Is there an ideal graduation speech?

As Lawrence’s Class of 2014 inches closer to graduation, there has been an increasing amount of chatter devoted to graduation speakers. And not just on campus—in May and June, our society’s culture is saturated with graduation speeches.

We’re seeing posts about speeches on blogs and news sites, they’re popping up on YouTube and, in some cases, they’re even on bookshelves—see Neil Gaiman’s “Make Good Art.” With all the hype, it’s interesting to ponder the question posed in my title: When we think about graduation speeches, do we have specific expectations?

The quick answer to that question is no. There are so many strong speeches coming from people with different success stories, so how could there be any over-arching guidelines as to what makes a truly great speech?

There are a couple of things we’ll probably see coming: The speakers will no doubt try to inspire graduates as we move on to the next part of our lives and they will probably glorify our years in school. But other than that, the speaker has free creative reign. Right?

Yes and no. The two aforementioned “criteria”—if we can even call them that— certainly seem to allow for a broad range of possibilities. However, I would also argue that many speakers tend to take the same path.

They tell students stories about their own great accomplishments and how they occasionally stumbled on their way there, with maybe a funny anecdote about their crazy undergraduate days thrown in to make the parents laugh and the grandparents cover their mouths in surprise.

Then they tell the graduates that the world is theirs to make into a better place and that they have the power to do it. They wish us luck, and it ends.

I’d say that many of these speeches do their jobs. Amidst my perusal of speeches as research for this article, I found myself moved almost or completely to tears—both of happiness and because I was laughing so hard—by the following keynote-ers: J.K. Rowling, David McCullough, Jr., Ellen DeGeneres, Conan O’Brien and a few less famous speakers who nonetheless had powerful things to say.

However, there’s a problem with this. These speeches focus on careers, big events and milestones. And while there are obvious reasons why, it’s also true that these big, important moments are rare.

What about the day-to-day events? What about personal relationships? What about the moments when we’re lying in bed watching “How I Met Your Mother” and eating entire sleeves of Girl Scout cookies and not wanting to interact with any human beings, let along network with them for promotions?

The only speech I came across that dealt with getting through these smaller but sometimes equally stressful events in our lives was given in 2005 at Kenyon College by the late author David Foster Wallace.

His speech, called “This Is Water,” deals with some of the most mundane moments in life that can also be some of the most difficult. He encourages the students not to “shoot for the stars” or “follow their passion,” but to be considerate of the person cutting you off on the highway or the obnoxious woman in front of you in line at the grocery store.

Despite the eloquence of the speech and its powerful message, I still wouldn’t call Wallace’s speech the ideal graduation speech. I don’t think there is one. What Wallace’s speech has that many others are missing is both a celebration of the quotidian and a reality check.

Even when we’re working as hard as we believe ourselves capable and we’re brown-nosing our way to a job that we believe will make us happy—I don’t say this critically, we do what we need to do to survive—much of our lives will come down to these small moments. Our character is determined by how we act in those instances.

So, regardless of the inspirational messages we are bound to hear from speakers on our graduation day, despite how big we are encouraged to think as we leave Lawrence, I think it’s worth saying that we should also keep the simple moments in the backs of our minds.

It is what we do and say that makes up most of our lives, and I’d dare to say that many of the big picture ideas we hear about in graduation speeches will follow from that considerate mundanenss anyway.

 

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