If you’re like me, chances are you didn’t pay much attention to your college commencement speeches.
I almost missed mine. I overslept and then got stuck in traffic. I ditched my car in the parking lot of a Wonder Bread bakery outlet, ran a mile down the highway and climbed a chain-link fence — all while wearing my cap and gown. I made it just in time. I spent most of the ceremony catching my breath. I hardly remember a thing.
Maybe you were thinking about the party with your family, or the party later on with your friends, or the job you didn’t have or the money you hadn’t yet made or the suddenly pressing question of what, exactly, you were going to do with the rest of your life.
If you’re like me, and I’m guessing you are (though maybe sans the oversleeping part), you’d like to get that experience back. You’d like to listen to whatever sage or comic or enlightened student your school invited to deliver nuggets of wisdom that could have alleviated your anxiety about the world’s weight (or weightlessness).
Here’s a second chance. Below is a selection of thoughts from commencement speakers who gave addresses at Minnesota colleges over the past few weeks. While recent graduates were the intended audience, anyone can find meaning in the words. Some of it is funny, some of it is sad, some of it is prophetic. All of it is just plain good advice.
Writer/entrepreneur Daniel Pink,
Minneapolis College of Art and Design
“Life is not an algebra problem where x will lead to y and y will lead to z; it doesn’t work that way. … The world is too tumultuous, too unpredictable, too hard to game. Those careful plans, believe me, those careful plans quickly become a cosmic joke.”
“Find somebody who’s doing something interesting, something you admire, something that has an impact on the world. Then ask that person how he/she ended up doing what he/she is doing. I guarantee you, I guarantee you that 99 out of 100 of the most interesting, accomplished, impactful people, when you ask them how they got to doing what they’re doing, will answer this way: “It’s a long story.”
“In any field of endeavor, especially creative fields as yours, persistence trumps talent. … There are massive returns to doggedness.”
“The very best among you — the ones whose names we’ll know 20 years from now, the ones who will create the future for the rest of us — don’t have a plan.”
Environmental activist Susan Seacrest, St. Olaf College
“Being called to live a life of service doesn’t mean starting a new organization or collecting honors and plaques. What it means is being true to your ideas and principles. It doesn’t mean living large — it means living with others in mind. … Responding to a call takes many forms. It can be a response to a dramatic event or a gentle whisper during a quiet moment of reflection. The important thing is to be listening and willing.”
Actor and director Peter Berg, Macalester College
“Competition and compassion are not mutually exclusive. You can, as you go out into the world, compete; you can kick ass, you can dominate and you can do so with love in your heart and compassion. You don’t believe that? You think you just have to kick ass? No, you can do both.”
“In life, you really must expect to go out there and win, and you must try to consider yourselves as somebody that deserves to win. Do you understand? You actually deserve to go out and have great things happen to you, and you have to put that in your hearts.”
Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Bill Green,
St. John’s University
“Never forget that there are those who need you to share your gifts. That ‘thing’ inside you that you brought you to St. John’s in your first year — the ‘thing’ that was a repository of your gifts, that was provoked, shaped and nurtured here — is the ‘thing’ that can uplift the soul and instill courage and purpose, the ‘thing’ that can imbue you with the capacity to see through rancor to the human potential that binds us all together, the kind of ‘thing’ that sees every child as our own.”
University of San Diego President Mary Lyons,
College of St. Catherine
“At a time when we seem to place the greatest value on efficiency, cost-effectiveness, productivity, and spend endless hours roaming through virtual realities, it is all too easy to forget or dismiss as irrelevant or nonessential humanity’s need for beauty.”
Student Jacob Mills, Concordia University
“In 1878, (Thomas) Edison began experiments attempting to invent an incandescent electric light bulb. He spent nearly two years and failed more than 10,000 times trying to perfect the idea. … Edison was interviewed by a reporter who asked him how he could continue after failing so many times? Edison replied, ‘I have not failed. … I have simply found 10,000 ways you cannot make a light bulb, but each failed attempt is another step forward.’ “
Genetics researcher and professor Dr. Ahna Skop,
College of St. Benedict
“Your creativity and insight will make a difference in this world. Do it, be it. Don’t try to be like everyone else. Listen to your heart and be yourself.”
“I always find time to laugh. I really like it at the end of the day when I can laugh off my stress and my worries — when I can take a break from some of the horrible events in this world that I learned and go to sleep happy and smiling. And I wake up happy.”
U.S. Ambassador to Norway Benson Whitney, Concordia College
“We are so glutted with information about dangers and threats that we can become paralyzed. We have become highly risk intolerant. … There will never be perfect information for making a decision. No act of genuine courage or value comes without risk. … Don’t let an endless search for information become a substitute to choosing to live a risky, ultimately fulfilling life.”
Student Meagan Bachmayer, Gustavus Adolphus College
“Leave this ceremony, this day, this place, and leave your regrets here. Go forward and be confident in your choices. Reflect, but don’t regret.”
“(Garrison) Keillor ends his daily radio broadcast with some simple advice that I want to share you with today: ‘Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.’ These three pieces of advice will take us a long way.”