The Biggest Lie You’ll Ever Hear in a Commencement Speech
Another graduation season has come and gone. Thankfully, we have 11 long months between us and the next series of dreadful commencement speeches. This is good news for those who hate to listen to lies.
Whether given by a politician, celebrity, business leader, or student, these speeches are oftentimes boring and filled with clichés. Advice like “dream big” and “change the world” begins to feel hollow the hundredth time you hear it, and most students won’t remember a word that these cookie-cutter orators uttered by the time they have their diplomas in hand. The occasional insightful speech emerges as a viral YouTube sensation (Conan’s is the best), but most are easily forgettable.
A commencement ceremony I recently attended reminded me of the primary reason why I dread this season. The speaker—a very accomplished businesswoman—began with an inspiring account of how she was able to both raise a family and climb the management ranks to the top of the fashion industry. This was refreshing to hear, as women today are repeatedly told that they have to choose between a family and a career, and are even encouraged to “put-off” marriage and child-rearing until a more convenient time in their career path (which oftentimes never comes).
But I knew the speech was quickly turning south when she uttered the words “follow your passion.” There it was—the familiar prelude to the biggest lie you’ll ever hear at a commencement speech. Of course, what came next was the familiar preachy ladder-of-success sermon to which every millennial who has grown up in America has unfortunately been subjected: find your passion, follow it ceaselessly, change the world with it, and only then will you be happy.
Her speech had such promise. I thought she had set herself up to go in a different direction to say that true happiness in life doesn’t result from career advancement, but from family. This would have had much more merit, even perhaps supported by the likes of Aristotle, who suggests in his Nicomachean Ethics that getting married and having children might be a necessary component for achieving the highest amount of happiness in this life. But no, she fell for the same trap that has ensnared commencement speakers for years—the “just follow your passion!” cliché.
Tom Rath, author of Gallup’s StrengthsFinder 2.0, calls the maxim that “You can be anything you want to be, if you just try hard enough” the “essential American myth” which has unsuspectingly guided millions along “the path of most resistance.” It’s a bold lie that has oriented people toward goals that aren’t only difficult to achieve, but are oftentimes impossible to. Following your number one passion with gusto only leads to success and happiness for a small number of people. For most others—myself included—it’s a recipe for an unfulfilling life.
I dreamed of nothing other than becoming an astronaut for the first 12 years of my life, which is a fun thing to dream as a kid with a wild imagination. I later discovered that I wasn’t naturally gifted in science and math, so I reset my sights toward things I could actually excel at. That doesn’t mean that I can’t stargaze every now and then, or keep up with the latest plans to colonize the moon or build a space force, but being brutally honest with myself about my own strengths and weaknesses has helped me focus greater attention on ways that I can realistically impact mankind for the better. And I don’t need to take a giant leap on the moon to do it.
Rath suggests that it’s silly for parents to think “that a student’s lowest grades deserve the most time and attention.” Sure, it’s perfectly reasonable for parents to want their children to, at a minimum, pass every grade school subject. But imagine if we compromised: instead of devoting endless energy to the hopeless task of turning D’s into B’s, what if we settle for C’s in the things we’re not gifted at and strive for A+’s in those things which our talents can naturally bolster? Not every young LeBron James fan has the talent to “strive for greatness” on the basketball court, but each of them can appropriate his motto by finding greatness in taking the true talents they possess to new heights.
At my most cynical, I often think that Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go! should replace nine out of ten commencement speeches. Yes, it’s a little over-the-top in its cheerleading (which younger generations could probably use less of), but it shares a brief important truth that most commencement speakers disregard:
And the magical things you can do with that ball
will make you the winning-est winner of all.
Fame! You’ll be famous as famous can be,
with the whole wide world watching you win on TV.
Except when they don’t.
Because, sometimes, they won’t.
I’m afraid that some times
you’ll play lonely games too.
Games you can’t win
‘cause you’ll play against you.
Here’s another cliché, but one that’s true this time: failure is a part of life. You won’t succeed at everything you do. Sometimes, you’ll be able to overcome your failures by trying again with more determination and discipline. Other times, you’ll be playing against you, or rather, you’ll be ignoring your weaknesses and forgetting to focus on your strengths. Instead of simply following your passion, find a way to be passionate about what you’re good at. No, you can’t be anything you want to be when you grow up. But if you work hard to discover and develop your natural talents, you can give so much more to mankind than if you accept the commencement speech lie.