For Patricia: Commencement Questions

>> Monday, May 18, 2009

Patricia asked: What is the best advice you have ever heard from a commencement speaker or (maybe) should have heard from a commencement speaker? Also, if you care to comment, do you agree or disagree with Notre Dame's decision to have Obama speak?

Wow, I think I've heard two commencement speeches ever and neither of them were particularly inspiring. Admittedly, when I was in college, I didn't spend a lot of time listening to speeches and whatever they said at my own commencement in college (and, for that matter, in high school) made not the slightest impression. But then I've pretty much always known what I wanted (to be a writer and have enough money for food).

I have, however, read various theoretical commencement speeches. Snopes has a number of them and some were real speeches and others not. I'll be honest, though, I wasn't desperately inspired reading those. In fact, I've enjoyed reading Dave Barry's One Degree of Separation, not because it was inspirational but because it was frighteningly true in some respects and desperately funny.

If I were to give commencement advice (and the odds of someone asking me to are vanishingly small) I think I'd tell them:

  • Never stop learning; at best you've learned the tools that help you keep learning here - use them the rest of your life and you can't be stopped.
  • Never put your ethics on the auction block. No matter what you win and lose, in the end you have to live with yourself. Best if you're proud of who you made yourself.
  • Take responsibility for yourself starting now. No more excuses, no more rationalizations. From this point, you take responsibility for the person you are and the choices you make. Sure, what happened to you helped make you, but where you go from here is your own responsibility.
  • Take care of yourself starting now - when you realize you're mortal, you'll have already done irreparable harm.
  • Don't stop playing. A little imagination, a little silliness - if you don't have it, what are you working so hard for?
So, now you know no one will be tapping me for the job. Now, if I could somehow make it funny...

As for your second question, I think it was a fine thing for Notre Dame to do, and not just because I respect Obama and am pro-choice (though I'm both of those things). I think there are segments of the population who have bought into this notion of "wedge" issues. They (and "they're" not just right or left - there are examples on either side) use a single issue as a litmus test on how they feel about someone politically. I think this is very unhealthy. People are more than a single opinion. Most of us have a collection of opinions and, for many of us, they span the gamut of right and left. Focus on one issue only, and you get a skewed view of who we are. Focus on one issue only and you lose sight of merits or weaknesses we might otherwise have. Focus on one issue and, truthfully, you really don't know who we are.

I respect Notre Dame's decision because I think it means they are looking at Obama as a whole, recognizing, whether there are philosophical differences or not, that he is a leader in this world and that he is articulate, intelligent and inspiring. Truth is, if we can't see past our differences to what makes us all human and American, we will continue to have problems that we won't ever solve.

Notre Dame, in my opinion, has taken a step forward and set a good example for us all.


  • flit

    I think you'd do an awesome job as a commencement speaker - very good advice for graduates of any age.

  • Roy

    I like this post, Steph. You're really good at making the point without ever actually stepping up on the soap box. That's hard to do!

  • Patricia Rockwell

    I also think you would give a good commencement speech as you obviously understand the basic requirement for any--brevity! Like your take on Notre Dame too.

  • Shakespeare

    I have heard countless commencement speeches, and I don't remember any of them, unless perhaps it was Stedman Graham's speech, for the sheer overwhelming boredom of it.

    I would love, some day, to actually enjoy a commencement address. I don't think I could even write one that didn't put people to sleep.

    Sorry if I sound ranty... just a bit stressed.

  • Stephanie B

    Thanks for the confidence, everyone. Really, I think it would be really hard to write an effective commencement speech. Kids who are graduating (let's face it) already think they know it all and are unlikely to be an good audience.

    Still, it was an interesting question. Thanks, Patricia.

  • Quadmama

    When I graduated college Matt Lauer was our commencement speaker. He talked about a time in his life where he had lost his job and what it took to get back in the game. A few years later I made a really difficult decision to literally walk out on a job and, as cheesey as it sounds, Matt's words stuck with me. I stayed positive and found a new job a week later. BTW, I, too think you would make an AWESOME commencement speaker.

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