I have a custom for those new to the column of taking chunks of graduation speeches from around the country and either inspiring you or boring you to tears with them. Here are parts of a few that caught my eye this spring:
Alex Smith, quarterback
University of Utah
It’s been almost 10 years to the day that I graduated from the U, and I’ve had many ups and downs over the course of that time, and there are really three concepts that I’ve learned and relied on, over those years. One: Identify my weaknesses. Two: Embrace the new. Three: Let go of what I cannot control.
When I graduated from Utah, I was headed into the biggest job interview of my life, the NFL draft. As you can imagine, I wanted so badly to impress; I wanted to be perfect. I tried to be the perfect draft prospect. In my meetings with the coaches and the executives, I tried to be the perfect interview. At the combine and at my workouts, I tried to be the perfect player. I tried to promote my strengths and conceal my weaknesses and on paper. I kind of succeeded; I was the first pick in the draft. And with that I inherited this big shiny trophy that I carried around, and it had one word engraved on it: ‘anxiety.’ You see, the problem was, and this is the point, I felt like I had to be perfect to justify my draft status. I became my own worst enemy. I constantly stressed for others’ approval and worried about what they were thinking. I felt like I couldn’t even make the smallest of mistakes, and then when I did make a mistake, I agonized over it; this became a paralyzing cycle. I became cautious. I was tentative. My entire mindset became, ‘Don’t screw up’. Literally, I would tell myself, ‘Don’t screw up. Don’t throw an incompletion. Don’t throw an interception. Don’t fumble. Don’t drop the snap. Don’t line up under the guard.’ That’s what I’d tell myself.
I was young, and I let my insecurities and own self-doubt get the best of me. I worried about others’ approval, and the result was, I was stressed, I was exhausted and I was full of anxiety. And most importantly, I was completely unproductive.
I recently had the opportunity to hang out with UFC champion Georges St-Pierre. For those of you who don’t know Georges, he’s a world class mixed-martial artist, and some would even regard him as the best ever. After getting to spend some time with him, one thing really stuck with me. It was how much time Georges and his team spent evaluating his own weaknesses. I’d always imagined that they spent all their time and energy focusing on their next opponent, a lot like we do in football; instead, Georges spends his time targeting his own weaknesses. He isn’t insecure about his abilities or who he is—instead he’s honest with himself, and he embraces the challenge of his own shortcomings.
We can never fully plan our future, so don’t try. And how many of you graduates know what you want to do today for the rest of your lives? I know I didn’t, when I got my diploma and that’s really okay. I encourage you all to embrace what life throws at you, no matter how uncomfortable or daunting it might seem. Let’s all have the courage to walk across the room and make a connection.
I really have had the opportunity to play for some extraordinary coaches, none better than my coach here at the U, Urban Meyer. Coach Meyer used to always tell us this: ‘If what you want is different than what you have, then you need to change what you are doing.’ Coach would always say that right before he asked us to do something really crazy, but he was right. If we wanted to be, I don’t know, the first school to break down the BCS, we couldn’t just keep doing the same old thing. It’s something that’s really helped me over the years. It’s actually something I tell myself every time that little voice in my head tries to get me to take the easy way out.
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William McRaven, Navy admiral
University of Texas
I have been a Navy SEAL for 36 years. But it all began when I left the University of Texas for basic SEAL training in Coronado, Calif. Basic SEAL training is six months of long torturous runs in the soft sand, midnight swims in the cold water off San Diego, obstacles courses, unending calisthenics, days without sleep and always being cold, wet and miserable. It is six months of being constantly harassed by professionally trained warriors who seek to find the weak of mind and body and eliminate them from ever becoming a Navy SEAL. But the training also seeks to find those students who can lead in an environment of constant stress, chaos, failure and hardships. To me basic SEAL training was a lifetime of challenges crammed into six months.
Every morning in basic SEAL training, my instructors, who at the time were all Vietnam veterans, would show up in my barracks room, and the first thing they would inspect was your bed.
If you did it right, the corners would be square, the covers pulled tight, the pillow centered just under the headboard, and the extra blanket folded neatly at the foot of the rack. Rack—that’s Navy talk for bed. It was a simple task, mundane at best. But every morning we were required to make our beds to perfection. It seemed a little ridiculous at the time, particularly in light of the fact that were aspiring to be real warriors, tough battle-hardened SEALs. But the wisdom of this simple act has been proven to me many times over. If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter.
If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.
And, if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made—that you made—and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better. If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.
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Colin Powell, former Secretary of State
High Point University
Don’t fall for slogans, one-liners, screamers, hate peddlers or cable pundit commentary. Don’t fall for those who will not compromise. This nation is here because our founding fathers with all of their different beliefs … as strongly as they felt about everything, they knew they had to compromise in order to create a constitution, in order to create the great country we now enjoy. As you go through life, listen to the other side. Have your eyes and your ears and your heart open to counter views so we can get back what makes this country great in the political sense—the ability to compromise with each other and not just freeze ourselves on a spectrum of political desire from the right or from the left.
