T.I.L.T. #143 — Graduation Speeches Sans Jobs

We just celebrated the graduation of the Class of 2015 at Jacobs University. It’s the 8th class I’ve seen complete their studies. The 8th graduation ceremony I’ve helped produce. And the 8th time I’ve heard one graduation speech after another trying hard to entertain, enlighten, and inspire.

Graduating from university marks the end of formal schooling for many people. From childhood to young adult, your main activity and occupation is to be a student. Then, after all those years of hard work a ceremony called graduation comes along and — voila! — you are deemed educated and no longer need to be a student. In theory you’re ready to take on the world and do whatever it is you are meant to do beyond being a student. For most it is a proud and exciting day. But for many, it is also quite terrifying.

Every year I have a conversation with a student that goes something like this:

ME: Congratulations!

GRADUATE: Thanks!

ME: So what are your plans?

GRADUATE: I have no idea.

ME: Oh, well, don’t worry about it, you’ll figure it out.

GRADUATE: I don’t know. I mean here I knew who I was, where I fit in, how I belonged, but now? Who am I?

ME: You’re still the same person you were, now you just have a degree instead of a cheap bus pass.

GRADUATE: But what am I supposed to do with my life?

ME: Something besides study?

GRADUATE: But that’s all I know how to do.

ME: But what did you study?

GRADUATE: I, I, I don’t remember.

ME: Hmm, that’s OK, neither do I. It doesn’t really matter for most of the jobs in the world.

GRADUATE: Then why did I go to university?

ME: I don’t know. To make your parents happy? Because you had nothing better to do? To prove to potential employers that you’re smart enough and disciplined enough to get a degree even though you may never need it? To put yourself in so much debt that it forces you to figure out what to do to make a living?

GRADUATE: I think I’m going to cry.

ME: Tears of joy, I hope! Come on, today you succeeded. Drink some champagne and celebrate. Tomorrow you’ll wake up bleary-eyed and hungover and be ready to take on the world!

GRADUATE: Yeah, you’re right. I’m a graduate! Party! Woohoo!

And then they run off blindly into the future and the never-ending pursuit of happiness.

This watershed moment of transforming from student to non-student, this mix of joy and terror, the thrill of success, and the uncertainty of the unknown, is the reason why all the speeches you hear at graduation try to entertain, enlighten, and inspire. The speakers have the nearly impossible task of trying to teach in a few minutes what the graduating class apparently haven’t been able to learn in a lifetime of schooling and to set them on the right track to succeed for the rest of their lives. Most graduation speeches fail miserably in this regard and bore the audience to the point of wishing that they could just stay students forever rather than have to sit through any more graduation speeches.

Very, very few graduation speeches transcend the mundane and hit the mark of the inspired. One of the most famous graduation speeches ever is the one that Steve Jobs gave at Stanford. It’s a really good speech which you should definitely listen to if you’re looking for some advice on how to drop out of college and still become one of the most successful people ever. An ironic theme for a graduation speech but Steve Jobs specialized in thinking differently.

What makes it even more ironic is that nearly every graduation speech I heard at this year’s ceremony referenced Steve Jobs or quoted from his famous graduation speech. One speech even got a big round of applause at the end of long quote from Steve Jobs as if the speaker had been the great thinker behind the words rather than just repeating what someone else said. This really made me wonder if the well of inspiration has run dry. How is it that several very well-educated people who have the opportunity to give a graduation speech which in theory should espouse the virtues of a higher education, end up using a college drop out as their touchstone to talk about how to succeed?

Maybe it’s because Steve Jobs had the boldness to flip the equation of trying to figure out what he wanted to do before he pursued an education of his own design. Maybe it’s because as in most things in life, it’s easier to copy than to create. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s because the speakers themselves aren’t sure what they’re doing with their lives and are still in the pursuit of happiness and need to look others as sources of inspiration rather than themselves.

I wonder what I would say if I had the chance to give a graduation speech. Hmmm. Well, I could use lesser-known quotes from Steve Jobs like, “You guys don’t know what you’re doing.” Or better yet, “Everything you’ve ever done in your life is shit.”

Hmmm, no I don’t think that would go over very well. No, I think I would sit down and try to come up with something original, like, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Wait. Wasn’t that Ghandi? Ummm, I know, how about, “Money can’t buy you love.” Wait. That was the Beatles. Or was it my wife? Hmmm. This is hard. I guess the best thing to say would be nothing at all, to just shut up and let them figure it out for themselves, I mean, hey, they are college graduates, right?

Congratulations, Class of 2015, may inspiration be your own creation! Hey, that’s not half-bad… Hmmm.

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