Graduation’s Greatest Hits?

By Chris Warren.

In the next month or two, high school and college seniors will be graduating and moving forward with their lives. The well intended commencement speeches typically include a list of pithy if not outright condescending advice for the graduates. It’s not too late for those who have been asked to give these speeches to carefully edit themselves and avoid patronizing clichés. The list could go on for pages and pages, but here are a few of the “greatest hits” to be avoided for all time:

Do what you love and the money will follow. This is at the top of my list as the biggest heap o’graduation shit that has ever been spoken. Any activity you are passionate about but can’t support yourself with is called a hobby. There is no cosmic law that states anyone can make money doing anything if only they love doing it enough. Since life is not a one way street, those who insist on believing this ridiculous idealism must also accept with it the equally foolish converse argument: One cannot earn a living doing something they hate. I’m going to settle this nonsense with some easily quantifiable earthly reality: There are tens of millions more people toiling away at barely tolerable but reasonably well paying occupations than there are making a decent buck at their dream job. Acceptable alternative advice: If you love something that much, the money (or lack of it) won’t

Be yourself. I don’t get this one. How can you not “be yourself?” Taken to its ultimate conclusion, this lame pop psychology narcissism is just another excuse for every individual to think the world must form around them. But the world is full of uncomfortable circumstances where you might have to be polite when you don’t mean it, be supportive when inside you don’t agree, or be cooperative with people you think are incompetent. Those who are dishonest or fake about who they are are being themselves. Cheerfully going along with something you don’t like for diplomatic reasons or to attain a legitimate goal is not the same as willfully involving oneself in objectionable, immoral, or illegal activities. Acceptable alternative advice: Acting is an important life skill; learn to adapt your outward behavior to any situation even if it means being insincere.

Think outside the box. This tiresome business buzzword has leaked into academia and is the only point on the list that sort-of comes close to being useful wisdom. Unfortunately, it has evolved into a catch all vindication for dumb ideas and dead end personal goals. Thinking outside the box works best for older people who have learned from prior successes and failures and have enough restraint to know how far they can go. Less discerning young people are inclined to be different just for the sake of being different with no clear end game other than to clash with tradition. The “box” existed as long as it has for a reason. Some things just plain work and do not need to be challenged. Acceptable alternative advice: Thinking outside the box is fine, but only if the method used is better than what is already in the box.

By time young people reach graduation, they have spent many years exposed to a wide range of viewpoints from the internet and are far more adept at spotting a recycled idea than us older types were at their age. They are too smart to fall for dusted off hollow maxims that are accurate to a limited degree but have no mass appeal to today’s graduates and do not work for 99% of the people who try them. The opportunity to effect the lives of young people is very fleeting; commencement speakers should not waste the few minutes they have spreading unrelatable one-liners that at best are poorly chosen, and at worst full blown lies.

11 thoughts on “Graduation’s Greatest Hits?

  1. Great post, Chris, and whilst I can not comment on graduation speeches (I don’t think they do them here in the UK), I just hope that no kid will go into the work place and give the comment “We must listen to our customers.” If I had a pound for the number of times I have heard those words being spoken by a Manager over the years I was in the work place, then I’d be a very rich man.

    1. Oh yes, Hugh. As I mentioned, the list could go on for hundreds of pages. A lot of “Chris’ banned phrases” come from the business world, so the youngsters will be brainwashed soon enough.

      Thanks for your reply and your ongoing support.

    1. First things first: For my regular readers, AD is a good “internet friend” and the ringleader behind It’s a great site for news and information about amateur (ham) radio, preparedness, and communications in general. He recently expanded it from just a forum-based site for electronic geeks to a full service blog. Even those who normally have no interest at all in the topic will find something worthwhile over there. So go check it out. After my own blog, of course. He uses the WordPress platform so he’s easy to follow.

      AD, I have seen the McRaven speech and yes it is stellar. Also notice he does not use any of the lame kitsch that I mentioned in my article. I don’t feel too cranky. Some things just need to be said.

      Anyway, thanks for your comments and ongoing support!

  2. My son is #3 in his class so he won’t be giving the speech this year. He’s pretty grounded and has me for a father so I don’t think he would have followed the norm. I recently got a taste of what the speakers would be like considering the same kids recently each gave a speech at this year’s National Honor Society induction ceremony. Each officer had to give a speech relating to scholarship, leadership, service, and character. Most were good but just demonstrated their research of the word and how it applied to NHS. We’ve heard the speeches before. My son had “character” and took his childhood wrestling idol, John Cena, and Cena’s motto of “Loyalty, Hustle, and Respect” and turned it into an amazing speech. I was proud of him.

    Great post.

    1. Usually the kids give better, or at least more relevant, speeches because they have not been around long enough to pick up the clichés. I’d pay more attention to something that uses john Cena as an example than generic “think outside the box” pablum.

      Thanks for your comments. I hope you’ll stop by my blog again soon.

  3. As a teacher, I have heard endless commencement speeches, and you are spot on for a lot of the content. The advice is fine as long as it is tempered with realism and the speaker tells the truth about surviving in this day’s society and how to change it through legal means. We have lied to our children all their lives, starting with Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.

    1. I understand it’s hard to find a sweet spot between being encouraging and not throwing a wet blanket on the graduates’ big day.But hey, it’s not an it’s not an unreasonable expectation to avoid the trite. If I hear someone say “be yourself” one more time, I think I’ll hurl.

      Thanks for your reply; I hope you’ll stop by TFS again.

  4. What would be nice is some ideas about how to be (buzz word of 2014-15) authentic. I won’t have to worry about that, I won’t be asked to give a commencement address.
    I will remember when speaking to my graduate of 2015, don’t give advice unless she asks!
    Good blog Chris.

    1. Thanks, Meredith. I’m not important enough to be asked to give a graduation speech either. One would hope that people who do make these speeches would not depend on recycled overused leftovers…but oh well. I’m glad you enjoyed it!

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