Here’s the thing: 20 years ago, my wife and I put on black robes and listened to speeches before getting our pigskins from Western Washington University–and exactly a week later, got married.
This summer, we went back so she could put on special black robes and a spiffy hat (seriously, check it out) to give the commencement speech at graduation. NOT TOO SHABBY.
For writerly types, the text of it is below.
I’m obviously biased, but she did a great job of avoiding the usual pitfalls for a commencement speech.
Interesting Thing No. 1: She spoke to the entire audience
Most graduation speeches ignore two thirds of the people there, the ones in the stands who aren’t getting a degree.
Parents, grandparents and loved ones all suffered and sacrificed to make this day possible. They helped pay those insanely high tuition bills, co-signed the loans, sent the care packages and emergency funds when Top Ramen supplies were dangerously low. And this day is almost like a wedding. It’s something every parent dreams about for their kids, so hey, don’t ignore those folks. Talk to them.
Maybe this is why the First Rule of Rhetoric is, “Know your audience.”
Interesting Thing No. 2: It was different
Half of graduation speeches are often full of hopeful phrases and words about how hard students worked, that it’s an honor and privilege to earn this degree and these fine graduates should use their brains and skills to give back and change the world. All good sentiments, just none of it is new or unexpected.
The other half of graduation speeches are often an opportunity for somebody to give a 15 minute speech about their personal story and pet issue, and yes, that issue may be incredibly important and topical. These speeches, though, are often highly political and tend to feel like a lecture, with the speaker telling the audience what to do, and they also tend to age badly. A hot issue this month could be forgotten five years from now.
This speech wasn’t a lecture about a specific issue. It was about the audience, and tried to give them something to chew on for years. Because nobody really has all the answers.
Interesting Thing No. 3: She took the time to connect
It’s quite easy to fall into the trap of speaking at the same rate, volume and emotion, especially when it’s a keynote speech. There’s so much text to get through, so they grip both sides of the podium, stand up straight and focus on reading the words without screwing up.
Maybe they look to the left, right and center in a pattern, since that’s common advice.
Yet when you churn though the text like that, there’s no connection to the audience.
Vini took the time to make that bond, making real eye contact, pausing, slowing down, speeding up, going quieter and louder. Not in a pre-programmed way. Adjusting with the audience, in real time, by making that connection.
You can tell in the first five seconds of a speech if it’s any good, by listening and watching the audience. People stop fiddling with their phones or having side conversations. They lock onto the speaker. And it gets completely quiet, even in a room full of hundreds, or thousands, of people. So when that happened, I was happy to be there for it.
Commencement speech by Vini Elizabeth Samuel
Western Washington University, Summer 2014
Good morning … Do you remember the first day of school?
Not here at Western. The very first.
Your mom probably dressed you up that morning.
Your dad might have bought your first lunch box,
THOMAS THE TRAIN or DORA THE EXPLORER.
If you were lucky, BATMAN or WONDER WOMAN.
That first day of kindergarten was probably scary.
Parents tend to cry when they watch their child walk to the classroom for the first time.
Will you do okay? Will you get good grades?
Will you make friends, do well on tests, not eat the glue–or get into fist-fights on the playground?
Later, it’s a different question:
Will you graduate, move out of the house and get into a good college?
See, the thing is your entire life has built up to receive this piece of paper they’re about to hand you.
From the first day of kindergarten
to the last day of high school to this very moment,
you’ve done exactly what every mom and dad dreams about.
We dream about our sons and daughters being good students.
We dream about them getting into a great university like Western
and stay up at night worrying about how to pay for it.
Whether our kids will major in something silly,
or drop out after three years after piling up a mountain of student loans.
We dream about this day–parents and students alike.
It’s the end of the journey that society
–not just in America, but around the world–defines as success.
This is a great achievement you have accomplished.
It should be celebrated, and you should be congratulated.
Most of the kids you went to kindergarten with that first day aren’t standing where you are.
About half of all students who start college don’t finish their degree.
But here’s the thing: up to this moment, you’ve been following a road, difficult,
and something most people can’t accomplish, but well-known.
