To the Class of 2014: My thoughts on commencement addresses

I have a watched a bunch of commencement addresses and the best advice I have found is:

Buy a hammock.

I just now figured out the irony of watching an inspirational speech by Steve Jobs on my iPad mini.

It probably isn’t irony that I am watching a speech by Steve Jobs on an iPad mini, but I still find the coincidence amusing.

This morning President Obama delivered the commencement address at the graduation ceremony of the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, NY where he laid out his new foreign policy vision for the United States.

Last week, Jill Abramson, the recently ousted editor of the New York Times delivered the commencement address at Wake Forest University and received numerous press attention on what she would say about her former employer.

This also seems to be the time of year when newspaper columnists trot out their 750 words on what they would say in a commencement address if only they were famous enough to be asked or weren’t about to write something that is wildly inappropriate for a piece of oratory. My favorite blogger at the Washington Post, Alexandra Petri gave her wit and wisdom in advice to recent graduates. In high school I spent way too much time listening to 1998 Baz Luhrman spoken word song “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)”, which was actually not a commencement address at all, but a column in the Chicago Tribune by Mary Schmich.

It is pretty obvious at this point that I am enamored with commencement addresses. It probably goes back to my days as a semi-professional graduation speech writer (and by “semi-professional”, I mean “completely amateur”). For a few years in the 2000s I had the opportunity to help my father, who was chairman of the school board, write an address to the graduating classes of my hometown high school. It is not an easy speech to write, most of the time the audience is hot and sitting in uncomfortable folding chairs or gymnasium bleachers and don’t want to hear lengthy oratory. I don’t think any of the speeches ever turned out that bad, but it was never a genre that I ever got a really firm grasp.

Ezra Klein’s new website Vox.com put out a piece recently on “The 21 greatest graduation speeches of the last 50 years”. I haven’t made it through the entire list, but it is hard to argue with what I have watched so far.

The speech by David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College is certainly worth the hype, but I just can’t shake the reality that his reference to suicide was followed by his own three years later.

The other thing I noticed was the common profession at the top of the list. Four of the top 11 speakers are comedians. This is probably not surprising considering the importance of being entertaining during a speech and the greatest comedians tend to be the ones that have the firmest ability to make observations about the world. But I still can’t believe that the secret to a good commencement address is a fifteen minute standup routine.

I know this is kind of a let down, but I still don’t know the secret to a good commencement address. All I know is that the best decision I made one afternoon was to not watch graduation speeches in my living room but to set up the hammock in the back yard and enjoy the beautiful early summer day of Washington DC. That is far more memorable than anything Colbert ever told me.

Class of 2014: Go buy a hammock.

Image credit: T. Dahlman, 2014

Question: Do you remember anything from your school commencement addresses?

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