Monday, May 24, 2010

Revisiting Graduation Speeches

Just recently my younger sister Kelsey graduated from Clemson University. Also this year my younger brother Parker will graduate high school and become the fourth Brookie in a row to go Clemson. Although I can hardly describe how proud I am them, I can't help but remember what I said two years ago about graduation. In one sentence it was that your graduation is not only the result of your hard work, but of the work of the last 150 years of society. Harvard graduate David French puts it bluntly:
Congratulations on your important, though modest, achievement. Your graduation is important because it is — for all too many people in this country — considered a necessary prerequisite for full participation in our nation's economic and cultural life. This belief is misguided for a number of reasons -- we significantly over-value economic advancement, stress education over hard work, and often go deeply into student loan debt which will handcuff us for decades. But it is widespread nonetheless. So your graduation is important.

It's also important for other, more virtuous reasons. Many of you — though not all of you — worked hard during college, and I congratulate you for your hard work. Many of you — though not all of you — made financial sacrifices to afford college, and I congratulate you for your thrift and far-sightedness. A few of you — not many — achieved family dreams by being the first to graduate college, and I congratulate you for honoring the legacy of those who sacrificed and struggled before you. Yes, your graduation is important.

But make no mistake. This achievement is modest. Millions of Americans get a degree. Go ahead and pop those champagne corks, but not for your uniqueness or talent, but rather to commemorate a rite of passage, for your lifelong connection with your college community, and for the satisfaction of a task completed.

How should you think of yourselves on this day of important but modest achievement? I'd propose you shouldn't think much about yourself at all. The richest life is not "about us" – it's about others. It's about service — and not just the obvious service of volunteerism or charitable giving. Some of the most unpleasant and self-righteous people I know give away quite a bit of money and ladle out more than their share of soup at the soup kitchen. The best lives are lived by people who count others as better than themselves and place others' needs above their own. Every day. Including this day.

Who are you here with? A father who worked long hours to afford your tuition check? Honor him on this day. A mother who struggled alone to provide for you and teach you how to live as an adult? Honor her on this day. Start a habit of turning "your" days into days to show kindness and respect for others and choose, day by day, moment by moment, to bless others rather than drain their emotional and sometimes financial resources through your own selfish demands.

This is not a call for perfection but instead a request for a mindset — an attitude of proportionate humility that you carry with you every day of your life.

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