There is no easy path. You will face setbacks. Boomers have hogged up your jobs. You’ll have to rely on yourselves. And quit with the excuses already.
Wait — what happened to the unicorns and rainbows in the commencement speeches? In these straitened, sequestered times, political leaders (President Obama, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords), TV hosts (Oprah Winfrey, Stephen Colbert), billionaires (Melinda Gates) and writers (Wil Haygood) are mixing in another theme: Tough love. Below are snippets of what these luminaries had to say to the Class of 2013.
At Harvard on Thursday, the TV host recounted her own setbacks and dedicated her talk to “anybody who’s felt screwed by life.” Everybody, she told them, needs resilience to move forward after inevitable stumbles. And even the most successful people need reassurance, validation. Please, she urged them, think broadly enough to “have more face-to-face conversations with people you may disagree with.”
The philanthropist noted criticism of the millennial generation for being more absorbed in online friendships than face-to-face encounters. To Duke graduates, Gates said: Use those broad electronic connections to broaden your world — and take that enhanced knowledge and those friendships to help you move ahead. “I want to encourage you to reject the cynics who say technology is flattening your experience of the world. Please don’t let anyone make you believe you are somehow shallow because you like to update your status on a regular basis.”
In a 32-minute speech at Atlanta’s Morehouse College that mentioned a lifelong drive to make up for an absent father, Obama said too many young black men make bad decisions. “Growing up, I made quite a few myself. Sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down. I had a tendency to make excuses for me not doing the right thing. . . . We’ve got no time for excuses. In today’s hyper-connected, hyper-competitive world, with millions of young people from China and India and Brazil, many of whom started with a whole lot less than all of you did, all of them entering the global workforce alongside you, nobody is going to give you anything you haven’t earned. Nobody cares how tough your upbringing was. Nobody cares if you suffered some discrimination.
“Moreover, you have to remember that whatever you’ve gone through, it pales in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured — and if they overcame them, you can overcome them, too.”
The comedian turned serious for a moment with University of Virginia grads, noting the disruptive world they are walking into and joking, sort of, that self-absorbed boomers are hogging the best jobs: “There is no secret society out there that will tap you on the shoulder and show you the way. The true secret is, your life will not be defined by the society we have left you. . . . Every generation must define itself. If you must find your own path, and we have left you no easy path, then decide now to choose the hard path that leads to the life and the world that you want.”
Here’s what the biographer and Washington Post reporter told Miami University grads: “When you lose an opportunity, don’t be afraid to circle back. Ask that person for a second chance. That’s exactly what I did. Knock on the door again. Life is about second chances, but only if you ask. And know this: When someone gives you a second chance, you give grace to their life. You give them a chance to do something unique, something bigger than themselves, something quite special. They now become part of the long string of human spirit that pulls you along.”
Sometimes just the presence of a speaker is an achievement. The former U.S. representative, still recovering from the 2011 shooting in Arizona, gave a short, inspiring speech to Bard graduates that emotionally passed the baton to them. “The nation’s counting on you to create, to lead, to innovate,” she said with difficulty following a longer speech by her husband, former NASA astronaut Mark Kelly.
“Be bold, be courageous, do your best.”
More commencement advice is coming, with speeches by, among others, Michael Bloomberg (Stanford), Mikhail Baryshnikov (Northwestern) and Dropbox co-founder Drew Houston (MIT) this month. To see what 2013 commencement speakers have advised, go to wapo.st/13IQgOr.