So much of our work here at Your Story Here Life Story Video – making biography videos for clients across the country – focuses on lives nearing their conclusion. But today I want to put the spotlight on the moment at which many lives finally start to get serious – the college graduation.
College graduation ceremonies are usually held in Spring and right now – May 2012 – we are slap bang in the middle of the Commencement Season. And this year being a Presidential election year, the two candidates have both already had a turn at the podium – Mitt Romney doing the honors at Liberty University and Barack Obama at Barnard College.
But it is the funny star of Glee – Jane Lynch – who really dominates the 2012 season with her address to Smith College’s graduating class, proving that in a commencement address humor will carry all before it.
“I guess I am assuming you all are as terrified as I was of life, so you know that when you feel sick to your stomach, it’s a good thing! It signals “Opportunity For Big Growth Ahead!” “Somethin’s coming, somethin’ good.” Don’t ignore the nausea. Step up to it.
“(Because) in order for our lives to go forward, in order to engage fully in life, we need to be willing and able to accept what is right in front of us. Whatever it is, the good, the bad, the thrilling, the heartbreaking, every emotion, occurrence, event, person, place or thing, you will experience them all.”
Now, we will return to the best of the 2012 Commencement Addresses shortly. But for readers of this Life Story Video Blog – folks interested in family history and honoring lives well lived – there is one commencement speech that towers over the others. It is a speech sanctified by the untimely death of its maker – a sometimes angry man who devoted his life to business but who gave surprisingly holistic advice to the graduates he was addressing.
“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent.”
Steve Jobs also talked about dropping out of Reed College and how getting getting fired from Apple turned out to be good for him. But it was his third story about death which has become legendary:
“Remembering that I will be dead soon in the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death leaving only what is truly important.”
Jobs explained how he has used the “death tool” in his life:
“…for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?”
Broadcaster Ira Glass, host of NPR Radio’s “This American Life”, spoke at Goucher College Baltimore dismissing the whole notion that graduating students needed any inspiration at this time in their lives.
The best commencement speech is mostly personal biography, or a kind of life story video, as Ira Glass understands: “I lost my virginity in one of the dorms here,” he tells the kids. Glass also tells the story of his grandmother, Goucher graduate Frieda Friedlander, who visited Europe and toured the German Reichstag building on her honeymoon in 1932. And was introduced to Adolf Hitler. She became a school teacher and students would ask, “Why didn’t you kill him?”
The future truly has amazing possibilities Glass points out: “It is entirely possible that, as a Goucher grad, you or you or you will get the chance to change the world and kill Adolf Hitler, and you will miss it,” he says humorously. “I think it’s just as likely you’ll continue to grow.”
Writer Neil Gaiman, who wrote “Coraline” among other things, demonstrates another feature of the great commencement speech: advice which is practical, advice which you can actually use.
“People keep working …because their work is good, and because they are easy to get along with, and because they deliver the work on time. And you don’t even need all three. Two out of three is fine. People will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver it on time. They’ll forgive the lateness of the work if it’s good, and if they like you. And you don’t have to be as good as the others if you’re on time and it’s always a pleasure to hear from you.”
Each of these speakers is well known and wise. But fame is not a sine qua non for wisdom. And you shouldn’t wait for an invitation from a prominent university to set down your wisdom, or the wisdom of someone you know. Help with your life story video is only a click away.
Postscript – June 16, 2002: Here is a roundup in print of recent commencement addresses from the New York Times: Familiar Faces Offering Advice, Idealism and Humor