Commencement Speeches: Most Suck, These Rule (VIDEO)

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College graduation is a hallmark moment for students across the country; a time of infinite hope where young adults are released into the world with the kind of optimism that can only come from having too little life experience.

And commencement speeches usually reflect that innocence, imbuing students with the same rote messages of triumph, calling on them to “Reach for the stars!” and “Make your dreams come true!”

While those messages of blind encouragement are kind, they’re not entirely helpful. In reality, life is far more vague than it’s portrayed, its pathways to success meandering and elusive; its difficulties at times meaningless and infinite. It’s certainly not an endless loop of victory laps.

That’s why these may be the best commencement speeches ever, the kind that are empowering because they’re honest. Because telling people to reach for the stars is great, but giving them the tools to face those moments when they fail is a true act of compassion.

David Foster Wallace: Kenyon College

DFW gets so much right here, mostly that adulthood consists of an inordinate amount of time stuck in the monotony of a “crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation.” He’s not kidding. But what’s also true is that how you choose to experience that hell can make the difference between having a life that’s meaningful, and one that’s a mindless grind. Your choice. There—feel better?

Steve Carrell: Princeton University

In his memorable 2012 Princeton Class Day address, Carrell essentially damned technology, told the students their youth rendered them wrong, and openly encouraged the graduating class to suffer.

“When I was in college, I wouldn't text a girl to ask her out on a date. I would ask her, in person. One human being to another. And when she said, ‘No,’ which she always did, I would suffer the humiliation and self-loathing that a young man needs for his, or her, personal growth.”

“A text does nothing more than protect us. It protects us...if you will. It keeps us safe. It is like a warm blanket that insulates us from the truth—the truth of how unappealing I was to Amy Miller. Well, look at me now, Amy. Princeton Class Day speaker. Suck on that.”

“My point is, I suffered. You should have to suffer, too.”

Aaron Sorkin: Syracuse University

Aaron Sorkin worked his way first out of obscurity and then out of a well-documented drug problem. The wildly successful screenwriter told his class of rapt graduates to get ready because failure was on its way.

“You’re a group of incredibly well-educated dumb people.”

“I was there. We all were there. You’re barely functional. There are some screw-ups headed your way. I wish I could tell you that there was a trick to avoiding the screw-ups, but the screw-ups, they’re a-coming for ya.’ It’s a combination of life being unpredictable, and you being super dumb.”

If you had the chance to tell a graduating class anything at all, what would it be? Let it fly in the Comments.

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• Op-Ed: Seriously, a Bar Exam for Teachers? This Is Not the Answer


A Bay Area native, Andri Antoniades previously worked as a fashion industry journalist and medical writer.  In addition to reporting the weekend news on TakePart, she volunteers as a webeditor for locally-based nonprofits and works as a freelance feature writer for TimeOutLA.com. Email Andri | @andritweets | TakePart.com

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