By Chuck Lauer
I am always intrigued by commencement addresses, often delivered by a national or local grandee.
Some speeches, such as the one delivered by Steve Jobs at Stanford’s graduation in 2005, are long-remembered for their eloquence and inspiration. Most are forgotten by the time the last grad walks off the stage, diploma in hand.
I think graduation speakers have a real role to play in helping high school or college graduates focus on their futures. For many young people, graduation day comes at an anxious time; the future might seem hazy or even scary. This is when real insight and perspective from the guest speaker is needed. Unfortunately, some speakers are content to throw out a bunch of platitudes, shying away from taking a stand on anything for fear they may offend someone. Political correctness rules.
Yet there are some basic truths that I believe commencement speakers should be willing to articulate without fear of retribution. If I were talking to a high school graduation class today, I would tell them how lucky they are that they have earned their degree and are either going on to college or entering the job market, though I know the latter is incredibly tough right now. I would tell them that no matter what they do, the next few years will be difficult. As they mature, their perspective will change on a lot of things, including how they see themselves. But the most important thing I would tell them is that they live in a great country, with unlimited freedom.
I would explain that in spite of all the doom and gloomers running around the country saying how bad things are, that there is still plenty of opportunity to pursue your own destiny and be who you want to be. People from all over the world still want to come here and in some cases are even willing to risk their lives to do so. The U.S.A. is still the place to be!
Then I would tell them how difficult it is to make their dreams come true. It takes terrific discipline, perseverance and intestinal fortitude to make anything that is worthwhile happen. If you want to be a slacker, you can, but you won’t be satisfied. A lot of people opt out of the game of life, missing out on so much adventure.
If they are willing to get in the game, I would tell the grads they will meet people that they may only know for a little while but whose memory will stay with them for the rest of their lives. I would tell them that very thing happened to me as I served my nation in the Korean War. In those days, some of us were drafted into the service after we graduated from college. I was hauled in as a buck private and came out a corporal. I met incredible characters whom I still remember with great affection more than half a century later.
I would tell the graduates that they have to overcome age-old prejudices and stereotypes and learn to help everyone with the business of living. Maybe we have to remember that in yielding to the other person we are really making our society a more successful place. Maybe a good analogy could be when any of us come to a four-way stop, we wait to take our turn, yielding to those who got there first. In other words, act in a civilized manner, young graduates! I like the story about Starbucks I heard recently whereby many people buy the person in the car behind them a cup of coffee as a good will gesture. Too often today people seem too unwilling to treat others with the dignity and respect that is so essential to a civilized society.
Then there is envy. Nip this in the bud, young people! Many people covet other people’s lot in life. They look at them and their lifestyle and think that somehow they have missed out on the so-called finer things in life. Maybe you don’t have the most expensive car or biggest house, but those are hardly the most important things in life. What’s most important are your character, values and integrity. For instance, some of the best people I have ever met come from modest means. They make up the very soul and substance of this nation. If you do find monetary success, never become a snob, looking down on people because of the size of their wallets. The American way is to treasure each other and always treat others as you would have them treat you.
I would ask the young graduates to offer some thanks to the teachers and coaches who have helped them along the way. These mentors need positive reinforcement too--some thanks for helping to make you a better person.
Of course, there are the parents. Parenting is hard work, requiring infinite patience and fortitude. If you graduates are lucky, I would say, you have mothers and fathers and grandmothers and grandfathers and aunts and uncles who all care about you and your well-being. Tell them how much you care about them!
I would close by telling this new generation how short life is. When you are young, the future seems endless. I would tell them that time is the only real possession they have. Don’t waste a precious second of it. Give your all every day. Don't shy from risk. Challenge injustice. Say “thank you” as often as you can. Give back by mentoring others. Find someone to love and tell that person you love them every day.
So, graduates, thank you for listening, and I as I leave you, let me say once more how lucky you are to be living in this great country. Whenever you have an opportunity, give back, either through service or charity. It’s your turn.