June is a great time to evaluate the things that really matter in life. With school years ending across the country and the great weather kicking into high gear (already turning into overly hot, humid days here in Washington, DC), we all begin to take a look at the Class of 2011. Graduates at all levels are being recognized for their hard work and accomplishments as they embark down future paths that are at the same time invigorating and uncertain.
It is interesting, therefore, to study the words that are spoken on these historic occasions. What messages come across? What themes can we promote to future graduates? You will be hard pressed to find a graduation speech that extols the wisdom of achieving fame and wealth. Despite America’s ambitious and capitalistic nature, when it comes down to these defining moments in our lives, we stop to think about the qualities of life that really matter—things like being kind to others, respecting and valuing different opinions, being open to new experiences throughout your life—in general finding a way forward on the path to happiness.
Once you get past the obligatory references to late nights with too much alcohol, the endless opportunities open to new graduates, and the need to step back from social media every now and then—and even this year’s favorite theme: overcoming fear (fear of the future, fear of the job market, fear of progressing in life)—this year’s notable graduation speakers focused on how to get fulfillment out of life.
Despite their fame, speakers Denzel Washington, Amy Poehler and Tom Hanks did not encourage a focus on gathering fame and wealth. Rather, they emphasized going after what you’re passionate about, collaborating with others, and persevering in the face of failures. Poehler discussed the importance of finding a good group of people to work with and learn from: “You can’t do it alone. As you navigate through the rest of your life, be open to collaboration….Find a group of people who challenge and inspire you.” By helping others, you learn and grow with them and some day those very same people will be able to help you on the way.
Other speakers (known more for their scholarly efforts) such as Thomas Freidman and Robert Krulwich followed a similar vein, while encouraging a connection to the wider world. The importance of working together with others spills over and affects a larger community. By being involved in your own efforts with others, you help to create chains of kindness that can stretch around the globe. Professor Robert Cargill shared some things he’d learned “over the past 18 years that may help you in your next 18 years…Say thank you. Be gracious. There is an Arab saying which says: ‘Blessed is the one who can say thank you in a thousand languages.’” He went on to thank his own college coaches, who taught him “not only…to play baseball, but how to compete with character and confidence in life.”
Even without years of wisdom, one graduating student boiled his thoughts down to this goal of happiness: “Happy people get what they want because often happy people are the ones who realize they don’t need much more than they already have and they appreciate what they’ve already got” (Chris Sacca, Univ. of Minnesota’s School of Management).
These ongoing efforts to work with others and find happiness prove just one thing—you never graduate from learning and demonstrating good character. This life-long endeavor is best summed up in the words of Denzel Washington speaking at UPenn: “Be open to life, to accept new views, be open to new opinions…because the chances you take, the people you meet, the people you love, the faith that you have, that’s what’s going to define you.”