‘Tis the season of commencement addresses when adults who have made a name for themselves try to condense in 30 minutes advice parents have attempted to impart to their children over 18 grueling years. Why these addresses are called “commencement” has always baffled me, since they come at the end of a training stint, rather than at the beginning.
The first time I met the word “commencement” in this context, I was reading an issue of Seventeen, probably 16 years old. My age, not the magazine’s. My town cousins passed their magazines along to me. The pages with their glossy photos of Sandra Dee and other glamour models filled my head with improbable dreams of one day being slim, attractive, wearing argyle knee socks, a tartan skirt pinned on one side by a gigantic safety pin.
As one of three students graduating from a 42-student, 12-grade country school, I shared no year-end shenanigans of any sort beyond a weiner roast at the lake, a shindig I skipped having already become a diehard introvert.
Today’s grads, whether from high school, college or university, are propelled into adulthood by a rousing pep talk. With the internet, we can review video of university speeches on YouTube.
June 5, 2008 well-known Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling addressed Harvard’s graduating class.
Only seven years after graduating with a Bachelor of Arts from Exeter University, she had been divorced, single parent to a young daughter, living on welfare and so depressed she contemplated suicide. She counted herself an abject failure. That’s when she began writing Harry Potter.
Rowling spoke about the freedom that comes from failure. Failure stripped away any fears and provided her a rock solid surface on which to rebuild her life. And rebuild she did. In 2010 Forbes magazine estimated Rowling’s net worth at US$1 billion.
When she enrolled in university, her parents pushed her to take courses she could rely on for a good living. Instead, she opted for classic literature but kept that choice to herself until she graduated. She notes, “There is an expiry date for blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction. The moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you.”
In a May 2011 commencement address, actor Denzel Washington advised the University of Pennsylvania’s graduating class to take risks and not be afraid to fail. “In fact,” he said, “at some time you are bound to fail or you’re not even trying. And failing is the best way to figure out where you’re going.” He himself switched from pre-med to pre-law to journalism before discovering acting. At the same time he told grads to always fall forward, where at least you can see where you’re going.
Washington quoted Nelson Mandela who said, “There is no passion to be found playing small – in settling for a life that is less than the one that you are capable of living.”
Ellen DeGeneres in her 2009 address to the Tulane University grads following Katrina had a similar message. She emphasized the benefits of taking a risk to find your true niche in life, work you can do with zest and satisfaction.
When she risked “coming out” she lost her successful six-year-old TV show, waited three years without any offers to work again as a comedian, and yet feels all those years of anguish were worth it; now she is truly happy and successful as an “outed” comedian. “Resist peer pressure to do or be what you feel you are not.” Or to put it another way, live your authentic life; be who you are.
Do your best, give of your best to others. For as Washington put it, “You will never see a U-Haul behind a hearse. You can’t take it with you.”