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Philip Rivers, quarterback
Two traits I want to share with you that I have experienced and dealt with over the past few years. First: Don’t worry. There were so many ups and downs for me in the 2010, 2011, 2012 seasons, and I had many struggles, that I began to worry. When would a bad play happen again? Would we make the playoffs ever again? Will I continue to have turnover problems? As these bad thoughts and worries crept in, I began to read and pray and meditate on this from Imitations of Christ: What good is anxiety about the future? Does it bring you anything but trouble upon trouble? It is foolish and useless to be either grieved or happy about future things that perhaps may never happen. But it is human to be deluded by such imaginations, and the sign of a weak soul to be led on by suggestions of the enemy. Second: Be thankful. In January of 2013, our oldest son, who was 5 years old, was diagnosed with T1 diabetes. Immediately, anguish and sadness and frustration all emerge and as a family, as mom and dad, we felt like it was the end of the world. How would he adjust? What does this mean? How hard will this be? After walking in and out of the children’s hospital and seeing other, sicker children, we became grateful. Not happy that our son would deal with this for the rest of his life, but we all have our crosses to bear. Not all of them the same, and I was once told that if we all could see everyone else’s problems, threw them in a big pile, we would probably want to just keep ours. Through this life changing health issue and throughout the struggling seasons, we have much to be thankful for.
With that said, I can make two guarantees to you today. First, your time on earth will end. Second, you will be remembered for something. Class of 2014, how do you want to be remembered? Answer that question now while your best years are still ahead of you.
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Janet Yellin, Federal Reserve chair
New York University
Your NYU education has not only provided you with a foundation of knowledge; it has also, I hope, instilled in you a love of knowledge and an enduring curiosity. Life will continue to be a journey of discovery if you tend the fires of curiosity that burn brightly in all of us. Such curiosity led Eric Kandel, here at NYU, to his lifetime goal, to discover the chemical and cellular basis of human memory. A few years after his graduation, he was doing research on cats. But he had the idea of focusing on an animal with a simpler, more fundamental brain: the California sea slug. His colleagues all but ridiculed him for the idea. They knew that the study of the lowly sea slug was irrelevant for understanding human memory. Kandel’s surgically skilled collaborator deserted him. To get up to speed on sea slugs, Kandel had to go abroad to study. But Kandel persisted, and in 2000 his curiosity won him the Nobel Prize. It was, as you must have guessed, for deciphering the chemistry of memory in humans, as revealed by his research on sea slugs. Kandel’s life, I believe, demonstrates how a persistent curiosity can help us reach ambitious goals, even with great roadblocks in the way.
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John Kerry, Secretary of State
One of the best lessons I learned here [Kerry graduated from Yale in 1966] is that Mark Twain was absolutely right: Never let school get in the way of an education. For all I ever learned at Yale, I have to tell you truthfully the best piece of advice I ever got was actually one word from my 89-year-old mother. I’ll never forget sitting by her bedside and telling her I had decided to run for President. And she squeezed my hand and she said: ‘Integrity, John. Integrity. Just remember always, integrity.’ And maybe that tells you a lot about what she thought about politics.
But you should know: In a complicated world full of complicated decisions and close calls that could go either way, what keeps you awake at night isn’t so much whether or not you got the decision right or wrong. It’s whether you made your decision for the right reasons. Integrity. And the single best piece of advice I ever received about diplomacy didn’t come from my international relations class, but it came from my father, who served in the Foreign Service. He told me that diplomacy was really about being able to see the world through the eyes of someone else, to understand their aspirations and assumptions. Perhaps that’s just another word for empathy. But whatever it is, I will tell you sitting here on one of the most gorgeous afternoons in New Haven as you graduate: Listening makes a difference, not just in foreign ministries but on the streets and on the social media network the world over.
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John Legend, singer/composer
University of Pennsylvania
My father often talked to us about his definition of success. He told us that it wasn’t measured in money and material things, but it was measured in love and joy and the lives you’re able to touch—the lives you’re able to help. And my parents walked the walk. They gave of themselves to our church. They took in foster kids and helped the homeless, even though we didn’t have much money ourselves.
[When I was young] the only thing I allowed myself to really love without reservation was music. I put all of my passion into it. I spent so much of my spare time working on it, that I barely got any sleep. At night, I was doing community choir, show choir and musicals in high school; a cappella and a church choir in college. I wrote my own songs. Played in talent shows. I put a lot of energy into becoming a better artist, a better writer and a better performer. And in some ways, it made me a better student and a better leader. Because when you actually care about something, you want to lead. Apathy’s not so cool any more.
When I graduated from Penn, I had many of the traditional opportunities in front of you now, and I took a job at the Boston Consulting Group. But I couldn’t shake my passion for music. I had followed the path that the Penn graduate was supposed to take, but I didn’t fall in love. I immediately started thinking about how I could leave BCG and become a full-time musician. I spent hours during the day preparing powerpoint presentations and financial models. And I spent almost as many hours at night writing songs and performing at small gigs around New York and Philadelphia.
