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2020 Commencement Thoughts

| June 16, 2020

by Jim Bruce

2020 Commencement Thoughts

…Helpful thoughts for the next steps in your life’s journey.

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Jim Bruce, Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates. He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA. Jim may be reached at [email protected]. Portions of today’s essay are drawn from essays at the end of the 2018 and 2019 academic years.]

In every year in my memory, except this one, beginning near the end of May and continuing into early June, I can recall a flurry of ritual activity at almost all of this country’s educational institutions. In the U.S., there are over 4,200 degree granting colleges and universities and over 20,500 high schools who each celebrate the achievement of their students with graduation activities. And, each of these celebrations typically features one or more speakers who offer nuggets of wisdom they hope will help graduates as they embark on the next stage of their life’s journey, no matter where that journey may lead.

This year these expected events have been disrupted first by the COVID-19 virus, then by the resulting quarantines, transferring educational activities from the classroom to on-line learning platforms (first for a few weeks and then for the remainder of the spring), requiring non-essential personnel to work from home, layoffs and furloughs, significant government financial action to reduce the impact of these sudden changes on the financial health of the country and its citizens, the employment outlook for graduates, summer work for continuing students, and most recently by the unrest and protests initiated by the death of George Floyd.

Taken all together, these represent a greater shock to our country, and indeed to the world, than anything that has occurred in the last century. Literally, no one has been exempted, everyone has been impacted and will need to attend to their personal recovery as well as the recovery of those around them.

Even with all of these disruptions and with many, many fewer in-person graduation events, I have seen several sets of remarks and a few graduation speeches that offer cogent advice that is worthy of sharing.

If there is a theme this year, it is that while this year’s class, and the world for that matter, has been dealt a really raw deal, the world must expect this class of graduates, and by inference all of us, to step up to the challenges and address these real issues. Graduates are called to step into the future with more purpose, vision, passion, and energy and hope than ever before. The quotations that follow are a set of “golden nuggets” that might be helpful as we each take stock of where we are on our own journey and look forward to whatever is next in what we are continuing or embarking upon.

Oprah Winfrey [Talk show host, actress, television producer, media executive, and philanthropist.]  “I know you may not feel like it, but you are, indeed, the chosen class for such a time as this, the class of 2020. You’re also a united class, the pandemic class, that has the entire world striving to graduate with you. … Even though there may not be pomp because of our circumstances, never has a graduating class been called to step into the future with more purpose, vision, passion, and energy and hope. … I wish I could tell you I know the path forward, I don’t. There is so much uncertainty. … In truth, there always has been. What I do know is that the same guts and imagination that got you to this moment, all those things are the very things that are going to sustain you through whatever is coming. It’s vital that you learn, and we all learn, to be at peace with the discomfort of stepping into the unknown. … It’s really OK to not have all the answers. The answers will come for sure if you can accept not knowing long enough to get still and stay still long enough for new thoughts to take root in your more quiet, deeper, truer self. The noise of the world drowns out the sound of you. You need to get still to listen.”1

Stephen Spielberg [Film director, producer, and screenwriter.] “Believe in your dreams. … Dreams are a great test, because a dream is going to test your resolve, and you’re going to know a dream from a pipe dream. … You’re going to know a dream from a casual brush with something that you got excited about, and then it evaporates. … A real dream is something that not only hangs on to you but you will hang onto it. And it will power you through every obstacle that people and your environment will throw against you. … If we’re in service to our dreams versus our dreams being in service to us, it becomes something greater. It allows us … to get over our fear to go forward no matter what obstacles are thrown in our path.”1

Barack Obama  [44th President of the United States.]  “If the world is going to get better, it’s going to be up to you.” With that observation, President Obama offered three quick pieces of advice:

  • Don’t be afraid. This country has gone through tough times before and each time we came out stronger, usually because the next generation learned from past mistakes and figured out how to make things better.
  • Do what you think is right. Not what feels good, what’s convenient, or what’s easy. Ground yourself in values that last, like honesty, hard work, responsibility, fairness, generosity, respect for others. You won’t get it right every time, you’ll make mistakes like we all do. But if you listen to the truth that’s inside yourself, even when it’s hard, even when it’s inconvenient, people will notice. They’ll gravitate towards you. And you’ll be part of the solution instead of part of the problem.
  • Build a community.  No one does big things by themselves. Right now, when people are scared, it’s easy to be cynical and say let me just look out for myself, or my family, or people who look or think or pray like me. But if we’re going to get through these difficult times; if we’re going to create a world where everybody has the opportunity to find a job and afford college; if we’re going to save the environment and defeat future pandemics, then we’re going to have to do it together. So be alive to one another’s struggles. Stand up for one another’s rights. Leave behind all the old ways of thinking that divide us — sexism, racial prejudice, status, greed — and set the world on a different path.”2

Tim Cook [CEO Apple Computer.] “Not being able to leave the house leaves you with a lot of odd gaps of time to fill. I’ve been trying to use them to read, and I keep coming back to Abraham Lincoln. I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to put these times into perspective. You’ll be shocked at how clever and funny and alive his thinking still is, how this reserved and humble man managed, in noisy times, to call others to hope.

