My Imaginary Commencement Speech: Five Graduation Myths to Avoid
- Tuesday, May 27, 2014
It’s an honor to stand here before you and share my first (and perhaps only) commencement address with the Class of 2014. More than a million and a half of you are walking the stage to receive your college degrees this this year, and you have my hearty congratulations. After all, only 30 percent of American adults have earned one, so you are, at least statistically, a member of the educated elite.
But please don’t let this go to your head. You’ve just begun the journey of lifetime learning, and the first step is to acknowledge that you don’t know as much as you think, and some of what you think just isn’t so. You’ve picked up a number of lies—let’s call them myths—about yourself and the contributions you will make in the world.
Let me explain. On January 28, 1986, NASA engineers and the seven astronauts aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger, ready for its 10th mission on Cape Canaveral’s Launch Pad 39B, assumed that the winter morning’s rare subfreezing temperatures posed no danger. The massive spacecraft lifted off at 11:38 a.m. All seemed well. But just 73 seconds later, the Challenger exploded, killing all aboard and showering the Atlantic with debris. One of the vessel’s simple O-rings had become brittle in the frigid, icy conditions and failed, allowing pressurized gas to escape from the right solid rocket booster.
Graduation myths are kind of like that O-ring. Sooner or later, they’ll fail you, because they can’t match reality. But don’t worry. I’m warning you in advance. Here are five key myths:
Myth No. 1: “The world is waiting for you.” Actually, it isn’t, and it will go on without you, long after you are gone. You are one of about 8 billion people on Planet Earth, not including the billions more who lived and died and whose names, for the most part, are forgotten. Most of us can recite the names of our parents and grandparents, but what about our great-grandparents? Our great-great-grandparents? Do you know any details from their stories? Probably not! It will be the same with you, my friends. In the classic poem, “Ozymandias,” Percy Bysshe Shelley writes of an ancient statue lying shattered in a lonely desert. On the pedestal are the words: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Shelley concludes:
“Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
But though the world isn’t waiting for us and very few of us will be remembered, our lives still can have great meaning. As Mother Teresa once said, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” She also said, “If you can't feed a hundred people, feed just one.”
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