On Commencement Speeches

It's a wizened, old truism that retrospect is always 20/20.  

Whether it was a brilliant move to sell up and move to an ashram or to down that ailing yoghurt at the back of the fridge can only be truly revealed in the fullness of time. A bummer, when so much seems to hang in the balance. 

Fortunately, our world runneth over with beings chocked full o' time and positively frothing retrospect and perspective. Last month, after a star-spangled career of owning many an important dude-job of her generation, Hillary Rodham Clinton retired as the US Secretary of State. Now, while she can't whisper over your shoulder which scrunchie goes best with the pantsuit you might be considering, the life lessons she and her fellow olds can funnel into a snappy 10-20 minutes may just kit you out with the extra wits/balls you need to "use your talents to shape and reshape the future."

I HEART commencement speeches delivered by lucid mature-lings (if not quite decrepit, at least experienced enough to trade in quality life hacks). They speak to students whose bloated brains are about to take on the job market and/or the unemployment line (gap year, anyone?), a university's last chance to inspire great goodness, or, at the very least, sway its pupils from e-vil. 

However, their timing is not ideal.

The commencement speech tries to "inspire at a moment which needs no inspiration" (Ira Glass, Glouster College 2009), bouncing off an ocean of mortar boards back harmlessly into the atmosphere. Because, even if employment figures are dismal, graduands have not been idle long enough to loose their nerve. 

Rather, these proffered coordinates for the GPS of life are best appreciated when, university grad or not, you are in the clutches of real adversity and sick to death of it.

I've found the shiniest pearls show you what to do when, say, your leg is "crushed and then eaten by a mutated boa constrictor."

"Things go wrong," says Neil Gaiman, "in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do.

Make good art... Make it on the good days too."

They aren’t all as magnificent as this, and Mary Schmich of Wear Sunscreen fame sagely suggests you “be careful whose advice you buy” (even mine). Amid the Oprah-style platitudes and speakers of dubious credentials, heed messages that make you wanna do stuff, the stuff you love doing.

Commencement speakers share what has made their lives better, truer, successful. Overwhelmingly, this turns out to be service: using your knowledge, your talent, to be of service to what you love. That sense of purpose will make you stronger, they seem to say. 

"I wish for each and every one of you an adventure that gives you the same sense of meaning and purpose that you are looking for, and an understanding of how much more you can do with the gifts you have been given." 

Hillary Rodham Clinton is not always the most arresting speaker in my connoisseur's opinion; though I’ll say this, she’s got the service thing down.