Could these be the best commencement speeches of 2014?
Graduates from the class of 2014 are probably making their beds every morning and will never look at a sugar cookie the same way after listening to what is among the most popular commencement speeches of the season.
The address by Navy Adm. William H. McRaven, who spoke at the University of Texas at Austin, has gone viral on YouTube, with its 10-point message on how to change the world. Hint: Don't ever, ever ring the bell.
McRaven, commander of U.S. Operations Special Command, drew on the lessons he learned during Navy SEAL basic training and had no idea that sharing his experience would inspire people nationwide, a Pentagon spokesman said.
The speech prompted some members of his training class to reconnect with him, and a Facebook page in his name is lined with comments praising him for sharing his decades-old tip sheet.
Although McRaven’s address has dominated the first month of graduation season, several other speakers have also drawn viral responses by reminding graduates to fight discrimination, overcome self-doubt and open their ears to every idea.
Here are excerpts of what has been said to the class of 2014, including McRaven's stirring speech.
The student speaker at Indiana University talked about overcoming his speech impediment to secure internships with politicians, including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). He answered phones and gave tours in Congress.
“As a person who stutters, I can be no more certain that in this room and in this hall are thousands of people who are far more talented at public speaking than I am,” Parker Mantell said. “At the same time, however, I could be no more certain that the message I have to share is one that must be heard. Far too often, society has instilled and reinforced the idea that those of us with disabilities are to remain disabled and perhaps incapable.”
“If doubt were to be a disease, its cure would be confidence.”
“Beethoven was deaf. Imagine if he never dared to listen to his calling to compose music. Ray Charles was blind. Imagine if had never dared to envision that he could touch the keys of a piano. Albert Einstein was dyslexic. Imagine if he had never dared to embrace seeing things differently by formulating equations. FDR couldn’t walk. Imagine if he had never dared to run.”
“Imagine what you are depriving our world of if you never dare to achieve your purpose.”
Speaking at the University of New Hampshire, Jennifer Lee said she was initially discouraged from speaking to the graduates when she realized that she was twice their age.
“But then I moved to a worse thought, which was I’m not good enough to be the commencement speaker,” she said. “And ultimately it was that horrible thought that made me say yes. It did, because in that thought I realized that there might be something, during my few extra rounds on this planet, that I could give to you that might be of use. And it does have to do with self-doubt, the ‘I’m not good enough’ motto of living.”
“I was bullied, severely, for years. And something happens to you when everything you do is fuel for ridicule or mockery. You kind of drink that bully Kool-Aid, and self-doubt takes over. And people talk about the dangers of the rose-colored glasses, but let me tell you, the lenses of self-doubt are far worse. They’re, like, nasty and thick, and big, and filthy. And they’re covered in swamp scum, and there’s like a family of snails living on them. It’s like impossible to see past them.”
“Self-doubt is one of the most destructive forces. It makes you defensive instead of open, reactive instead of active.”
“Think about it. How many hours do you spend analyzing yourself? Your looks, your hair, too thin, too short, too fat, too curly. How much time do you spend being disgusted with yourself, cringing over the dumb thing you said or worrying you won’t get a date? Because while you are hilarious in your head, when you speak it sounds like tax code.”
“When you are free from self-doubt you fail better, because you don’t have your defenses up, and you can accept criticism and listen.”
“Hours spent doubting, questioning, fearing can be given over to working, exploring and living.”
“So, what do you say? Can we ban self-doubt, please? Yes?”
Eric Holder reminded the graduates at Morgan State University that the news has been filled recently with “jarring reminders” of discrimination and “isolated, repugnant, racist views.”
“But we ought not find contentment in the fact that these high-profile expressions of outright bigotry seem atypical and were met with such swift condemnation,” he said. “Because if we focus solely on these incidents — on outlandish statements that capture national attention and spark outrage on Facebook and Twitter — we are likely to miss the more hidden, and more troubling, reality behind the headlines.”
“These outbursts of bigotry, while deplorable, are not the true markers of the struggle that still must be waged or the work that still needs to be done — because the greatest threats do not announce themselves in screaming headlines. They are more subtle. They cut deeper. And their terrible impact endures long after the headlines have faded and obvious, ignorant expressions of hatred have been marginalized.”
“Proposals that feed uncertainty, question the desire of a people to work, and relegate particular Americans to economic despair are more malignant than intolerant public statements, no matter how many eyebrows the outbursts might raise. And a criminal justice system that treats groups of people differently — and punishes them unequally — has a much more negative impact than misguided words that we can reject out of hand.”
“Never hesitate to ask difficult questions and call attention to uncomfortable truths. And work, above all, to promote understanding, to foster inclusion and to push our nation forward.”
“When my classmates and I were in college, we thought the fight for gender equality was won and that it was over,” Sheryl Sandberg said to graduates at Harvard University. “Sure, most of the leaders in every industry were men, but we thought changing that was just a matter of time.”
“This year a very well-respected and well-known business executive in Silicon Valley invited me to give a speech to his club on social media. I was wandering around … when a staff member informed me very firmly that the ladies’ room was over there and I should be sure not to go upstairs because women are never allowed in this building.”
“I didn’t realize I was in an all-male club until that minute. I spent the rest the night wondering what I was doing there, wondering what everyone else was doing there, wondering if any of my friends in San Francisco would invite me to speak at a party at a club that in bans blacks, Asians, Jews or gays…. My thought was really, a year after ‘Lean In,’ and this dude thought it was a good idea to invite me to give a speech to his literal all-boys club.”
