The Commencement Wisdom Well

The excitement of those students on the cusp attending college is palpable. Yet, simultaneously, many are inventorying their lives, attempting to envision the next two, four, or maybe more years of college.

Listening to past college graduation speeches helps incoming college students anticipate what’s ahead. Graduation speakers typically wax philosophically about their life experiences, offering a wealth of advice from which students can pick and choose the most useful points to apply in their own way.

Here’s a few examples:

In 2015, Eddie S. Glaude Jr. forewarns novice college students about the potential and pitfalls of college:

In so many ways, colleges and universities are training grounds for citizenship. Here you either cultivate the habits of courage or learn the habits of cowardliness.

In addition, Dr. Glaude Jr. warns about the difficulties in sustaining efforts toward change, and harnessing the energy of youthful idealism:

But you can’t be naïve about change. Habits are hard to break, especially when they hide in plain sight.

That your commitments to a nobler Colgate, to a better country, or a more just world can’t be fleeting. Those commitments don’t work like a tweet or a post on Instagram or a comment on Yik Yak. They ought to animate the spirit of a life lived. Otherwise, the new baby is stillborn and we grieve over what could have been.

Upon entering college, reflecting on how to nurture idealism and prepare for any challenges, ponder Dr. Glaude Jr.’s question:

How will you orient yourselves to the ‘fierce urgency of now?’

For anyone with a creative spirit, not just for the arts, learn from Ian Brennan, the creator of Glee:

Foster your creativity. And then, protect it. Your creativity is the greatest gift you will ever be given, and it’s the source of the greatest things you will achieve. It’s the part of you that is the most you. So care for it, the way you would a child or a beloved pet. Be firm, don’t let it just sit around. Make it do things. Toilet train it, be patient with it and it will grow and mature and get better and better and better. It will become the part of your life that you enjoy the most.

To summarize Mr. Brennan’s advice, “Protect your ability—from emulating Franklin D. Roosevelt or talents like the next Picasso. Put forth effort, and you’ll live life fully.”

Further, he advises how to refine talents and exploit aptitude:

They say it takes 10 years to get truly good at something? Well get up there and start being bad. Because once you stop being bad, you’re going to start being good.

In other words, incoming College Freshmen, try new things.  Be foolish.  Fall down, then figure out how to pick yourself back up.

From a company founded on creative disruption, Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, further elucidates on the point of joining life’s messy-ness and weathering the pressures to conform:

There will always be cynics and critics on the sidelines tearing people down, and just as harmful are those people with good intentions who make no contribution at all. In his letter from the Birmingham jail, Dr. King wrote that our society needed to repent, not merely for the hateful words of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.

The sidelines are not where you want to live your life.

History rarely yields to one person, but think, and never forget, what happens when it does. That can be you. That should be you. That must be you.

Colleges are a protected environment to experiment with activism, intellectualism, ideas, relationships, professions, rebellion against what’s been known for the last 18 years—where the consequences of a “mistake” will be mitigated and a process to learn from “failure” is woven into the fabric of the institution. Plus, parents are willing to fund college student’s experimentation, resting on laurels is not only unwise, the college experience will be wasted.

Former First Lady Michelle Obama shared her sentiments,

…no matter how far you rise in life, how hard you work to be a good person, a good parent, a good citizen — for some folks, it will never be enough.

She gives more reasons to not bask in previous achievements, nor be stopped by the detractors. Let criticism fuel efforts to be more articulate and renew commitment. Suffering supposed indignities teaches humility, through exposing the weakness of pride. Then, learn to be thankful for enemies, as their critiques are opportunities to evolve.

Lastly, the actor, Ed Helms, offers advice about purposely exposing one’s biases constantly in order to engage life fully, by knowing the simple nature of human beings:

We try to define others with simple labels because it makes the world easier to understand. Behavioral economist and Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman explained this in his amazing book, “Thinking Fast and Slow” in which he wrote “when faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution.”

Each of us is responsible for our mis-perceptions, and in college, students have ample opportunities to confront personal prejudices. Simply talking with people from outside their hometown, students will expose their perspectives and opinions to a robust criticism that naturally occurs in an environment of diversity.

Heeding the advice of others who have the courage to share their experiences in a graduation speech, soon-to-be college students can make effective choices during their college years and be more prepared to work collectively to resolve the cornicopia of complex global issues they are soon to inherit.

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About Jill Yoshikawa, Ed M, Partner of Creative Marbles Consultancy

Jill Yoshikawa, EdM, Harvard ’99, a seasoned, 25 year educator and consultant, is meticulous in helping clients navigate all aspects of the educational experience, no matter the level of complexity. She combines educational theory with experience to advise families, schools and educators. A UCSD and Harvard graduate, as well as a former high school teacher, Jill works tirelessly to help her clients succeed.
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