Each year as nature reveals the first vibrant colors of spring another, man-made, phenomenon debuts across the vast scholastic landscape of America. Just as common and expected as natures first cool rains of the season, actors, business leaders, journalists and politicians of all colors, stripes of ideology and temperament take commencement stages in front of thousands of eager, soon to be set-free to the world, graduates. Viewed as one of life’s moments of significant transition, each invited speaker has been chosen to speak of their accomplishments, inspire the freshly cultivated minds of the audience and give some important warnings of things to come, just in case things don’t transpire as each attendee has envisioned.
The messages run the range of style of presentation and substance of topic, from light-hearted comedy to a less than positive version of Chicken Little; the sky is about to fall upon you. It is a time to reflect, listen to the lessons of others, celebrate accomplishments, and look to the future with hope. While many of the graduates in the audience will “little note nor long remember” what is said, most will take away some piece of wisdom and advice that will resonate at some point in their future. And while many of the speakers will hit their mark with a message worthy of the importance of those in the audience to the future of society, others will use the opportunity to embarrassingly contribute one last tidbit of personal political rhetoric or perceived social injustice.
The truly memorable speakers are those who understand that the message and moment is not about them or their issues of interests, but about the futures of their listeners. Hank Azaria, known by his many voices on The Simpsons, offered the graduates of Tufts University some words of wisdom, “Life is like the Star Wars movies. Some of it is great, some of it sucks, but you have no choice but to sit through all of it.”
For the eager graduates of commerce and finance at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Anne Marie Slaughter imparted on the members of the class of 2016 some advice not learned from the curriculum or contents of the college syllabi. “Care is as important as career. … Career is investing in yourself. Learning, growing, and building on the education you received here. Care is investing in others. It is learning like a gardener, or a teacher, or a coach, what to do and what not to do to enable others to grow and flourish.”
For the millennials gathered across the venues of American campuses, the greatest challenges of the years ahead will not be found in applying the solutions learned in the class room and from the professors but rather from the experiences of the workplaces and the interactions with those around them in the future. And no matter how difficult the structure and measurement of the educational experience, life is about to get far more difficult and painful, and best remedied with an optimistic but realistic approach.
At his address at University of Wisconsin, Russell Wilson admonished the audience to keep their heads about the years to come. “When life tells you no, find a way to keep things in perspective. That doesn’t make the painful moments any less painful. But it does mean you don’t have to live forever in the pain. You don’t have to live forever in that no. Because if you know what you’re capable of, if you’re always prepared, and you keep things in perspective, then life has a way of turning a no into yes.”
Oprah Winfrey, speaking at Johnson C. State University continued the thought of learning from your challenges and perceived failures that lie ahead. “Every stumble is not a fall, and every fall does not mean failure. Know the next right move when the mistake happens. Because being human means you will make mistakes. And you will make mistakes, because failure is God’s way of moving you in another direction.”
The prevailing message of the most effective presenter is one of a new beginning. One where the skill-sets learned in scholarship are about to impact life outside the confines and safety of the educational experience; one where the best solutions are formed from applying optimism, persistence and resilience in a shared environment. “You are not born with a fixed amount of resilience. Like a muscle, you can build it up, draw on it when you need it. In that process you will figure out who you really are–and you just might become the very best version of yourself.” Sheryl Sandberg, University of California at Berkeley, 2016.