This year's headline-grabbing commencement speeches have been high on thinly veiled critiques of the Trump administration and big on dire warnings about the state of American democracy.
Former secretary of state Rex Tillerson cautioned graduates at Virginia Military Institute about the end of American democracy if Americans don't “confront the crisis of ethics and integrity in our society and among our leaders.” Michael Bloomberg talked at Rice University of the threat from “our own willingness to tolerate dishonesty in service of party and in pursuit of power.” And 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, raising a Russian ushanka hat as part of a Yale University tradition, said Sunday that “we're living through a full-fledged crisis in our democracy,” telling students “to stay vigilant, to neither close our eyes, nor numb our hearts or throw up our hands.”
But not all of this year's graduation speeches are quite so political or cautionary. A few — though not many — seemed to remember that they were speaking before a group of people who were about to embark upon life as adults who will have to navigate the politics of the workplace, the complexities of new relationships and the decisions of adult life. (Oprah Winfrey to USC Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism graduates: “Invest in a quality mattress. Your back will thank you later.")
Here, some of the best advice offered by this year's commencement speakers so far that graduates — or anyone — can apply to their work and careers:
Oprah Winfrey, chair and CEO of OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network, Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism at the University of Southern California
Winfrey, whose past speeches have drawn speculation that she might be planning a run for president — a rumor she has squashed — got plenty of attention for her calls for graduates to vote in her speech at USC on May 11. But after offering a litany of practical wisdom (“Eat a good breakfast,” she said. “Pay your bills on time. Recycle.") she also added some clear advice for graduates' time in the workplace.
“The number one lesson I can offer you where your work is concerned,” said the media titan, “is this: Become so skilled, so vigilant, so flat-out fantastic at what you do, that your talent cannot be dismissed.”
She also countered the typical “do what you love” advice that fill so many graduation speeches with something else. “You need to know this: Your job is not always going to fulfill you,” she said. “There will be some days that you just might be bored. Other days you may not feel like going to work at all. Go anyway, and remember that your job is not who you are. It’s just what you are doing on the way to who you will become. With every remedial chore, every boss who takes credit for your ideas — that is going to happen — look for the lessons, because the lessons are always there.”
Hamdi Ulukaya, CEO of Chobani
The founder of the popular Greek-yogurt business, which has been caught in partisan sparring over Ulukaya's history of hiring refugees, spoke at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School about the growing societal expectation that CEOs speak up on social issues.
“We are entering a new era, when the center of gravity for social change has moved to the private sector,” he said on May 13. “It’s business, not government, that is in the best position to lead today. It’s not government hiring refugees, it’s business. It’s not government cutting emissions, it’s business. It’s not government standing up to gun violence, it’s business.”
But he also had some advice for the business school grads.
“It’s great that you are a Wharton MBA. But please, don’t act like it,” he said.
That advice came from his employees, he said, after he asked them what he should say in his speech. What they meant was not to treat people like the stereotype of the heartless, number-crunching business school grad.
“Don’t let it get in the way of seeing people as people and all they have to offer you, regardless of their title or position,” he said. “Acknowledging the wisdom and experience of a forklift operator or security guard with 30 years on the job doesn’t diminish your own experience. Acknowledging the sacrifice of others that enabled you to be in this position does not diminish the sacrifices you made on your own.”
Abby Wambach, retired professional soccer player
The former professional women's soccer star spoke at Barnard College's commencement May 18, describing rules she's used to lead her team. Be energized by failure, support people from the sidelines and champion the power of the team, she said. But even people who play on a team, Wambach said, need to know when to “demand the ball,” stepping up when the time calls for leaders to take over.
Wambach recalled the story of playing with Michelle Akers, a women's soccer star from the 1990s, when she was just 18, and the team found itself down three goals. After a game of coaching and leading her younger teammates, Wambach said, Akers demanded that she get the ball.
As she put it: “At this moment in history, leadership is calling us to say: 'Give me the effing ball. Give me the effing job. Give me the same pay the guy next to me gets. Give me the promotion. Give me the microphone. Give me the Oval Office.' "
There are times, Wambach was saying, that leaders — particularly female leaders, who are often coached to stay in line and be grateful for the opportunities they receive — should take charge rather than playing a supporting role.
Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO, New America
The former State Department director of policy planning and author of the widely read piece in the Atlantic about women's careers may lead a Washington think tank. But in her commencement address at Washington University in St. Louis on Friday, she called on graduates to not move to the District, advising them to “go back to your home towns, state capitals or bustling regional cities.” It is there, she said, that they can “make positive change.”
Slaughter was blunt: “If you’re an aspiring business person or entrepreneur, go to where the real estate is cheap and the community is strong, where new tech sectors are springing up by reinventing traditional businesses from manufacturing to media,” she said. “If you’re an aspiring architect, go renovate your home town’s downtown, putting beautiful old buildings to new uses.”
Aspiring journalists, she said, should “go reweave the fabric of local civic life by creating or joining new models of producing local news.”
Siddhartha Mukherjee, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer”
At the University of Southern California's broader commencement ceremony, Mukherjee's beautifully written keynote speech was focused on listening. It is a task, he said, that is a “uniquely human capacity” and takes three forms — being empathetic with others, listening to the past and listening to nature, “eavesdropping on the universe, learning its natural laws, its geometries, its rhythms, its constancies, its mind.”
Though he does not deliver advice in the usual “do this, not that” format, the takeaway message was still powerful, warning that “it is impossible to ignore that we have stopped listening to each other. Or, for that matter, that we have stopped listening to natural laws,” he said.
“The word 'listen' can be rearranged into 'silent,' " he noted, saying “silence is the absolute prerequisite of listening,” warning that “the premium placed on self-curation, on individuality, on identity — Who are you? What are you? — has created a perpetual echo chamber of self-actualization from which there is seemingly no escape.”