Five Commencement Speeches From 2016

‘Tis the season for commencement/graduation speeches.

When I first moved to the US and came across this annual tradition at universities and schools, I was somewhat impressed and a tad envious. That was in the days before Youtube and social media, so one only heard or read about the best such speeches in print news, which did not cover them quite as much or as effectively. Still, reading about the odd speech always made me wish that some famous and accomplished person, who many looked up to, had also visited my school/college/university to share hard-earned life lessons and critical words of wisdom. Beyond the pep-talkiness and dramatic eloquence of it all, what drew me in was the sense of an important ritual or a rite of passage being observed and celebrated.

Nowadays, of course, each such speech goes viral within hours on Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube. So, I wanted to share my handful of favorites from this year with their full transcripts. You can check on Youtube for the videos.

1 Ken Burns at Stanford

The reason this one has gone viral is because Burns got rather political. It is election year after all and Trump is the gift that keeps on giving. But, for me, his simple, straightforward words of wisdom at the very end are the best. See the entire transcript here. His speech starts at the 1:11 mark in the video above.

Let me speak directly to the graduating class. Watch out. Here comes the advice.

Look. I am the father of four daughters. If someone tells you they’ve been sexually assaulted, take it effing seriously. And listen to them! Maybe, some day, we will make the survivor’s eloquent statement as important as Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

Try not to make the other wrong, as I just did with that “presumptive” nominee. Be for something.

Be curious, not cool. Feed your soul, too. Every day.

Remember, insecurity makes liars of us all. Not just presidential candidates.

Don’t confuse success with excellence. The poet Robert Penn Warren once told me that “careerism is death.”

Do not descend too deeply into specialism either. Educate all of your parts. You will be healthier.

Free yourselves from the limitations of the binary world. It is just a tool. A means, not an end.

Seek out – and have – mentors. Listen to them. The late theatrical director Tyrone Guthrie once said, “We are looking for ideas large enough to be afraid of again.” Embrace those new ideas. Bite off more than you can chew.

Travel. Do not get stuck in one place. Visit our national parks. Their sheer majesty may remind you of your own “atomic insignificance,” as one observer noted, but in the inscrutable ways of Nature, you will feel larger, inspirited, just as the egotist in our midst is diminished by his or her self-regard.

Insist on heroes. And be one.

Read. The book is still the greatest manmade machine of all – not the car, not the TV, not the smartphone.

Make babies. One of the greatest things that will happen to you is that you will have to worry – I mean really worry – about someone other than yourself. It is liberating and exhilarating. I promise. Ask your parents.

Do not lose your enthusiasm. In its Greek etymology, the word enthusiasm means simply, “God in us.”

Serve your country. Insist that we fight the right wars. Convince your government, as Lincoln knew, that the real threat always and still comes from within this favored land. Governments always forget that.

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.

Believe, as Arthur Miller told me in an interview for my very first film on the Brooklyn Bridge, “believe,that maybe you too could add something that would last and be beautiful.”

And vote. You indelibly underscore your citizenship – and our connection with each other – when you do.

Good luck. And Godspeed.

2 Nandini Giridharadas at the all-girls’ Holton-Arms School

Giridharidas is the chair of the Art Department at this school. Her speech came during the week that Hillary Clinton was declared, unofficially, the presumptive Democratic nominee. The first woman to have reached this summit. So, I was pleased to come across at least one speech that acknowledged how far we, as women, have come, and how much further we still have to go. And, how we need to grab every opportunity that comes our way. Read the entire transcript here.

We invoke these women and all they could not do to remind you of all that you can and must do. We invoke these women to remind you that giving life your all, owning your experiences and opportunities, finding your courage, stepping forward and fighting for change are not optional for you. They are your obligation. They are what you owe these women we invoke today.

3 Atul Gawande at Cal Tech

The always articulate and on-point Atul Gawande gave a commencement speech at Cal Tech about the mistrust of science, bad vs good science, and how graduates of all disciplines — even English and History — are scientists today.

[Personal note: I started my working life in science/engineering and, though I’ve been writing fiction since childhood, I switched over to full-time creative writing only recently. For me, the scientist’s learned, systematic way of thinking, and “building knowledge and explaining the universe through testing and factual observation” is also part of the process of creating fiction. Writers, too, are testing intuitions/hypotheses through the lives/behaviors of their characters. A writer’s research has to be just as thorough as a scientist’s; our language has to be just as true and precise.]

Read that entire transcript here.

