There may not be a single genre of today’s media mashup more geared towards this task than the modern college commencement address. The speakers are accomplished and multi-talented, the topics are expansive and pertinent, and the messages are uplifting and intoxicating (at least mentally).
But, some speakers do rattle on for far too long. And, some veer off-course or, really, seem to have no point at all. So, we wondered, what does make a really good commencement speech?
Rather than answer this outright, however, we decided to share with you a few of our favorites, and then let you draw your own conclusions on their similarities and differences. True enthusiasts of the genre can find an exhaustive list on NPR’s website. What follows, then, is a truncated list of some of the best ones we have found. We hope you find them interesting, thought-provoking, and above all, inspiring! Enjoy.
– We’d be remiss to start any list of this type with anyone but Steve Jobs. And, his 2005 Stanford address doesn’t disappoint. He explains that you can’t connect the dots looking forward; only backwards. Believe that they will connect as you follow your heart and charge ahead far off of the well-worn path. Do great work and love what you do. Don’t waste your time living someone else’s life. Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition! Stay hungry. Stay foolish.
– Nail Gaiman’s “Make good art” (The University of the Arts, 2012) is another classic, and details all the advice he wishes he had known when he was young, including the best piece of advice he’d ever received (from Steven King, no less)… but failed to follow altogether. He implores us to make interesting mistakes, break rules, and above all, to make good art.
– If you’re looking for a good chuckle, with a side dish of insight, don’t skip Stephen Colbert’s address at Knox College in 2004. Say yes. Say yes as often as you can!
– And, the granddaddy of them all (at least in our opinion): “This is water,” David Foster Wallace’s manga opus on what it means to learn how to think, delivered to the Kenyon college graduates in the summer of 2005. More importantly, he empowers us with the knowledge that we can – and should – adjust our default settings to shape the way you see the world and the people in it
Like Mr. Wallace, we wish you much more than luck!
UPDATE 2/29/16 – We were recently reminded of one important and entirely inadvertent omission from this list. Though not technically a commencement address (it was originally penned as a column by Chicago Tribune scribe Mary Schmich), Baz Lurhman’s ““Everybody’s free to where sunscreen” is too good not to mention. A little cheesy? Perhaps. Loaded with potent nuggets of wisdom? Undoubtedly. Floss… stretch… dance… travel!