Career Coach: What’s the real message of a graduation speech?

June 1

During this time of the year, it is common to hear speeches at various commencement ceremonies – whether for high school or college graduations or other graduate schools. With so many speeches given by the selected students, alumni and external leaders, what messages are new graduates walking away with?

While graduates may be easily distracted by the ceremony and the celebratory meals and parties with families and friends, they should still come away with at least three things:

A feeling of personal pride, excitement and accomplishment.

A charge or mandate for what they still need to do in the future.

A message of hope and optimism that they can and must make a difference in order to have an impact and improve the world.

Some of the most famous speeches illustrate these key themes. President John F. Kennedy gave an address at American University in 1963 called “A Strategy of Peace,” where he talked about the need for hope and a “can-do” attitude.

“First examine our attitude towards peace itself. Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it is unreal. But tha t is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable, that mankind is doomed, that we are gripped by forces we cannot control. We need not accept that view. Our problems are man-made; therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.”

Likewise, J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter book series, gave the address at Harvard University in 2008. While she is known for speaking about the “fringe benefits of failure,” she also eloquently spoke about the impact that graduates, particularly those from a prestigious school can and should have on the world they live in. As she noted:

“But how much more are you, Harvard graduates of 2008, likely to touch other people’s lives? Your intelligence, your capacity for hard work, the education you have earned and received, give you unique status, and unique responsibilities. Even your nationality sets you apart. The great majority of you belong to the world’s only remaining superpower. The way you vote, the way you live, the way you protest, the pressure you bring to bear on your government, has an impact way beyond your borders. That is your privilege, and your burden. If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped change. We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.”

Steve Jobs, in his speech at Stanford in 2005 focused on these points as well, particularly the charge for the future. By using himself as an example, he emphasized to graduates to find what they love to do for their work, and not just settle with doing anything. As he stated:

“Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith. I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.”

So, graduates of today’s schools, no matter what topic you studied or where you attended school, heed the advice from these great speeches. As graduates, you are among an elite group of people who had the opportunity to attend school (whether high school, college or graduate school). First, really thank those who supported your journey. Then remember that you are expected to use this experience to not only better your own life situation and your family’s, but also to improve the world around you. An opportunity? Absolutely. Yet, your degree is also a responsibility. This is what many commencement speakers hope graduates remember from their speeches: To make each day count and to make a positive difference no matter what you end up doing.

Joyce E. A. Russell is the vice dean and the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management. She can be reached at jrussell@rhsmith.umd.edu.

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