“It’s also hard to imagine someone more defined by their circumstances. Lincoln found his country on fire and chose to run into the flames. And he gave everything he had to bring his people — chaotic and squabbling, fundamentally flawed yet fundamentally good — along with him. ‘The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present,’ he said. ‘The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.’

“Graduates, your case is new. For you, the old dogmas have never been an option. You don’t have the luxury of being enthralled. You enter a world of difficulty with open eyes, tasked with writing a story that is not necessarily of your choosing but is still entirely yours.

“You’re the pride of your parents and grandparents, of aunts, uncles and teachers, of the communities that shaped you in ways seen and unseen.  You weren’t promised this day. Many of you had to fight hard to earn it. Now it’s yours. Think anew. Act anew. Build a better future than the one you thought was certain.”3

William McRaven [Retired U.S. Navy four-star admiral who last served as the 9th commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command and was later chancellor of The University of Texas System.]  “The world has changed. … the heroes we need are not the heroes I had been looking for. … as remarkable as you are — your intellect and talent alone will not be sufficient. … there are other qualities necessary for today’s hero.

“First, you must have courage. Winston Churchill once said that courage was the most important quality of all because it guaranteed the rest.” He was not talking just about physical courage but also moral courage, the courage to stand up for your convictions.  If you hope to save the world you will have to stand by your convictions. You will have to confront the ignorant with facts. You will have to challenge the zealots with reason. You will have to defy the naysayers and the weak-kneed who have not the constitution to stand tall. You will have to speak truth to power.

“If you are going to save the world, you will need to be humble… I’ve seen how the misguided geniuses, filled with conceit and convinced of their own righteousness have tampered with nature, built apocalyptic machines, dehumanized social interaction and tilted toward tyranny. If you do not approach the world with humility it will find a way to humble you quickly.

“If you are going to save the world you must persevere through the difficult times… Sometimes saving the world is just about holding on. Never quitting no matter what obstacles face you.

“If you hope to save the world, you must be prepared to sacrifice … In the end, if your goal is a noble one, then your sacrifice will be worth it.  For many SEALS their sacrifice was their life. They never returned. However…  there is a more mundane, yet still essential sacrifice, that is required if you want to want to save the world. As SEALS we train every day, long tortious hours of hard physical pain, rucksack marches, open ocean swims, miles of running and hours of calisthenics. They are all sacrifices necessary to be ready – when the world needs you.” While your sacrifice to be ready may not be as physically punishing as that of the SEALS, it will take time and energy and be exhausting.

“To save the world, you will have to be men and women of integrity. Always trying to do what is moral, legal and ethical. It will not be easy and I dare say, you will fail occasionally. You will fail because you are human. … You will fail because good and evil are always in conflict. And, when you fail to uphold your integrity, it should make you sick to your stomach. It should give you sleepless nights.

“Finally, to save the world you must have compassion. You must ache for the poor and disenfranchised. You must fear for the vulnerable. You must weep for the ill and infirmed. You must pray for those who are without hope. You must be kind to the less fortunate. For what hero gives so much of themselves, without caring for those they are trying to save.”4

Thomas Friedman  [Author and Opinion Columnist, New York Times.] “If recent weeks have shown us anything, it is that the world is not just flat. It’s fragile. And we are the ones who made it that way with our own hands. … the uber lesson here: As the world gets more deeply intertwined, everyone’s behavior — the values that each of us bring to this interdependent world — matters more than ever. And, therefore, so does the ‘Golden Rule.’” [Matthew 7:12 — Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.] “It’s never been more important.”5 [Note: Friedman did not give this as a graduation speech. This quote is from a May 30, 2020 New York Times Opinion Column. Yet to me, it summed up quite accurately the advice of many of the commencement speakers I read.]

There is lots of tremendous advice in these six quotes, advice that is valid for the new graduate just stepping forward and for those of us who have been on the front line for a long time. Do take the time to find from this advice one or two things that you will work to further develop in the coming weeks. And, then do it again. And, again. And, again…

.  .  .  .  jim



1.  Darcy Schild, These are the 15 most uplifting commencement messages…, Insider, May 16, 2020.

2.  Barack Obama, Graduate Together: America Honors the High School Class of 2020,  American television special curated by LeBron James in collaboration with high school students and educators across the United States, May 16, 2020.

3.  Tim Cook, Virtual Commencement Address, The Ohio State University May 3, 2020.

4.  William McRaven, 2020 MIT Commencement Address, May 29, 2020.

5.  Thomas Friedman, How We Broke the World, New York Times, May 30,2020.