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Commencement - Essay from Newsletter 60

Now what

Pomp without circumstance

This weekend I “attended” a commencement ceremony.

I put “attended” in quotes because two minutes before the event started I looked through my texts to find the url and clicked it to open a web page. Forty-some minutes later the ceremony had ended with Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” and fireworks.

It was awesome.

I hope this survives post pandemic.

I grew up in a college town and some of my earliest memories was going down to Tappan Square to see Oberlin College’s commencement. I remember my mom standing over me during the faculty procession through the arch pointing out the color gowns representing different graduate schools and the hoods representing different disciplines.

The highlight was usually the visiting commencement address and I can’t say I remember any of them.

I don’t really remember my own. The year before, Brandeis’ speaker had been Elie Wiesel and I remember that being poignant and moving.

Walter Mondale was the speaker for my undergraduate graduation - which was unbelievably forty years ago.

I don’t remember much about it other than he was essentially launching his run for president.

I didn’t go to either ceremony for my graduate degrees.

I recognize that these things are for the people around you so I did ask Kim and my parents if they cared if I went.

None of them did.

So I didn’t.

On the other hand, I was so proud to see Kim get her Masters. It was the end of our first year of marriage and I knew everything it had taken for her to get this degree while working full time. Finally, she could work in this field that she loved.

The last graduation I attended in person was Maggie’s Haverford graduation a few years ago and they had multiple speakers each of whom gave a short and meaningful address.

So selfishly, I’m saying online ceremonies are fine knowing that I got to see my wife and daughter each graduate in person.

What would you say

Imagine for a moment that you are going to give a commencement address.

What will you say?

No really. Pause for a moment and think about it.

I don’t have many rules but the first one is, please - please, don’t say, “as the word ‘commencement’ itself tells us, this is not an ending, it is a beginning.”

If the ceremony is online, I’m leaving you before those words have left your mouth.

It’s hard to say something new and meaningful.

So, I would advise, say something real.

I used to give a lot of keynote addresses at conferences and to me the challenge is to tell stories about me that you can make be about you.

My dad gave me one piece of advice before I went to college. He told me to look for the faculty members that students talked about as being outstanding and passionate about their fields. He told me to take a class from them even if it’s in a topic I don’t think I’m interested in.

I remember a lot of college experiences, but the philosophy course I took from Henry David Aiken and the set design class I took from Howard Bay really stand out.

There’s something in that advice that could be a life lesson for students as they “commence” their real learning.



This weekend’s address was all over the place. He tried to make too many points and left you wondering if this is the point of the talk.

It wasn’t.

Now you can give a spectacular address that consists of stories that don’t seem to be part of a cohesive whole. Steve Jobs famous Stanford Commencement address did just that. video transcript

This weekend’s speaker wasn’t Steve Jobs.

That’s ok. Almost nobody is.

But most of us know we aren’t.

He didn’t.

He kept making obvious points and pausing and looking at the camera and saying, “let me say that again,” and then he’d say it again.

It felt like the kid who has to write a 500 word essay who realizes they only have 400 words so they look to repeat 100 of them (after boosting the font and the margins.)

Examples of Failure

One of his points was actually a pretty good one for these students to hear.

He told them that to get where they had gotten, they’d had to succeed in everything they did.

He encouraged them to fail.

I was completely with him until he gave his illustrative examples.

Example one was that he had a bad first marriage.

But, he told us, don’t worry. My current marriage is great.

(What? What is my take away? What’s the inspiration? Just - what?)

Jobs’ middle story is about failure. It’s about how he got fired by Apple at age 30.

But, he explains, being fired by Apple meant, “The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.”

Failure enabling discovery. Not exactly the same as the my-first-marriage-didn’t-work-out story.

More Failures

Example two about failure from this weekend’s speaker was that he took a job as a college president and told them it would only be for a few months because he was waiting on another job.

He told us that this other job would have meant that he’d be driving a Range Rover and living the good life.

Let me pause for a second to tell you that if you are asked to give a commencement speech, these are the asides that people will remember way more than the point you think you are making.

He told us that if that other job had come through, he’d be working there now and wouldn’t be speaking to us today.

But it didn’t.

So to keep his current job he had to go back to school. Otherwise, he assured us, he never would have gone back to school.

Oh, did I mention, this is at a commencement address for a graduate school of Education?

Steve Jobs’ first story was about dropping out of college. In some ways it was another failure story from him.

The difference between the failure stories from each of these men is striking.

Jobs had dropped out of college and aggressively continued learning from that day to the day he died.

Our speaker had proudly stopped learning before he entered his PhD program.

There are people I learn from all the time. Some have degrees. Some don’t.

I try to remember my dad’s advice and look for the people who are outstanding and passionate and look for ways I can learn from them even if I don’t think I’m interested in their field.

It’s funny, we remember the final words of Jobs’ address, “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.” and attribute it to him even though he is careful to say that it was Stewart Brand’s last words he published in the final issue of “The Whole Earth Catalog in the 1970s.”

Still. Great words for any group.

Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

Essay from Dim Sum Thinking Newsletter 60. Read the rest of the Newsletter or subscribe

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