than most of those 30% with bachelor degrees. You’re (formally) more educated than I don’t know, 99% of the population? You’ve been concerned with health oriented things for years, where the people you’re helping don’t know how many calories are in a carb. How do you handle “the others?” Like someone who has ZERO background in your field? Who doesn’t know what diabetes is, yet has had it for a year?

An irony here is the better you get at the above, the better you understand how to give value to others, see where they’re coming from, understand their problems, the better your odds of changing the world, helping the world, doing in business, however you want to think of it. If you can’t make that significant transition from “how is this impacting me” to “how is this impacting them,” it’s going to be tough.

Maybe this video will help you the next time you feel yourself resorting to that default thinking. “Maybe this is a possibility instead.” I listen to this whenever I feel I’m falling back into that.

Above is an excerpt from the full speech. I’ve always found the video to have more impact. The full thing is below:

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