Skip to main content

Advice from 2023 Commencement Speeches

| June 27, 2023

by Jim Bruce

Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Jim Bruce, Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.  Jim may be reached at [email protected] or via LinkedIn.

Beginning towards the end of May each year and continuing through mid-June, there is a flurry of ritual activity at educational institutions throughout this country.  It’s graduation time and our over 4,000 institutions of higher learning and our over 43,000 high schools celebrate the achievement of their students with graduation activities.  At each of these celebrations, one or more speakers will offer nuggets of wisdom they hope will help graduates as they begin the next stage of their life’s journey, no matter where that may lead.

In recent years, I’ve attempted to “mine” some of these speeches for any “golden nuggets” that might be helpful as we each take stock of where we are on our own journey and look toward whatever it is we are continuing or embarking upon.  Here are a number of nuggets from the speeches I that caught my attention.

Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft who now focuses his philanthropic efforts on climate change, global health and development, and education.  He spoke at the Northern Arizona University commencement exercises.  “My piece of advice is the one I could have used the most.  It took me a long time to learn.  And, it is this:  You are not a slacker if you cut yourself some slack.  …. Don’t wait as long as I did to learn this lesson.  Take time to nurture your relationships, to celebrate your successes, and to recover from your loses.”

Oprah Winfrey, television producer, actress, author, and media proprietor, is best known for her talk show.  She advised graduates at Tennessee State University to “not let the world make an ‘impostor syndrome’ out of you.  ‘I come as one, I stand as 10,000’ is my mantra for power.  Because for so many of my earlier years, I was the only woman, I was the only person of color.  …  At no time did I ever feel out of place, or not enough, or inadequate – nor an imposter.  Do not let the world make an impostor syndrome out of you.”  While Winfrey spoke at a majority-black institution, I’m sure she would apply this to all individuals.

Michelle Yeoh, first Asian woman to win an Oscar for Best Actress, spoke at the Harvard Law School Commencement.   “Initially, knowing your limits keeps you humble, motivated, and focused on a goal to point your finger toward… Externally, knowing the limits that are set for you by others gives you a place to point a different finger – I’m thinking about the middle one… For every winner, there doesn’t have to be a loser.  In fact, most success stories are less about competition and more about collaboration.  The truth is I could not have done any of this alone.”

Tom Hanks, Oscar winner and film maker, spoke at the Harvard University Commencement.  He told graduates to be superheroes in defense of truth and American ideals, and to resist those who twist the truth for their own gains.  “Telling the truth is no longer the benchmark for public service.  It is no longer the salve to our fears, or the guide to our actions.  Truth is now considered malleable by opinion and zero-sum endgames…  For every graduating class, there is a choice to be made.  It’s the same option for all grown-ups who have to decide to be one of three types of Americans:  those who embrace liberty and freedom for all, those who don’t, or those who are indifferent.  Only the first do the work of creating a more perfect union.  A nation indivisible.  The others get in the way.”

Jason Kander, President of National Expansion, Veterans Community Project.  Speaking at Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies began by saying that he was there “to inspire you to think of yourself… there is nothing selfish about self-care, because if you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t change the world.  But, if you do, you just might.”

Hamadi Ulukaya, Founder and CEO of Chobani spoke at Adelphi University’s Commencement.  He told the graduates that there will be many days when life “forces you to change.  I’m not saying it won’t be scary.  I’ve been scared at every step along the way, but I never let that prevent me from moving forward.  I never let that prevent me from seeing the opportunities in the unknown.  You can’t be afraid of being afraid.”

Gina Kingsbury, St. Lawrence University alum and two-time Olympic gold medalist in women’s hockey, in her remarks told the graduates about the design of the golf ball.  Originally, she noted that it was a small smooth ball.  It was found that the smooth ball actually flew better after it had some dents in it which led to the design of the present ball.  She then drew several life lessons from the golf ball.  Be authentic.  Being true to yourself is your greatest power.  Never stop being curious.  And, when your road gets rough, remember the golf ball and its dents.

Marc Tessier-Lavingne, Stanford President, provided three words of advice to the graduating class.  First, connect with others with empathy and humanity – both those you agree with, and those you do not.  Second, follow your interests and be open to new paths.  And, third, be encouraged to find your own way and make a difference.  The world needs your talents, your creativity, and your commitment to improving our world if we are going to find solutions to the challenges we face and make our world better.

Mark Rober, engineer, inventor and YouTuber, was MIT’s Commencement speaker.  He urged the graduates to cultivate a sense of optimism and collaboration, and in our uncertain world, “to pick what you think is the best path and just move forward.”  He encouraged them to positively impact the world while practicing “optimism combined with dedication” and fostering their relationships with others.  In his remarks, he offered three specific pieces of advice.  The first was to “embrace naïve optimism” as a way to avoid excessive doubt and discouragement.  Second, Rober observed that “Life is like trying to cross a big flowing river with lots of rocks and boulders strewn about.”  He observed that we must navigate things one rock or boulder at a time.  “The willingness to jump from my current safe rock to the next is what I feel has led me from college to NASA to YouTube to eventually to this rock, of giving the commencement speech at M-I-freeking-T.  There is no way I could have predicted that path when I was exactly in your shoes exactly 20 years ago.”  Rober’s second piece of advice was to “frame your failures” in order to learn from them without being too stressed by them.  He feels like when you frame a challenge or learning process in this way, you really want to do it.  If you are going to cross the river of life, you’re gonna get wet, you’re gonna have to backtrack, and that’s not a ‘but’, that’s a feature.”  Thirdly, Rober advised the graduates, “foster your relationships.  A sad truth about getting older is life gets busier and busier and it gets harder and harder to make really close friends like you made here in school.”  At the end of his speech, Mark paused, took off his mortarboard hat, reached under the podium and pulled out another mortarboard with small propeller engines affixed to its four corners and launched it over the assembled crowd where it flew for ten minutes or so to loud cheers.

There are lots of good words here with very good advice, not only for new graduates, but also for those of us who are already on the front line.  Do take some time to find one or two things here that you will work on and make a regular part of your life and work.

 I trust that this will be a great week for you and those who work with you. . . . . jim