The Value Of Commencement Speeches

Recently while reading Tim Ferris’s blog, I noticed he posted videos of Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford University commencement speech along with author Neil Gaiman’s 2012 commencement speech at the University of the Arts.  I never really gave any thought to the value of commencement speeches.  I don’t even remember who gave the commencement speech at my college graduation.  Once in a while I’d catch news clips of some famous person giving a speech at a well-known college, but that was the extent of it for me.

It wasn’t until the San Jose Mercury News ran the transcript of Jobs’ speech did I realize that these speeches could hold some valuable life lessons.  I mean, we’ll watch TED videos and read personal development material, so why not listen to a successful person boil down their best advice in 20 minutes?  Both of these speeches are very well done and have a lot of great insight.  Jobs’ reflection on his battle with cancer is particularly poignant.

“Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.”

– Otto von Bismarck

This is something I learned late in life.  The funny thing about college commencement speeches is that the audience is filled with bright-eyed, fired-up kids ready to head out to make their mark in the world.  You were that kid once, remember?  These lessons are as applicable to us today as they were 20 or more years ago.

I highly recommend that you check out both speeches.  But if you don’t have roughly 40 minutes of patience, here are your college Cliff notes:

Sometimes it’s better to be inexperienced.  When you don’t know any better you’re not limited by rules or boundaries.  (Experience is good to have, but sometimes it’s the experience that prevents us from taking action.  How many times have you done something that ultimately turned out great because you just “didn’t know any better?”)

Imagine where you want to be and keep moving towards this vision.  The question you should constantly ask yourself: Is what I’m doing moving me closer or further away from my vision?  Depending on your answer, either stop or keep going.

Be thick-skinned.  Failures and disappointments are bound to happen.  

Success often brings more problems.  (Like Puffy says, “More money, more problems.” This is usually part of the equation we don’t plan for.  Have you ever obtained something that you really wanted only to find it was filled with unexpected problems and difficulties?)

Mistakes are OK.  It means you’re doing something.

The single biggest advantage you have is you.  There is no one else in the world who has your voice, mind, story or vision.  (I particularly like this point.  So often, we overlook or take for granted our own gifts and talents.  We’re quick to surrender to that self-sabotaging inner voice that says “Who cares what you have to say?” or “What makes you so special?”)

Enjoy your journey or else you’ll miss the unexpected and remarkable.  (I’m still trying to learn this lesson.  We’re so distracted about the “next” thing that we forget to enjoy the “right now” thing.)

Follow your heart and trust that life will ultimately connect the dots later.  (I envy individuals who just “go” and figure things out later.  This takes a lot of courage, faith and confidence. Think back on your own life how seemingly meaningless or unremarkable events produced something of tremendous significance.  Jobs has a great story about how a single calligraphy class taken during college influenced the Mac’s design.)

You’ve got to find what you love to do.  If not keep looking.  Don’t settle.  You’ll know when you find it.

Your time is limited.  Don’t waste it by living someone else’s expectations.

The last two points Jobs summarizes perfectly.  Given his diagnosis at the time and projected life span, he wakes each day and pretends it’s his last.  The question he asks himself is:

If today is my last day, would I spend it doing what I’m doing today?

 If the answer is “no,” then you know it’s time to start moving towards something different.