I always believed that my big break would come sooner rather than later. In fact, from 1998, while I was still at Penn, to early 2004, I spent each of those years always thinking that I would get that big record deal within the next few months. I always thought my moment was just around the corner. But I was rejected by all the major labels; some of them rejected me multiple times. I played for all the giants of the business—Clive Davis, L.A. Reid, Jimmy Iovine, you name it. And all of them turned me down. But I did find a young producer from Chicago named Kanye West who believed in me. Now, Kanye and I have very different personalities, as you might have guessed. But what unites us is our true love for music and art. We love to create … And it turns out that love requires that level of commitment from you. Half-doing it is not doing it right. You have to go all in. And yes, your personal relationships require that too.
Now, I’ve already talked about the power of love in your work and your personal lives. But I also want to talk about how love changes the world. There are 7 billion other people out there. Seven billion strangers. I want you to consider what it means to love them too. What does it mean to love people we don’t know, to see the value in every single person’s life? It means we don’t see Trayvon Martin as a walking stereotype, a weaponized human. We see him as a boy who deserves the chance to grow into a man, even if he makes boyish mistakes along the way. It means American lives don’t count more than Iraqi lives. It means we see a young Palestinian kid not as a future security threat or demographic challenge, but as a future father, mother and lover. It means that the nearly 300 kidnapped girls in Nigeria aren’t just their problem. They’re “our” girls too. It’s actually quite a challenge to love humankind in this way.
So love your self, love your work, love the people around you. Dare to love those who are different from you, no matter where they’re from, what they look like, and who they love. Pursue this life of love with focus and passion and ambition and courage. Give it your all. And that will be your path to true success.
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Tony LaRussa, baseball manager/executive
Washington University in St. Louis
I was once introduced to a prolific best-selling fiction writer. One of the best gifts of my life was when my parents taught me the love of reading, early on, and I retain it to this day. I love reading books, and I met this writer and he explained to me that in his books that have been so successful, he concentrated most on the first sentence in the first paragraph and everything flowed from there.
So taking his advice, I wanted to concentrate on the first message. It’s one that I think is hard-earned. I thought seriously about this. I think in these times, my message to you would be, as you go forward, you need to understand the concept of personalization, taking things personally, being respectful to yourself and to others in a real personal way.
I look at this scene and it’s overwhelming, the environment here. You know from my background, I never thought I would say that something is more impressive than opening day with the Cardinals. But this is. I mean that, winning and losing a game, that’s sports, entertainment, great meaning to us, we try to be Hall of Famers, but this is more real, and I’m sincere when I tell you that being here today, with the importance of what you accomplish with your graduation and what you have going forward, is more important than a baseball season.
And I’m going to tell you that I’m anxious about these remarks, to the point I’m fearful. I’ve actually learned the difference between good fear and bad fear. I talked this morning, I was really struck by the Olympic music, I talked this morning with an Olympian, distinguished Olympic swimmer, and I told her what I was doing, and she said she’d been invited before and was always too afraid to accept the invitation. And I thought, respectfully, I would talk to her about good fear/bad fear because that’s bad fear. You feel this anxiety, the expectation of pressure, and you decide that you’re going to dodge it. And you’re just not going to participate. You will regret that the rest of your life, and you’re going to face a lot of opportunities where there’s an uncertain outcome and you’ve been given the opportunity to try it. Bad fear means you call in sick. And you will never ever have a strong personal feeling and a strong enough ego to be successful and take advantage of what you’ve gone through your whole life, including your education at Washington University.
The good fear is one that you recognize, to have this anxiety is normal. So I’m nervous. And what that has caused me to do is every day for the last month, I’ve thought about this few minutes that I’m going to speak to you, and I was up at 5:30 this morning changing it. But my point is, I’m not afraid to try to say some things this morning that hopefully will be helpful. I’m more afraid of saying no, and not trying it, and I suggest to you that that’s an important lesson going forward. Don’t be afraid. Good fear makes you study for a test because you want to make sure to do your best. Bad fear makes you afraid to take the test.
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Jill Abramson, former executive editor, The New York Times
Wake Forest University
New York Times journalists risk their lives frequently to bring you the best reporting in the world. That’s why it is such an important and irreplaceable institution. And it was the honor of my life to lead the newsroom. A couple of students I was talking to last night after I arrived, they know that I have some tattoos. One of them asked me, ‘Are you gonna get that Times T that you have tattooed on your back removed?’ Not a chance.
I faced a little challenge of my own not long ago. I got run over and almost killed by a truck in Times Square. You may begin to call me Calamity Jill, but stay with me here. But with the seventh anniversary of that accident approaching, I wrote an article about the risk to pedestrians with three Times colleagues who had also been struck and hurt. We mentioned a 9-year-old boy in the top of our story who had been hit and killed by a cab early in the year. A few days after the story was published, I got an email from Dana Lerner. It began, ‘Thank you for the article you wrote in last Sunday’s Times. The boy you mentioned was my son, Cooper Stock.’ I met with Dana last Thursday and, you know, Cooper was just killed in January, but Dana, her husband and others are already working on a new law to make the streets safer. She is taking an unimaginable loss and already trying to do something constructive. We human beings are a lot more resilient than we often realize. Resilient and perseverant.