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Commencement

Around this time each year, students around the year are graduating from school and moving on in the world. High school students prepare for a summer of fun before they head off for college. University students, meanwhile, prepare for either the world of employment, or the world of graduate school. Regardless of what the next level is for these students, they will all be crammed into auditoriums or seated on folding chairs on lawns and forced to listen to commencement speeches.

My dream, for many years, has been to give a commencement speech. This is a lofty goal for a college dropout, but I figure if great business leaders such as Bill Gates and Richard Branson did not need college and have gone on to give more than one commencement speech, why can’t I?

In trying to prepare for my future commencement speech, I looked high and low for the text of a speech I heard Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian David McCullough give some twelve years ago at The University of Pittsburgh. The speech – about the importance of cities in our culture – resonated with me because you did not have to be graduating college to appreciate the subject. I could not find McCullough’s speech from Pittsburgh (where my brother was graduating from), but I did find the text of a speech he gave to University of Connecticut graduates in 1999.

“Knowing the area of the State of Connecticut in square miles, or the date on which the United Nations Charter was signed, or the jumping capacity of a flea, may be be useful or valuable, but it isn’t learning of itself,” McCullough intoned.

“If information were learning,” McCullough continued, “you could become educated by memorizing the World Almanac. Were you to memorize the World Almanac, you wouldn’t be educated. You’d be weird.”

“My message is in praise of the greatest of all avenues to learning, to wisdom, adventure, pleasure, insight, to understanding human nature, understanding ourselves and our world and our place in it,” said McCullough.

McCullough, whose books on the Brooklyn Bridge, Johnstown Flood and Panama Canal, among other subjects, are among the most enjoyable and enlightening when it comes to historical subjects, went on to tell the UCONN grads that, “We need as never before the capacity to think – and to think with a heart as well as the mind. For all our troubles and problems, the best is yet to come.”

Depressed knowing that I could never match the eloquence of McCullough, and that my broken finger has swelled to the size and color of an eggplant, I delved into other commencement speeches, hoping that reading would be less painful than typing, and that other people’s words could kick-start my imagination.

In the end, I found out that I’m not ready to give a commencement speech — mostly because I still have so much to learn. I did, however, find words of inspiration, words that can help us in public relations, professional, and personal endeavours — words that others have spoken:

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is 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. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.” – Steve Jobs, co-founder and chief executive officer of Apple Computer, at Stanford University (June 12, 2005)

“Needless to say, I took a lot of criticism, some of it deserved, some of it excessive. And it hurt like you wouldn’t believe. But I’m telling you all this for a reason. I’ve had a lot of success and I’ve had a lot of failure. I’ve looked good and I’ve looked bad. I’ve been praised and I’ve been criticized. But my mistakes have been necessary.” – Conan O’Brien, television show host, at Harvard University (February 2000)

“History helps guard against moral smugness too, or it should, anyway. For you are obliged, if you are honest, to acknowledge at least some reflection or resonance of the fallen ones in your own nature. Such humility is a conspicuously missing aspect of our contemporary culture, however. What might be a becoming spell of moral introspection, tends instead to become an orgy of bashing and blaming. I observe that now, as always in this country, when people speak of a terrible, all-embracing decline in ethical standards, they are invariably speaking of the decline in their next door neighbor’s standards, not their own.” – Meg Greenfield, former opinion page editor of The Washington Post, at Williams College (June 14, 1987)

“For in the years to come you will find yourselves up against gods of all sorts, big and little gods, corporate and incorporeal gods, all of them demanding to be worshipped and obeyed – the myriad deities of money and power, of convention and custom, that will seek to limit and control your thoughts and lives. Defy them; that’s my advice to you. Thumb your noses; cock your snooks. For, as the myths tell us, it is by defying the gods that human beings have best expressed their humanity.” – Salman Rushdie, author, at Bard College (May 25, 1996).

“Be an optimist. It’s easy to be a cynic today. People don’t want to trust any institution and in recent years there are plenty of reasons to expect the worst. But cynicism is corrosive because it creates excuses.” – Jeffrey Immelt, chief executive officer of General Electric, at Dartmouth College (June 13, 2004)

“There is no way you can focus your mind and your efforts to succeed if you’re brimming over with self-doubts. Your level of performance has a way of living up to prior expectations and, if you start off believing you’re going to have a bad day, you will. Errors tend to multiply and, if you have a bundle of self-doubts, you won’t be able to cope with the problems and the failure that will follow.” – Arnold Palmer, Hall of Fame golfer, at Wake Forest University (May 16, 2005)

“Insist that we support science and the arts, especially the arts. They have nothing to do with the actual defense of our country – they just make our country worth defending.” – Ken Burns, documentary filmmaker, at Georgetown University (May 20, 2006)

“If you’re not getting to do what you’re passionate about, why? I want you to think about that and as you go down through your career, through your life, check on yourself every now and then. Am I getting to do what I’m passionate about? Am I having a good time? Am I excited? Do I want to get up every morning and go do this? And after you discover yourself for a few months where you don’t feel like that, you might really think about changing what you’re doing.” – Dr. Donna Shirley, director of the Science Fiction Museum and a former manager of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Mars Program, at Susquehanna University (May 16, 2004)

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.

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