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Graduation season is a wonderful time for celebration. Teachers applaud students, and parents praise their children. All eyes focus on the graduates and rightfully so. After all, for many college graduates, commencement is just that — a beginning. And like most beginnings, graduation ceremonies are filled with contagious optimism and energy.
I’m a commencement speech junkie. As a parent and educator, I am keenly interested in how best to advise young people. I also find the ceremonies inspiring, energizing and renewing. Each spring, I get my fix by reading or listening to dozens of commencement speeches.
We can all learn from the nuggets of wisdom shared during the proceedings. Here are five of the most valuable tidbits I’ve taken from some of the best addresses delivered to the class of 2016:
1. Get in the way
Speaking at Washington University in St. Louis, legendary civil rights activist and Georgia Congressman John Lewis urged seniors to be proactive — even if it means ruffling feathers. Noting inspiration from Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Lewis said, “I got in the way. I got in trouble. Good trouble, necessary trouble.” This lesson is as important today as it was in the 1950s and 1960s. As Lewis continued, “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you must have the courage to stand up, to speak up, and find a way to get in the way.” The advice Lewis offers is as valid for working professionals as it is for ambitious and idealistic graduates. Convention and inertia are often impediments to progress. Get in the way to force change. The world may be better off because of it.
2. Cherish “Uh-Oh” moments
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor recounted to University of Rhode Island students an embarrassing story in which she choked during one of her first job interviews. These “‘uh-oh’ moments are worth cherishing just as much as ‘ah-ha’ moments,” she said. “Mistakes, failures, embarrassments and disappointments are a necessary component of growing wise.” The logic of learning from failure is not new, but Sotomayor’s reminder to embrace the “uh-oh” moments is refreshing in an era in which every corner of life has grown competitive, and perfection is a ubiquitous expectation. When navigating the crosscurrents of global economic uncertainties, failure is almost certain at some point. Reframing setbacks as wisdom acquisition will empower and energize — precisely at the point when a boost is most needed.
3. Beware of filters
Few have thought more about the dynamics of storytelling than Lin-Manuel Miranda. Addressing the graduating class of the University of Pennsylvania, the creator of the smash-hit musical “Hamilton” reminded students of the high stakes of his craft. “Every story you choose to tell, by necessity, omits others from the larger narrative,” he said. Miranda went on: “This act of choosing — the stories we tell versus the stories we leave out — will reverberate across the rest of your life. Don’t believe me? Think about how you celebrated this senior week, and contrast that with the version you shared with the parents and grandparents sitting behind you.” The author’s guidance highlights the vital need to notice the filters embedded in virtually everything we do. Every narrative is incomplete, so be open to perspectives other than your own.
4. Seize the day
In a moving reflection on loss and resilience, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg shared with UC Berkeley seniors the wisdom she had gained from losing her husband last year. Her advice built on insights from psychologist Martin Seligman’s research on how individuals successfully bounce back from tragedies. She noted the need to not blame ourselves or believe the sadness will last forever. Acknowledging the inherent impermanence of life, Sandberg urged students to treat each day as if they only had a few remaining. “Live with the understanding of how precious every single day would be. How precious every day actually is,” she noted.
5. Don’t squander ignorance
Complementing Sandberg’s message about finitude, venture capitalist Peter Thiel’s speech to the graduating class of Hamilton College focused on the boundless possibilities of the future. The PayPal co-founder urged his audience to embrace uncertainty. Thiel emphasized that not knowing what you can and can’t do is a valuable asset. As he put it: “At this moment in your life you know fewer limits, fewer taboos and fewer fears than you will ever in the future. So do not squander your ignorance. Go out and do what your teachers and parents thought could not be done — and what they never thought of doing.” The message reminds me of Ken Robinson’s much-watched TED Talk on the negative impact schools have on creativity. Approaching the future with unbiased eyes is great advice for navigating uncertainty in a complex world.
Lest we think these tidbits are only useful to this year’s graduates, think again. We can all take these lessons to help us in our careers and our relationships. So as we celebrate the promising potential of the Class of 2016, let’s take a moment to celebrate our own possibilities as well.
Vikram Mansharamani is a lecturer at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. He is also the author of “Boombustology: Spotting Financial Bubbles Before They Burst” and is a regular commentator in the financial and business media.
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