And here at the end of this road you get this college degree.
So what now?
It’s a cliche for a commencement speaker to say
that you all have incredible potential, to follow your dreams, or change the world.
Those phrases sound okay on the surface. Yet they don’t really TELL you anything.
I want to be real, and say what somebody should have told me when I sat where you’re sitting back in 1994.
The quick, easy answers aren’t any help.
I don’t have a magic bullet.
I do know some wrong answers and dead ends.
Nobody wants to move back home to their parents’ basement.
Nobody wants to keep working at their college job, waiting tables or pouring lattes or delivering pizzas.
But the answer to what’s next is more than a mansion on a hill.
On my first day of kindergarten, my dream was clear: become a lawyer.
I stole my father’s black socks, cut holes in them and made my Barbie doll into a judge.
Ken was the defendant.
He got convicted and sentenced to prison quite a lot.
A week after graduating from Western,
I married my college sweetheart.
I went to law school, passed the bar exam and now have my own law firm.
We own our home, two cars, a dog, cat and are raising a 12-year-old son
who says Western is the best university ever.
If there’s a checklist, I can mark those big things off.
A good career–a job with health benefits, and retirement–those are perfectly good goals.
But they are not a true PURPOSE.
Saving up and buying a home is also a great goal, especially if you want kids of your own and a back yard for Fluffy.
A career, a home, family–those can be cornerstones of your life.
Yet they aren’t clear destinations or real answers to “what’s next”
For your entire academic life, there’s been clear lines in the road, quarter after quarter, quiz after quiz, test after test.
From here on out, there is no finish line. And there never will be.
Up until today, the world was required to pay attention to you.
Teachers and professor had to read and grade what you wrote, no matter how brilliant or awful it was.
Out in the world, you’re one of six billion people fighting for attention and resources.
Nobody is required to read whatever your write.
Nobody has to tell you how to improve.
Quality and talent don’t automatically win the day anymore.
Exhibit A: Snooki.
Exhibit B: the Kardashians.
Out in the world, there’s no structure, no safety net, no system.
Money and career will consume you for a while, which is natural.
Where will you live? How will you pay rent? Will you get a Joe Job or a real job,
and when will you ever pay off Sallie Mae?
Eventually, though, all those things you own may wind up owning you.
You have to pay for them, protect them and maintain them, forever and ever.
Right now everything you own can probably fit in the back of mom’s Subaru,
and it seems pitiful, but it’s actually good place to know.
It is an opportunity to anchor you.
In ten years, you’ll need to rent a storage unit for all the boxes in your garage
that you haven’t touched in five years and you’ll start to worry
about TV producers from HOARDERS knocking on your door.
So what’s next?
This is what I’ve learned: after college, all those destinations you’ve obsessed about don’t really matter.
What’s next is the wrong question.
The journey – and how you do it – is the fun and interesting part.
It is the best part.
Your greatest joys won’t come from amazing achievements, winning awards or having a great career.
They’ll come from relationships and memories.
From watching your own son on that first day of kindergarten.
From sitting in those stands as your daughter walks onto this stage, shakes the hand of the university president and gets her degree.
So don’t put off all the fun things until after you retire.
See less of the office and more of the world.
Treasure people instead of deadlines.
Ayn Rand got it backwards: the most selfish thing you can do is to be unselfish.
To serve others – your kids and grandparents, your community, your country.
I hope you get the opportunity to see the world,
and to show some of the best parts to your kids and grandkids.
I hope you never stop being curious, reading books, drinking coffee
and asking deep questions about the meaning of life.
And I hope in 20 years, you stand where I am standing.
When the day comes and you reach the summit of whatever mountain you’ve chosen to climb,
and you get to rest, I hope that you have taken not the road less traveled, but a road no one has traveled before.
It is an honor, and a privilege, to celebrate this moment with you. Congratulations and Godspeed.
A few good posts:
Guy Bergstrom. Photo by Suhyoon Cho.
Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that won some award (PNWA 2013). Represented by Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.