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Advice from 2024 Commencement Speeches

| June 25, 2024

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.

The annual highlight on college and university campuses each spring is graduation. Each year, the 4,000 or so higher education institutions celebrate their students’ achievements with commencement celebrations.  Taken together, these institutions awarded over one million undergraduate degrees and one million graduate degrees.   (Five of my grandchildren received degrees, two master’s and three bachelor’s degrees this year.)

The highlight of these celebrations is the award of diplomas to graduating students.  Preceding the award of the diplomas, one or more speakers will typically 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 we are continuing or embarking upon.  Almost all the speakers talked about the pain and difficulties experienced by students when they arrived on campus some four years ago.  COVID certainly changed their experiences, and remnants of those changes persist today.

Here are some of the nuggets from the speeches that caught my attention:

Melinda French Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and founder of Pivotal Ventures, spoke at Stanford University’s commencement exercises.  Her central theme was that life is a constant stream of transitions and that we need not get caught by what we are at any one time.  She illustrated this with a teaching by spiritual leader Ram Dass about two waves, one big, and one small, rapidly approaching the shore.  The big wave, devastated that the end was near, insisted, “we’re done for.”  The smaller one remained calm and answered the bigger wave that they were not, because “you’re not a wave, you’re water.”  French Gates said she loves the story because it “captures what it’s like to experience an extreme transition without losing the core of who you are.”  Building on this she shared three lessons from her life experiences:  First, approach change with “radical openness.”  Resist the idea that anything you have done has locked you into a single path for your career and life.  Second, feed your “small wave” by seeking help and wisdom from others you already have contact with.  Be willing to help and share your wisdom with others.  Quoting Charlie Munger, a well-known businessman, investor, and philanthropist, “The highest form which civilization can reach is a seamless web of deserved trust… totally reliable people correctly trusting each other.”  French Gates went on to say:   “We need each other.  No matter who you are, there will be moments in your journey when you will need to be carried, or when someone else will need you to carry them… A web of deserved trust.”

Fiona Hill, Chancellor of Durham University in the United Kingdom and Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, spoke at the Tufts University graduation.  Dr. Hill began her remarks by noting that this had been a “pivotal and historic year, globally and domestically” and that graduates must “figure out how to be a part of the solution and continue to learn and deliver.”  She continued, “And, being engaged means not just voting, it means actively participating in the life of society as many are right now.” She also spoke of our country’s role internationally and called upon the graduates to be good global citizens and urged that “as they establish their careers, they also work to “expand education in all forms to all the other people that they meet, because other people need a chance to move ahead as well.”

Neil Dunn, U.S. Representative for Florida’s Second Congressional District, spoke at the graduation of Florida State University.  He told the graduates: “Everyone will tell you to aspire to do great things, but don’t use your prodigious talents to mess things up.  There are too many smart people doing that already.  I see that in Congress regularly.”  He urged the graduates to read widely and think critically.   “This is going to become much more important as you are presented with more and more products of artificial intelligence.  Think for yourself and think critically.”  He also told the graduates, “You are not graduating in peaceful times or safe times.  You are inheriting a world full of risks, levels of risk seldom seen in history:  economic risks, health risks, risks of horrible wars all over the world… But you’re skilled and you’re resourceful.  And I like your chances.  Now go and make a difference in the world.”

Lauren Chooljiam Baer, Senior Reporter and Producer, New Hampshire Public Radio, speaking at the St. Anselm College’s graduation, said, “I want to honor how difficult it was because I know that pain is in your bones.  You were forced to push forward.  To choose resilience.  Those lonely days of masks and dorm meals and Zoom classes, you are all now uniquely built to endure.  And that, in my opinion, will only serve you.  Now, when pain, grief, or tragedy come your way, you will feel it obviously, but you’ll also be able to dig deep and remember.  You’ve been there before.  And you got yourself out of it.   Later in her remarks, she quoted writer Angela Gates:  “One day at a time.  Loving ourselves and each other.”  And, Baer added, “How great that is.”

Craig T. Nelson, Grammy Award-winning actor, was the commencement speaker at the University of Arizona.  “I urge you, from the bottom of my heart, to take what you have learned and do for one what you would do for many, and sit down, take the time as you’re pursuing your dreams, as you achieve your goals, to talk to just one.  Share your experience, strength, and hope with them, and plant a seed that one day may become a life worth living and not a destiny.  I think we all share a deep desire that we want to make a difference, that we want to effect change.  And, I think we do that by sharing our hearts, our hopes, and our aspirations with each other in a deeply personal way.”

Ken Burns, historian, was the speaker at Brandis University’s commencement.  In his remarks, he told graduates, “I am in the business of history… It is my job, however, to remind people of the power our past also exerts, to help us better understand what’s going on now with compelling story, memory, and anecdote.   It is my job to try to discern patterns and themes from history to enable us to interpret our dizzying and sometimes dismaying present… Don’t confuse success with excellence.  Do not descend too deeply into specialism.  Educate all of your parts, you will be healthier.  Do not get stuck in one place.  ‘Travel is fatal to prejudice,’ Twain also said.  Be in nature, which is always perfect, and where nothing is binary.  Its sheer majesty may remind you of your own atomic insignificance, as one observer put it, but in the inscrutable and paradoxical ways of wild places, you will feel larger, inspirited, just as the egotist in our midst is diminished by his or her self-regard…  Choose honor over hypocrisy, virtue over vulgarity, discipline over dissipation, character over cleverness, sacrifice over self-indulgence.  Do not lose your enthusiasm. In its Greek etymology the word enthusiasm means simply, ‘god in us.’  Serve your country. Insist that we fight the right wars…  Denounce oppression everywhere.”

Roger Federer, tennis champion, spoke at Dartmouth’s commencement.  In his remarks, he made several significant points:

  • Effortless is a myth.  It takes hard work, tough work, to make it look easy.
  • I believed in myself.  Before you can believe in yourself, you have to earn it.
  • It’s natural when you are down to doubt yourself.  To feel sorry for yourself.

You want to become a master at overcoming challenging moments.  The world’s best are not the best because they won every point.  It’s because they know they will lose (sometimes) and have learned how to deal with it.

Maria Ressa, Philippine Journalist and 2021 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, was Harvard University’s commencement speaker.  In her remarks, Ressa told graduates to be “clear about your values” and “vulnerable with each other in order to build relationships, instead of creating further division… We are standing on the rubble of the world that was.   And, you must have the courage, the foresight to imagine and create the world as it should be – more compassionate, more equal, and more sustainable… Our world on fire needs you.  So, Class of 2024, welcome to the battlefield.  Join us.”

Noubar Afeyan, philanthropist, and chairman of Moderna, spoke at MIT’s commencement.  Moderna invented and produced an effective COVID-19 vaccine deployed to billions of people in 70 countries.  The vaccine’s first trial began two months after receiving the COVID protein.  Afeyan, calling this an impossible mission, spoke to the graduates about what will be required of them to accept their mission, even if it seems impossible.  He suggested that this requires three things:

  • Unleash your imagination – the foundational building block for breakthroughs.
  • Innovate—you have to leave your comfort zone to think in new ways, acclimate to the unfamiliar, and embrace uncertainty.
  • Integrate – bring the results of your imagination and your innovation together to reach what you have imagined.

There are lots of good words and concepts here that represent excellent ideas and insights not only for new graduates, but also for those who are already embraced in the challenges of work and leadership.  Do take the time to identify one or two ideas mentioned here that you will take and make a regular part of your work.

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