How To Give A Riveting Commencement Speech

Tony Balis, writing for offered this piece of advice for those trying to write a commencement speech: “The commencement speech is becoming a resurgent art, a cooling oasis from the siroccos of information blowing through modern life. Yes, many speakers still think the occasion is about them; many still seek to inspire with uninspiring words; and, inevitably, half the audience is hung over and inattentive.”

“Nevertheless, each year more men and women are delivering pointed, memorable, and profoundly inspirational messages, keyed to the graduates and grounded in the wider reality of positive change — speeches happily and necessarily relevant, in fact and in promise, to all humanity.”

In a commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2005, the late David Foster Wallace spoke about being sure.  He said that: “a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns, totally wrong and deluded.” 

He points out to the graduates and their parents his error in thinking that “everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence.” To be that person, you will need to define the (investment and financial) universe around you and how you exist in it.

But Wallace had a much bigger point to make to these newly educated young people being sent off into the harsh cruel world.  He worried that this self-centered-ness was somehow genetically hard-wired into us at birth, a sort of default setting that forced him to be “deeply and literally self-centered, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.”  This is what got us into trouble in the first place and in many instances, keeps us on the path to make the same mistakes again and again.

The gist of what Mr. Wallace was trying to tells these kids was that control over the default setting allows you to think of the other people in the world, embracing the fact that in some way, even the most different person they may cross paths with in a given day may somehow be worth a modicum of your precious concern.  No one invests alone.  You may be centered in your own world but to ignore the influences that impact that special place you have constructed is foolhardy.

Lynn Sherr is an award-winning correspondent at ABC She is the author of several books, including “Failure is Impossible: Susan B. Anthony in Her Own Words, delivered the following at a commencement speech at Wellesley College on May 10, 2010 told her audience“Worse yet, success back then meant defying nature. Anatomy, Dr. Freud told us, was destiny, condemning women to a status far below our own expectations. Little wonder so many tried to act and think like men. We wanted to prove we were just as good as the guys, because they held all the passwords. We worked very hard to detach our bodies from our business lives because we had to.”

Ursula Le Guin, novelist and poet and a favourite author of mine suggested this in a commencement speech given at Mills College in 1983: “That’s why we are all wearing these twelfth-century dresses that look so great on men and make women look either like a mushroom or a pregnant stork. Intellectual tradition is male.

“Public speaking is done in the public tongue, the national or tribal language; and the language of our tribe is the men’s language.”

And finally, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook offered this piece of advice to the graduates of Barnard College. She suggested that women make small decisions along the way that eventually lead them” to a bigger decision, one that leads them to want more balance. Her message to this class of 2011 was “do not leave before you leave. Do not lean back; lean in. Put your foot on the gas pedal and keep it there until the day you have to make a decision, and then make a decision. That’s the only way,” she said, “you’ll even have a decision to make.”

We take investment risks everyday: driving a car, owning a house, having a family, starting a business, planning for the future, protecting yourself, all play a role in how quickly you move forward.  If there were some sort of codified guarantee, a universal game plan for everything we do, this would be easy.  But because you are individual, both the self-centered you and the one who cares about the people around you as well, the default you and the caring you, how you conduct these investments is unique.

That shouldn’t stop us though.

We want to get the best we can for ourselves (the default setting) and in doing so, we want to protect whomever or whatever surrounds us (beyond the boundaries of our skull-sized kingdom). Peter F. Drucker suggested once that, “what you have to do and the way you have to do it is incredibly simple. Whether you are willing to do it is another matter.”

Many of us have made some common mistakes in the past.  So many of us should forget what we know, if only for a moment.  We need to reconstruct how you look at some of the basic elements of the plans you might (or might not) have in place.  Your current course may be a patchwork of ideas influenced by a variety of advisors. The result of this often a mash-up of techniques that in many instances, offer no harmony, no symmetry, no solvable equation.

If I was invited to give a commencement speech it would centre around the word potential. An old football coach of mine once suggested that potential simply meant: “ain’t done nothing yet”. Our potential as investors is much the same. We will always have the feeling that we haven’t achieved all that we could and yet, many of us have. We will always feel as though we could have done more and yet, we give ourselves no credit for what we have accomplished.

If I could offer anything to graduates – and not necessarily focused on those who are now free of the higher learning confines of college but to those who have graduated from one stage of life to another – it would be to learn from what has happened, embrace what could happen and invest like something should happen. Lean in: don’t lean back.

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