Science is not a major or a career. It is a commitment to a systematic way of thinking, an allegiance to a way of building knowledge and explaining the universe through testing and factual observation. The thing is, that isn’t a normal way of thinking. It is unnatural and counterintuitive. It has to be learned. Scientific explanation stands in contrast to the wisdom of divinity and experience and common sense. Common sense once told us that the sun moves across the sky and that being out in the cold produced colds. But a scientific mind recognized that these intuitions were only hypotheses. They had to be tested.

4 Lin-Manuel Miranda at UPenn

Miranda is definitely the celebrity du jour these days. But, unlike many others, he has interesting things to say. And, he says them well. Read the full transcript here.

The simple truth is this: Every story you choose to tell, by necessity, omits others from the larger narrative. One could write five totally different musicals from Hamilton’s eventful, singular American life, without ever overlapping incidents. For every detail I chose to dramatize, there are ten I left out. I include King George at the expense of Ben Franklin. I dramatize Angelica Schuyler’s intelligence and heart at the expense of Benedict Arnold’s betrayal. James Madison and Hamilton were friends and political allies, but their personal and political fallout occurs right on our act break, during intermission. My goal is to give you as much as an evening as musical entertainment can provide, and have you on your way at home slightly before Les Mis lets out next door.

This act of choosing—the stories we tell versus the stories we leave out—will reverberate across the rest of your life. Don’t believe me? Think about how you celebrated this senior week, and contrast that with the version you shared with the parents and grandparents sitting behind you.

5 Sheryl Sandberg at UC-Berkeley

Sandberg is one of the most famous American women of our times. And, she has a lot of hard-earned wisdom to impart. I do not always agree with her but I do always see where she’s coming from. Read her transcript here.

Today I want to talk about what happens next. About the things you can do to overcome adversity, no matter what form it takes or when it hits you. The easy days ahead of you will be easy.  It is the hard days—the times that challenge you to your very core—that will determine who you are.  You will be defined not just by what you achieve, but by how you survive.

…After spending decades studying how people deal with setbacks, psychologist Martin Seligman found that there are three P’s—personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence—that are critical to how we bounce back from hardship. The seeds of resilience are planted in the way we process the negative events in our lives.

…The three P’s are common emotional reactions to so many things that happen to us—in our careers, our personal lives, and our relationships. You’re probably feeling one of them right now about something in your life.  But if you can recognize you are falling into these traps, you can catch yourself. Just as our bodies have a physiological immune system, our brains have a psychological immune system—and there are steps you can take to help kick it into gear.

…Finding gratitude and appreciation is key to resilience. People who take the time to list things they are grateful for are happier and healthier. It turns out that counting your blessings can actually increase your blessings. My New Year’s resolution this year is to write down three moments of joy before I go to bed each night.  This simple practice has changed my life.  Because no matter what happens each day, I go to sleep thinking of something cheerful. Try it. Start tonight when you have so many fun moments to list— although maybe do it before you hit Kip’s and can still remember what they are.

…And when the challenges come, I hope you remember that anchored deep within you is the ability to learn and grow. You are not born with a fixed amount of resilience. Like a muscle, you can build it up, draw on it when you need it. In that process you will figure out who you really are—and you just might become the very best version of yourself.

UPDATE: I must add a bonus sixth: Bhanu Kapil’s MFA-W Commencement Speech at Goddard College. She is a poet and writer of Indian origin. The speech is about failing and carrying on, where she talks about her father’s journey from rural India to England.

And so, when I grew up, and failed, and felt that my heart would break over the first real obstacle to my progress in the world, my father said, “Chup.” He said: “Stop crying now. This is nothing.” In Punjabi, he said: “In this family, we do something 76 times before we give up.”

It’s not that I thought that my writing was so great and that all I needed was to keep putting it out there until I’d reach the occult threshold of the 76th attempt, but rather, that I came to believe in duration. How a narrative becomes itself in time. How cycles of dormancy and expression are weirdly nutritive. How failure itself becomes a site of possibility: an aperture for chance; for the conditions of the work to arrive in a different time to the one in which it was begun. I learned to continue, to keep moving forward, to keep writing, whether the outcome of that writing was visible – perceptible – or not. I learned how to re-write my work with as much passion and joy and curiosity as I had given to the writing of it. I even invented a chant: Re-writing is writing. Writing is re-writing.


So, all that has been some rather serious stuff, I know. Let’s end on a lighter note. Hank Azaria gave his commencement speech at Tufts this year. And, I just love this bit he does in the voices of The Simpsons’ characters.

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