One of my favorite pastimes in May and June is to read commencement speeches, and scout for anecdotes. Put together a diverse audience of parents, grads, and visitors, combine it with the need to be concise, interesting, and not "too preachy"--and voila--a unique challenge for even the most seasoned of speakers. It's a unique challenge. (Here's some advice on how to do it well if you ever find yourself in this position.) 


My favorite commencement speeches are ones that are short, funny, and provide concise "timeless" advice. Without further ado, here are three of my all-time favorite snippets of wit and wisdom.


During her undergraduate years at Dartmouth, author Louise Erdich worked as a cook for a campus dining hall. Here's an excerpt from her commencement address at her alma mater in which she recounts peeling 60 pounds of onions before going to class--and what the experience taught her.

My problemthat day was that I smelled like an onion.  You know how it is when you smell like an onion.  You can’t smell how badly you smell.  I walked into class and everybody moved away from me.  I was frozen with embarrassment.  Now, I was sure anyway, coming from North Dakota, that everyone was smarter than me.  And at the moment, not only were they smarter, but I was the only one who smelled like an onion.

Lesson?  If you smell like an onion, hold your nose and take notes.  I passed the class, but did not become a philosophy major.  Instead, I became a writer.  Even if people were smarter, I had the advantage of knowing onions.  I had stories.  Most important of all, I had humiliation.  If there’s one this we all have in common, it is absurd humiliation, which can actually become the basis of wisdom.

The experience caused me to invent The Law of the Onion.  It goes something like this:  you have to risk humiliation if you want to move forward.  But the Law of the Onion also states: don’t take things personally.  If other people’s opinions are not personal to you, good or bad, you have a kind of freedom to be who you are.  You have the freedom to do the work that is most meaningful to you.


ABC News Correspondent Cynthia McFadden was the first in her family to go to college. Her father worked for a telephone company in Maine. When she graduated from Columbia Law School, her dad told her: " just remember one thing little girl, you've struggled real hard to get this degree…. Now it is up to you to find work that gives you joy. Anyone can have a job they don't like. " Her advice: Make sure you don't.

In a 2008 Commencement address to Columbia Law School graduates, McFadden provides additional "life lessons" that may play out particularly well in a "down economy" (as many job offers today start out as contract or "temp to perm" assignments). This advice comes from a glamorous source--her friendship with Katherine Hepburn.

I was offered a new job. My first as an on-air reporter.   I wanted it desperately but was afraid I would fail. I went to Kate's (Katherine Hudson) for dinner. --- I told her--- "the good thing is he's offering me a three-year contract--- so even if I stink I am still employed!"

She looked at me with horror. "HEAVENS NO! You must sign for as short a time as you can. If you're good you want them to have to pay you a lot more money and if you're bad you want to be able to get the hell out. "

'When you are young," she continued, " you must always bet on yourself.' I signed for one year. I was good. And he did pay.

So ... Bet on yourself. Take a chance. I hate to quote a greeting card on an occasion as important as this one but here goes "what would you do if failure weren't an option." What indeed.


I'm often surprised by how much "grown-up" life resembles childhood. I've had jobs where corporate e-mails sent by senior leaders ended up in the wrong in-box--and the result has felt like a "passed note" gone bad, and I've worked for companies which have changed bathroom policies based on poor "seat behavior." And, never mind the fun of occasional office politics...

And with that, here's my all-time favorite piece of graduation advice, courtesy of Tom Brokaw's 2005 Commencement speech at Dartmouth College:

..You have been hearing all of your life about this moment - your first big step into what you have been called and told is the real world.  What, you may be asking yourself this morning, is this real life all about?  Ladies and gentlemen of the Class of 2005 at Dartmouth, it's not college - it's not high school.  Real life is junior high.

The world you're about to enter is filled with adolescent pettiness, pubescent rivalries, the insecurities of 13-year-olds and the false bravado of 14-year-olds. Forty years from now, I guarantee it, you'll still be making silly mistakes, you'll have a temper tantrum, you'll have your feelings hurt for some trivial slight, you'll say something dumb and at least once a week you'll wonder, "Will I ever grow up?"

You can change that.  In pursuit of passions, always be young.  In your relationship with others, always be a grown-up.  Set a standard and stay faithful to it.

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