Commencement Speeches

Posted on June 14th, 2012 in Perspectives on Leadership by John Jensen



Last week I found a news article about a commencement speaker at a high school that told the students “You are not special”.  After reading what David McCullough Jr. told the students at Wellesley High School in his “You are not special” speech, I decided to begin reading and listening to more and more commencement speeches.  The reason I decided to do this is not because I have a lot of free time, and it certainly isn’t because I like graduation robes…  I decided to do this because in these speeches you can watch successful people share their wisdom with a future generation of leaders.  In these speeches I have found some quotes that, I believe, speak incredible truths that we as leaders need to embrace.  Not only should we embrace these thoughts and philosophies, we must share them with the next generation of leaders.  So far the four speeches that I have enjoyed the most are by David McCullough Jr., Ellen DeGeneres, Conan O’Brien, and Whitewater’s very own Robert Gruber.  I would like to share with you some of my favorite parts of each speech.


David McCullough Jr.

Commencement is life’s great ceremonial beginning, with its own attendant and highly appropriate symbolism.  Fitting, for example, for this auspicious rite of passage, is where we find ourselves this afternoon, the venue.  Normally, I avoid clichés like the plague, wouldn’t touch them with a ten-foot pole, but here we are on a literal level playing field.  That matters.  That says something.  And your ceremonial costume… shapeless, uniform, one-size-fits-all.  Whether male or female, tall or short, scholar or slacker, spray-tanned prom queen or intergalactic X-Box assassin, each of you is dressed, you’ll notice, exactly the same.  And your diploma… but for your name, exactly the same.

            All of this is as it should be, because none of you is special.

            You are not special.  You are not exceptional.


McCullough is not telling these students they are low lives or that they don’t have their accomplishments.  What he is saying is that because everyone is special, no one is.  McCullough goes on to explain that in our society accolades have become more important than genuine achievement.  He says we “compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole.”  Genuine achievement is what we need to strive for, not a participation trophy.


My favorite quote from this particular speech is

I urge you to do whatever you do for no reason other than you love it and believe in its importance.


Don’t do something unless you truly love doing it.  Doing something you do not believe in 100% leads to bad results.


Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view.  Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.


The next speech is Ellen DeGeneres’ speech at Tulane University.  Ellen’s speech incorporates a lot more humor than the others so I encourage you to go watch it on YouTube.  But I will share my favorite quote from her speech.


For me, the most important thing in your life is to live your life with integrity, and not to give into peer pressure. to try to be something that you’re not. To live your life as an honest and compassionate person. to contribute in some way. So to conclude my conclusion: follow your passion, stay true to yourself. Never follow anyone else’s path, unless you’re in the woods and you’re lost and you see a path, and by all means you should follow that. Don’t give advice, it will come back and bite you in the ass. Don’t take anyone’s advice. So my advice to you is to be true to yourself and everything will be fine.


Conan O’Brien’s speech, while just as humorous as Ellen’s, has some more sincere moments.  Conan does spend the first about 10 minutes of the speech goofing around with the 2011 graduates of Dartmouth University.  Towards the end Conan speaks about his disappointment after losing his show on NBC and the transformation he went through before starting on FOX.

But a little over a year ago, I experienced a profound and very public disappointment.  I did not get what I wanted, and I left a system that had nurtured and help define me for the better part of seventeen years.  I went from being in the center of the grid to not only off the grid, but underneath the coffee table that the grid sits on, lost in the shag carpeting that is underneath the coffee table supporting the grid.  It was the making of a career disaster, and a terrible analogy.


Way back in the 1940’s there was a very funny man named Jack Benny.  He was a giant star and easily one of the greatest comedians of his generation.  And a much younger man named Johnny Carson wanted very much to be Jack Benny.  In some ways he was, but in many ways he wasn’t.  He emulated Jack Benny, but his own quirks and mannerisms, along with a changing medium, pulled him in a different direction.  And yet his failure to completely become his hero made him the funniest person of his generation.  David Letterman wanted to be Johnny Carson, and was not, and as a result my generation of comedians wanted to be David Letterman.   And none of us are — my peers and I have all missed that mark in a thousand different ways.  But the point is this: It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique.  It’s not easy, but if you accept your misfortune and handle it right, your perceived failure can be a catalyst for profound re-invention.


I have told you many things today, most of it foolish but some of it true.  I’d like to end my address by breaking a taboo and quoting myself from 17 months ago.  At the end of my final program with NBC, just before signing off, I said “Work hard, be kind, and amazing things will happen. “ Today, receiving this honor and speaking to the Dartmouth Class of 2011 from behind a tree-trunk, I have never believed that more.

Thank you very much, and congratulations.


The quotes from Conan’s speech above, I believe, speak greatly to how important it is that we commit ourselves to keep dreaming, but to always allowing our dreams to change.  We should all have goals, and like Conan said about Johnny Carson “It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique.  It’s not easy, but if you accept your misfortune and handle it right, your perceived failure can be a catalyst for profound re-invention.”


Last but not least, Robert Gruber’s Commencement Address to the UW-Whitewater Class of 2012.  Robert is a professor of accounting here at UW-Whitewater.  Robert was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer that doesn’t respond to chemotherapy or radiation in February 2011.  He gave a very inspiring speech.


“Don’t ever feel sorry for yourself. You’re the only person who spends 60 seconds every minute, 60 minutes every hour, you’re with yourself all the time and there is no one else in the world will do that. It doesn’t do any good to feel sorry for yourself. Love and cherish your support team to the fullest…”


Robert explained the philosophy of Walt Disney called “plus-ing”.  The philosophy of giving your customers more than they paid for.  He believed in getting the work done but never sacrificing quality.


I hope you never settle for good enough.  I hope you always remain true to yourselves when the circumstances around you are anything but normal.  And I hope that you plus everything you do.  If you do these things I suspect you will be happy and successful for a very long time.


I have found these speeches to offer a lot of great perspectives on life and leadership and I encourage you to watch every one of them in their entirety.


Here are the videos:

David McCullough Jr. h

Ellen DeGeneres 

Conan O’Brien 

Robert Gruber 


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