The best graduation wisdom of 2014


Cadets throw their hats in the air at the conclusion of the graduation ceremony at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on on May 28, 2014 in West Point, New York. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

This graduation season has had it all: high-profile speakers backing out after student protests. Controversial public relations gaffes as colleges scrambled to replace them. A requisite graduation speech by the president to one of the military academies. Even a commencement address filmed in space.

Along the way, there's been plenty of wisdom doled out to graduates, ranging from Adm. William McRaven's advice to graduates at the University of Texas about how to change the world — easily the best speech of the year — to actress Sandra Bullock telling graduates of Warren Easton Charter High School not to pick their nose in public.

But some of the best graduation wisdom didn't come from the lecturn on a sunny day in May. Rather, it came from Twitter (where else for this graduating class of digital natives?), through a series of eight tweets authored by venture capitalist Marc Andreessen Tuesday afternoon.

In his "thesis," Andreessen, who is known as one of the founders of Netscape and an investor in Facebook, criticized the "do what you love" and "follow your passion" refrain that form the backbone of so many college commencement addresses as "dangerous and destructive career advice." He wrote that it tends to come from highly successful people, not those who have "failed to become successful by doing what they love."

Instead, as he writes in abbreviated Twitter speech, he thinks "better career advice may be 'Do what contributes'—focus on the beneficial value created for other people vs just one's own ego." Noting that it's "perhaps difficult advice since requires focus on others vs oneself" and "perhaps bad fit with endemic narcissism in modern culture" yet those who "contribute the most are often the most satisfied with what they do." His last tweet warns that doing something that makes a contribution "requires delayed gratification" and that those who seek it "may toil for many years to get the payoff of contributing value to the world, vs short-term happiness."

At a time when so many successful people encourage students to follow their dreams, Andreessen's advice is refreshing because it's realistic (while still being hopeful and inspiring). He doesn't make any judgements on what constitutes making a contribution. It could be public service or committing oneself to a cause. It could be starting a business that creates something people need. Or, of course, it could be making enough money that one can invest in others.

For more of the best words of wisdom from this year's graduation speakers — from "Frozen" director Jennifer Lee to chef José Andrés — check out these quotes:

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook chief operating officer, at City Colleges of Chicago on May 3:

“I’ve seen over and over how much self-belief drives outcomes. And that’s why I force myself to sit at the table, even when I am not sure I belong there — and yes, this still happens to me. And when I’m not sure anyone wants my opinion, I take a deep breath and speak up anyway.”

David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, at Syracuse University on May 11:

"If this day means anything, it means that you are now in the contingent of the responsible. You must be kind, yes, but you must also look beyond your own house. We're depending on you for your efforts and your vision. We are depending on your eye and your imagination to identify what wrongs exist and persist, and on your hands, your backs, your efforts to right them."

Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at Duke University on May 11:

"A few things do seem clear to me. We will have to think our way, not bludgeon our way, into the future. There will be more options, but also more ambiguity in dealing with the challenges we face. You will ned to find, fix and remain true to your moral compass, or you'll find yourself paralyzed."

Atul Gawande, surgeon and writer, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on May 11:

"People often say: find your passion. But there’s more to it than that. Not all passions are enough. Just existing for your desires feels empty and insufficient, because our desires are fleeting and insatiable. You need a loyalty. The only way life is not meaningless is to see yourself as part of something greater: a family, a community, a society."

Tory Burch, founder and CEO of the fashion brand Tory Burch, at Babson College on May 17:

“Even if you’re not yet an entrepreneur, you can be entrepreneurial in everything you do. If you view each stop as an opportunity to learn something, there is always something you will take away from that experience.”

From Peyton Manning’s football throw to Sean Combs’s inspirational message, here are the most memorable commencement speeches from this year’s graduation season. (Theresa Poulson/The Washington Post)

 

Naval Admiral William H. McRaven, ninth commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, at the University of Texas-Austin on May 17:

"If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day.  It will give you a small sense of pride and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. ... And, if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made—that you made—and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better."

Jennifer Lee, director of "Frozen," at the University of New Hampshire on May 17:

“If I learned one thing, it is that self-doubt is one of the most destructive forces. It makes you defensive instead of open, reactive instead of active. Self-doubt is consuming and cruel. And my hope today is that we can all collectively agree to ban it. ... Think to the moments of your life when you forgot to doubt yourself. When you were so inspired that you were just living and creating and working. Pay attention to those moments because they're trying to reach you through those lenses of doubt and trying to show you your potential."

José Andrés, chef, at George Washington University on May 18:

The best part of Andrés' speech may have been the video he showed of celebrities, from Morgan Freeman to Gwyneth Paltrow, turning down the gig as commencement speaker. But his speech offered plenty of gold nuggets of wisdom. "Get a cocktail shaker, if you are over 21. Add your heart, your soul, your brain, your instinct and shake it hard. Serve it straight up. But let me give you a secret ingredient. Add a dash of the criticism on top. Because those naysayers play an important role too."

Madeleine Albright, former secretary of state, at Dickinson College on May 18:

"But Siri cannot tell you how to build a democracy. You cannot tweet your way to good governance. There is no app for inclusive economic growth. Humanity’s progress depends on human leadership… and our leaders’ job is harder than ever. What I’m saying, dear graduates, is that the world is a mess. I’m sorry, but it’s true. And now, it falls to your generation to solve the problems my generation is leaving behind."

Charlie Day, writer and comedian, at Merrimack College on May 18:

"I think the lesson is this: Had I worked at Fidelity I am sure they would have fired me eventually. I can barely do long division. But I didn't want to fail at Fidelity. And I did not want to fail in Boston. if I was going to run the risk of failure I wanted it to be in the place where I would be proud to fail, doing what I wanted to do. And let me tell you something, I did fail. Over and over again. I was too short for this or too weird for that. I had one casting agent say this man will never work in comedy. But I was in the fight. I was taking my punches, but I was in the fight."

Jill Abramson, former editor of The New York Times, at Wake Forest University on May 19:

"Some of you — and now I’m talking to anyone who’s been dumped--you bet--not gotten the job you really wanted, or received those horrible rejection letters of grad school. You know the sting of losing, or not getting something you badly want. When that happens, show what you are made of.”

Janet Yellen, chair of the Federal Reserve, at New York University on May 21:
“Listening to others, especially those with whom we disagree, tests our own ideas and beliefs. It forces us to recognize, with humility, that we don't have a monopoly on the truth.”

President Barack Obama at West Point on May 28:

"America must always lead on the world stage. If we don’t, no one else will. The military that you have joined is, and always will be, the backbone of that leadership. But U.S. military action cannot be the only -- or even primary -- component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail."

Read also:

Jill Abramson shares lessons from her Times ouster

Rutgers, have you forgotten the point of a graduation speaker?

Like On Leadership? Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
SECTION: {section=business/on-leadership, subsection=null}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=2, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=7, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: !!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=2, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=7, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Comments
SECTION: {section=business/on-leadership, subsection=null}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=2, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=7, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: !!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=2, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=7, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Show Comments
Most Read Business
Next Story
Jena McGregor · May 27