by Jim Bruce
Every year beginning near the end of May and continuing into early June, there is a flurry of activity at 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 or commencement activities. And, each of these celebrations features one or more speakers who offer advice to students who are advancing from one stage of their life’s journey to the next. The speeches offer nuggets of wisdom that may help graduates as they embark on their career as well as provide useful guides for the future.
I’ve tried, each year, to mine some of these speeches for “golden nuggets” that might be helpful as we each take stock of our own journey and look forward to whatever it is we are continuing or embarking upon. Here are comments from nine of these speeches that caught my attention.
Scott Brister, retired Justice of the Texas Supreme Court, speaking at the Austin, Texas One Day Academy’s high school graduation quoted from remarks made by John Roberts, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, at Roberts’ son’s 2017 graduation from the Cardigan Mountain School (a New Hampshire boarding school for boys in grades six through nine). Robert’s speech was, somewhat, unconventional. In it he said:
“From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. … I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either. And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope that now and then, your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship. I hope you’ll be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion. Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.” [Entire text.]
Amal Clooney, human rights lawyer, speaking at Vanderbilt University’s senior day told students, “I think that what will define you is your courage, because that is the virtue on which others depend. … There will be moments in your life where two roads diverge in the wood, and when that happens be courageous.” [Video.]
Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, spoke at Duke University. “Now, if you’re anything like I was on graduation day, maybe you’re not feeling so fearless. Maybe you’re thinking about the job you hope to get, or wondering where you’re going to live, or how to repay that student loan. These, I know, are real concerns. I had them, too. But don’t let those worries stop you from making a difference. Fearlessness means taking the first step, even if you don’t know where it will take you. It means being driven by a higher purpose, rather than by applause. It means knowing that you reveal your character when you stand apart, more than when you stand with the crowd. If you step up without fear of failure, if you talk and listen to each other, without fear of rejection, if you act with decency and kindness, even when no one is looking, even if it seems small or inconsequential, trust me, the rest will fall into place. More importantly, you’ll be able to tackle the big things when they come your way.” [Text and Video.]
Hamdi Ulukaya, CEO of Chobani, spoke to the MBA graduates of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. “Don’t let it [your title or position] get in the way of seeing people as people and all they have to offer you, regardless of your position. … [Y]ou’ve got to keep your feet on the ground and stay rooted to see what matters most.” [Video.]
Abby Wambach, USA Soccer player, spoke to the graduating class at Barnard College. “I learned that in order to be my very best … I’d need to spend my life letting the feelings and lessons of failure transform into my power. Failure is fuel. Fuel is power … We must embrace failure as our fuel instead of accepting it as our destruction.” [Video.]
Ronan Farrow, The New Yorker journalist, spoke to the graduating class at Loyola Marymount University. “No matter what you choose to do; no matter what direction you go; whether you’re a doctor treating refugees or a financier making money … you will face a moment in your career where you have absolutely no idea what to do. Where it will be totally unclear to you what the right thing is for you, for your family, for your community. And I hope that in that moment you’ll be generous with yourself, but trust that inner voice. Because more than ever we need people to be guided by their own senses of principle — and not the whims of a culture that prizes ambition, and sensationalism, and celebrity, and vulgarity, and doing whatever it takes to win. Because if enough of you listen to that voice — if enough of you prove that this generation isn’t going to make the same mistakes as the one before — then doing the right thing won’t seem as rare, or as hard, or as special.” [Video.]
Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, gave the commencement speech at New York University. “So here is my request: As you go forward from this place, I would like you to make a point of reaching out to people whose beliefs and values differ from your own. I would like you to listen to them, truly listen, and try to understand them, and find that common ground. You have a world of opportunity at your fingertips. But as you go forward from here, understand that just around the corner, a whole different order of learning awaits, in which your teachers will come from every station in life, every education level, every belief system, every lifestyle. And I hope you will embrace that. You have been students, you will continue to learn all your lives, but now it is also time for you to become leaders. In every generation, leaders emerge because they one day awake to the realization that it’s not up to someone else to fix this problem, or take up that cause. It’s up to them. So now is the time for you to lead.” [Video.]
Rex Tillerson, 69th Secretary of State, spoke at Virginia Military Institute’s 2018 commencement. “Carefully consider the values and the culture of the organizations in which you seek to work. Look for employers who set high standards for personal conduct and who reward ethical leadership. Identify mentors who exemplify integrity and leadership excellence. Developing as a leader largely comes from also practicing good followership. See how the leaders you are following carry themselves, how they manage their responsibilities, study how they communicate and make decisions, observe how they learn from mistakes or missteps — their own and those of others. Importantly, recognize that integrity is not unique to any one culture. No matter where you are in the world, integrity and good character are prized by every great faith and every great tradition. Integrity means managing our lives in a way that focuses on the ideals that unite us as people.” [Video.]
Jeff Flake, Senator from Arizona, delivered the keynote address for the Harvard Law School 2018 Class Day. “From my cautionary tale to you today, I urge you to challenge all of your assumptions, regularly. Recognize the good in your opponents. Apologize every now and then. Admit to mistakes. Forgive, and ask for forgiveness. Listen more. Speak up more, for politics sometimes keeps us silent when we should speak. And if you find yourself in a herd, crane your neck, look back there and check out your brand, ask yourself if it really suits you. From personal experience, I can say that it’s never too late to leave the herd. When you peel off from the herd, your equilibrium returns. Food tastes better. You sleep very well. Your mind is your own again. You cease being captive to some bad impulses and even worse ideas. It can strain relationships, to be sure, and leave you eating alone in the Senate dining room every now and then. But that’s okay.” [Video.]
While all these words were addressed to newly minted graduates, people who were moving forward in school or moving into their career, the words speak just as strongly to those of us who are at later stages of our career. Whether it’s the advice of John Robert’s to not dwell on, but rather learn from everything we might see as failure; or to always be courageous as Amal Clooney encourages us to be; or to be fearless and take that first step to make a real difference, as Tim Cook challenges us; or, as Hamdi Ulukaya urges, to see people as people with all they have to offer; or to embrace failure as the fuel to propel us forward, as Abby Wambach urges; or as Ronan Farrow argues, to be generous with yourself and trust your inner voice; or to recognize the mandate from Justin Trudeau that while you will still learn it is time to step up as leaders; or to have integrity and be of good character as Rex Tillerson posits; or in the words of Jeff Flake, to challenge your assumptions, recognize the good in others, forgive, and listen.
Lots of good words of very good advice here to new graduates as well as those of us who have been on the front line for a long spell. Do take the time to find from all this advice one or two things that you will work to further develop in the coming weeks. And, then do it again. And, again…
Make it a great week for yourself and your team. . . . jim
Jim Bruce is a 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.