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2012 Commencement Wisdom For New (And Old) Graduates

There’s just something about graduation season. Even those of us whose commencements are far in the past can catch some fresh inspiration from the wisdom dispensed at the annual college rites. And for the speakers, it’s often a strategic PR move where boldfaced names look to be humorous, colorful, and newsworthy. Here’s a recap of some of my favorite 2012 graduation moments and speeches.

Eric Schmidt, Boston University

Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt‘s speech to BU’s class of 2012 had a slow start; Schmidt looked awkward and floated a silly line about Twitter that could have been penned by a borscht-belt comedian. Yet, he worked up to an idealistic finish, urging new grads to “make a difference” and speaking eloquently about the value of trust in a networked world. His most interesting advice is counter-intuitive.

In order to know that (what you really care about), I hate to say it but you’re going to have to turn off your computer, turn off your phone. And discover all that is human around us.

Aaron Sorkin, Syracuse University

As an SU alum, Sorkin offered one of the most deeply personal speeches. He shared theater class anecdotes and even mentioned his 10 years of struggle with cocaine addiction. As usual, Sorkin didn’t try to flatter or patronize his audience, greeting them as a “a group of incredibly well educated dumb people.” He borrowed liberally from his own writing, but his remarks are inspiring, and the trademark idealism comes through. Nice timing, too, with his new HBO drama set to debut this month.

Don’t ever forget that a small group of thoughtful people can change the world. It’s the only thing that ever has. Rehearsal’s over. You’re going out there now. You’re going to do this thing. How you live matters. You’re going to fall down but the world doesn’t care how many times you fall down as long as it’s one fewer than the number of times you get back up.

President Barack Obama, Barnard College

President Obama’s words to the women of Barnard held the same message. They were also eloquent, if a little less personal. Yet I can’t help that Mr. Obama might have been thinking of his own presidency when he delivered the Churchillian words of his finale.

My last piece of advice — this is simple, but perhaps most important: Persevere. Persevere. Nothing worthwhile is easy. No one of achievement has avoided failure — sometimes catastrophic failures. But they keep at it. They learn from mistakes. They don’t quit.

Neil Gaiman, University of the Arts of Philadelphia

My favorite 2012 commencement speech is that of novelist and screenwriter Neil Gaiman, whose remarks were focused on lifting students aspiring to a career in the arts. And he should know.

The rules, the assumptions, the now-we’re supposed to’s of how you get your work seen, and what you do then, are breaking down. The gatekeepers are leaving their gates. You can be as creative as you need to be to get your work seen. YouTube and the web (and whatever comes after YouTube and the web) can give you more people watching than television ever did. The old rules are crumbling and nobody knows what the new rules are.

So make up your own rules.

Ira Glass, Goucher College

Ira Glass, host of “This American Life,” gave a charmingly quirky speech. And, why not? Glass is a great storyteller. First he dumped on the very idea of a commencement speech, calling it a “doomed form.” Then he launched into a personal narrative that roamed from the loss of his virginity on the Goucher campus to his Jewish grandmother, who once met Adolf Hitler in Germany before WWII. Glass shared the Hitler anecdote as a kind of a metaphor for missed opportunities. (His grandmother had no idea who Hitler was and what he would become, so she missed the chance to change the course of history by killing him.)

We lurch forward in our lives, we try this, we try that, we make the best guesses that we can….based on what we believe at the time. It’s entirely possible that you or you or you will get the chance to…change the world and kill Adolf Hitler and you will miss it, that is entirely possible.

But…I believe in you. I think it’s just as likely that you will…make yourselves into who it is that you’re trying to be and when you get your chance to remake the world, when you get the chance to change everything for yourself, and hopefully for others, too, when you get the chance to shoot Adolf Hitler, you will know what to do. That’s my wish for you on this day.

Jane Lynch, Smith College

The award for best ending line belongs to veteran indie actress and Glee star Jane Lynch, who said this to the graduating Smithies.

If life gives you lemons, grab it by the horns and drive — and yes, I just mixed three metaphors. Remember, I was a C-student.

 

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