The Greatest Commencement Address Ever Given

As the school year comes to an end, another annual round of commencement addresses is being given. Sadly, most of them are forgettable. Curiously, I do not even remember my own high school or college commencement addresses. Having raised five children, I have sat through my share. Of all the graduation speeches that I have heard I remember only one. It was a message given at the college graduation of my eldest daughter. The speaker was the late John Osteen, founder of Houston’s Lakewood Church and father of Joel Osteen. Rev Osteen exhorted the graduates to make it their goal to always depend upon and be filled with the Holy Spirit. That message for some reason stuck with me.

The purpose of a graduation speech hopefully is that it will strike a chord of truth deep within the soul that will continue to resonate at critical junctures throughout a person’s life.

When Winston Churchill, speaking at the Harrow graduation in 1941, said “Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never …” he struck a chord that reverberated way beyond the ear shot of those in attendance. It galvanized a nation caught in the grip of the Second World War and throughout the decades since has continued to inspire embattled souls whenever it is read or recalled.

This year, a high school English teacher named David McCollough Jr gave one of those rare memorable commencement addresses. When he told the graduates at Wellesley High School (Massachusetts) the following it went viral. “None of you are special. You are not special. You are not exceptional.” In an age when children have grown up being “pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped . . . feted and fawned over” it needed to be said. The ultimate point that he was making is that exulting in being special is a self-indulgent deceit. “The great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special.” That is a message which may discomfit the soul but can motivate those who hear it to noble action.

Graduation ceremonies as a rite of passage are fraught with both emotion and expectation. There is the celebration of accomplishment with all the accompanying memories, bitter and sweet, sacrificial and gratuitous that will be left behind. And there is the anticipation of the future burgeoning with hopes and dreams yet waiting, albeit with trepidation, to be fulfilled.

What is the best advice you’ve ever been given?

Getting wisdom is the wisest thing you can do! Proverbs 4:7 (NLT)

What is the best advice you have ever been given? Recently I heard an interview where that question was asked of a nationally known leader. It caught him off guard and gave him serious pause. After a long silence he said, “Gosh, that is a tough question…ah…I can…I can put maybe in the top five…in terms of something someone once told me that was like wow…ah…” Then he proceeded to mention the name of a person and tell a story about the outstanding advice he had been given.

It was such a great question that it got me thinking immediately about how I might answer it as I tuned out his answer. It was so intriguing that I grabbed a pad and pen and began to write my own top five list of the best advice I have ever been given. Over the course of the next quarter of an hour I ended up noodling an ever growing list of thirteen items. It was a very rewarding and revealing exercise. You might be similarly rewarded in seeing what would make your list.

Several things struck me about the process. It forced me to go to the file cabinet of my life and chronologically from a teenager on, thumb through all the file folders labeled with names of people who have greatly influenced me.

1. The best advice in our lives does not all come from sources we readily imagine. While some folders were much thicker than others because of the years I’ve known them and the sheer volume of our interactions I was surprised to find that not all of them were people with whom I had a close relationship. Some were people I did not even know personally. In fact I discovered that more than half of the great advice I was coming up with came from books I have read or messages I have heard, in person or by recording, from people I did not have a personal relationship at all or have never met. Most of their file folders were very thin, but in terms of impact, the few things I had filed in each of them warranted a red label and they were worn from being pulled so frequently.

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