Commencement Speeches: Worth the Time?

For the last month, thousands of commencement speeches have been delivered, listened to, remarked upon and viewed on YouTube. I guess you can say it’s a time-honored tradition to invite a celebrity or someone of status to inspire graduates with addresses that, more times than not, contain similar messages: go forth, dare to take risks, don’t let failure stop you, and even the overused “carpe diem.”

While many of us may have grown accustomed to tuning them out, it is time to give them another chance, and to encourage those audiences whom they are directed toward to listen with intent.

Behaviorists call speeches, signs, instructions, directions and so on “antecedents” — ways to tell people what you want them to do, or in this case, what to do to be successful. In fact, the more successful students are the ones who have learned to follow the rules, e.g. study and you make better grades. In behavior analysis, this is referred to as “rule-governed behavior.” People engage in following rules when following the rules has paid off in the past. You can argue that those students who are good at following the rules pay more attention to these speeches than those who are not. And, although it may be good to question some rules, in general there are many that work for us all. Rules that help us keep a job, remain safe, be healthy, save money and countless other benefits that your mother tried to teach you.

In the case of the commencement speech, one might even look at it as a way to validate rules. Speakers are chosen based on their perceived success and share personal results, both positive and negative, of their hard-earned life experience. Such speeches shouldn’t be dismissed altogether as the same old drivel. People need advice, they need direction and they need inspiration. What tends to be overlooked is that we can all profit from the experiences of others.

For example, most speakers will talk about the benefit of behaving positively toward other human beings, because positive consequences are more effective in achieving personal and societal goals than negative ones. As Conan O’Brien said, “Please do not be cynical. I hate cynicism; for the record it’s my least favorite quality, it doesn’t lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen. I’m telling you, amazing things will happen. I’m telling you, it’s just true.” Oprah Winfrey also acknowledged this with her recent words at Harvard when she stated, “The single most important lesson I learned in 25 years is there’s a common denominator in our experience. … We want to be validated.” That is to say that we want confirmation from others that our personal rules work.

In a somewhat cynical commencement address last year, David McCullough Jr., son of Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough, addressed the students of Wellesley High School by repeatedly reminding them that they are not special! He drove that point home with comments such as, “Astrophysicists tell us that the universe has no center; therefore you cannot be it.” His admonishment included suggestions on how to behave and why life’s rewards and reinforcers should be tied to the right behavior. “If everyone gets a trophy,” he stated, “trophies become irrelevant.” Therefore, “a fulfilling life, a distinctive life, a relevant life is an achievement.” He concluded, “You are not special, because everyone is special,” an important warning regarding self-importance and respect for others.

Words are only words, but throughout history words have instigated human actions not believed possible — actions horrible and honorable. So though commencement speeches are only antecedents, or a statement of rules for success, we can’t discount their importance in validating or invalidating our personal history of beliefs and actions. Both are valuable when students use these words to lead to constructive action. Syndicated columnist Ruben Navarette summed up the takeaway of commencement speeches well when he wrote, “The only thing that will endure, and let the world know you were here in the first place, is the impact you had on other people. Make it a positive one.”

So how can you best manage this new group of graduates? Check out this article from my colleague, Judy Agnew, “Managing Millennials: Can Science Help?”