Although just about everything relating to graduation is good, one of my biggest pet peeves (right next to people who leave a public restroom without washing their hands) takes place at commencement exercises.
Just before the procession, when the names of all the graduates are laboriously read, one-by-one, the presiding administrator stands and says something to the effect of, “Out of consideration for all in attendance, we ask that you withhold your applause until all names are read.”
It’s a directive that makes all the sense in the world, and is clearly uttered for the greater good. To have family and friends applaud after each name would make an already long and tedious event turn into an intolerable experience for everyone.
Nevertheless, in the face of this common sense announcement, there is always about 10 percent of the audience who completely disregards the prohibition and sees fits to whistle, scream and shout something like, “Way to go, Johnny,” or “You’re the best, Suzie.”
Now that that’s off my chest (someone needed to say it), let’s focus on the good.
I have sat through my share of commencement addresses and I must say most speeches are consistently well done. Over the years, I have retained a remembrance of many of those addresses.
One such speech was offered by Elder Todd Christofferson of the LDS Church at the commencement exercises of one of my siblings at BYU. He spoke about the need for periodic adjustments, balance and flexibility in the way we think, including the way we think about ourselves.
He counseled that we must learn from our tests in mortality. In his remarks, he referred to an old Hasidic Jewish teaching that illustrates the need for us to remember to be humble. The teaching says that we should all have two pockets, and that we should carry two slips of paper, one in each pocket. On one we write, “For my sake the world was created.” On the other we write, “I am but dust and ashes.”
I have also taken the time to study noteworthy commencement addresses given at several of our nation’s institutions. For example, well-known comedian Conan O’Brien has delivered several of my favorites. His speeches are not only hilarious; they also contain remarkably profound messages.
At a commencement address to graduates at Harvard University in 2000, O’Brien delivered a message similar to that of Christofferson. He counseled the graduates to expect to be tested and to experience personal failure, to value and to learn from failure, and that there is danger in thinking that you are special. In other words, there is a need to be humble.
“I’ve had a lot of success and I’ve had a lot of failure,” said O’Brien. “I’ve looked good and I’ve looked bad. I’ve been praised and I’ve been criticized. But my mistakes have been necessary … I’ve dwelled on my failures today because, as graduates of Harvard, your biggest liability is your need to succeed, your need to always find yourself on the sweet side of the bell curve. Because success is a lot like a bright, white tuxedo – you feel terrific when you get it, but then you’re desperately afraid of getting it dirty, of spoiling it in any way.”
The message of the importance of learning from life’s experiences and staying humble is found in another commencement address delivered by David McCullough Jr. to the 2012 graduates of Wellesley High School in Massachusetts. The title of his remarks was “You Are Not Special.”
Similar to Conan O’Brien’s remarks, McCullough’s comments were based upon the notion that today’s students are expected to be exceptional. From their birth they have been protected and coddled by the adults in their lives. Because of this they are not getting the benefit of conducting their own lives and living with their consequences. Among other things, McCullough wants students to worry less about success and impressing people.
“Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view,” he said. “Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.”
The “you aren’t special” message delivered by McCullough, as well as the other messages about humility and the important role of failure and life’s difficult experiences from Christofferson and O’Brien, run contrary to the message embedded in the behaviors of the friends and family of Johnny and Suzie in the example at the beginning of this column.
Perhaps those of us who attend commencement exercises should do less whooping and hollering about our children, siblings and friends, and do more reminding that life is full of successes and failures, and that both will offer important learning opportunities.
I’m not suggesting we refuse support, love and tribute to our family and friends, especially when they have worked hard to accomplish something. But it’s important for all of us to remember that our lives our made up of both types of experiences and that in many cases, our failures, when approached humbly as learning opportunities, open doors that set us on paths to improved happiness and even greater success.
In that sense, a quiet, respectful and observant graduation procession offers an interesting metaphor: at some point (and for my sake and yours, I hope that point begins at this year’s graduation exercises) we all need to sit back, and carefully and intently observe our loved ones as they walk quietly, by themselves, across the stage of life.
Happy graduation season, everyone, and congratulations to all the graduates!