“I wrote a long and passionate email arguing that they should change their policies. They thanked me for my prompt response and wrote that perhaps things will eventually change. Our expectations are too low. Eventually needs to become immediately.”
“At Facebook, we have posters around the wall to inspire us: ‘Done is better than perfect,’ ‘Fortune favors the bold,’ ‘What would you do if you weren’t afraid.’ My new favorite: ‘Nothing at Facebook is someone else’s problem.’ I hope you feel that way about the problems you see in the world because they are not someone else’s problem.”
“The first time I spoke out about what it was like to be a woman in the workforce was five years ago. That means that for 18 years, from where you sit to where I stand, my silence implied that everything was OK. You can do better than I did, and I mean that so sincerely.”
William Bowen spoke at Haverford College after students in the weeks ahead of the graduation ceremony successfully protested against the originally scheduled commencement speaker, former UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau. The students were angry that Birgeneau had cracked down on protestors while in charge.
Bowen said that because he didn’t have all the facts, he wasn’t passing judgement on Birgeneau. But he scolded students — not for protesting, but for refusing to hear Birgeneau’s side of the situation.
“I am disappointed that those who wanted to criticize Birgeneau’s handling of events at Berkeley chose to send him such an intemperate list of demands. In my view, they should have encouraged him to come and engage in a genuine discussion — not to come, tail between his legs, to respond to an indictment that a self-chosen jury had reached without hearing counter-arguments.”
“I think that Birgeneau, in turn, failed to make proper allowance for the immature, and, yes, arrogant inclinations of some protestors. Aggravated as he had every right to be, I think he should be with us today.”
“There are indeed days when we all need to eat humble pie.”
Michael R. Bloomberg
Michael R. Bloomberg said it was disturbing that so many commencement speakers have stepped down from the offer.
“Tolerance for other people’s ideas and the freedom to express your own are inseparable values of great universities,” he said at Harvard University. “Joined together they form a sacred trust that holds the basis of our democratic society. But let me tell you that trust is perpetually vulnerable to the tyrannical tendencies of monarchs, mobs and majorities. And lately we’ve seen those tendencies manifest themselves too often both on college campuses and in our society. That’s the bad news.”
“Repressing free expression is a natural human weakness, and it is up to us to fight it at every turn.”
“In the 1950s, the right wing was attempting to repress left-wing ideas. Today on many college campuses, it is liberals trying to repress conservative ideas even as conservative faculty members are at risk of becoming an endangered species.”
“According to Federal Election Commission data, 96% of all campaign contributions from Ivy League faculty and employees went to Barack Obama. There was more disagreement among the old Soviet Politburo than among Ivy League donors. You really have to wonder whether students are being exposed to a diversity of views.”
“So many of us chose our path out of fear disguised as practicality,” Jim Carrey told graduating students at Maharishi University of Management.
“My father could have been a great comedian, but he didn’t believe that was possible for him. So he made a conservative choice and instead he got a job as an accountant. When I was 12 years old, he was let go from that safe job.”
“Our family had to do whatever we could to survive. I learned many great lessons from my father, not the least of which is that you can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love.”
“The effect you have on others is the most valuable currency there is.”
“What I tell a 4-year-old is what I wish someone had told me before I stepped into the world,” Sandra Bullock said at Warren Easton Charter High School in New Orleans.
“Stop being worried about the unknown. The unknown we can’t do anything about, and I don’t remember any of the moments in my life where I was worried, and that’s not time I can get back.”
“People want to see you fail, but that’s their problem. Not your problem. The rule of failure is that it’s just not supposed work out that way because something better is supposed to come along.”
“We turn on the music really loud in the mornings before we leave the house. The rule is you have to dance a little bit before you step out in the world. It changes the way you walk.”
“Do not pick your nose in public. How about we just get a tissue.”
“When someone who cares about you hugs you, hug them back with two arms. Don’t do the one-arm hug. When you hug someone with two arms, it lets you lean on somebody, and we all need someone to lean on.”
“If someone doesn’t want to play with you, it’s OK. Not everyone is going to love us.”
Jennifer Arnold told the health school graduates at West Coast University that she has a type of skeletal dysplasia that results in her dwarfism and has led to about 30 surgeries while she was growing up. Her doctor through much of it was Steven Kopits, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon.
“When I was a kid growing up, and when I would go to see him for a checkup, we were essentially given beepers. Why? Because we knew we’d be waiting a really long time to see him and when you would be in the waiting room waiting for five, six, eight hours, some of the newbies would complain, ‘I can’t believe I’m waiting so long, this is not worth it.’”
“The seasoned patients like myself and my parents knew it was no big deal, because what we knew is that when you got into that room with Dr. Kopits, he was going to give you as much time as needed, not only to care for your medical issues, your orthopedic issues, but to care for you and your family as a whole. He truly believed that taking care of patients was more of a compassionary field, not just a medical field.”
Quoting Kopits, she said, “Do not forget that you are, first and foremost, a person with humility and compassion and now the privilege to heal.… Whatever you do, do not let the rigors, the fatigue or the competitive culture of healthcare take away your humanity, your humility or your dedication to your patients.”
“The hidden curriculum of medical education can sometimes promote … entitlement, ‘I paid my dues, I worked hard now I’m entitled to X, Y, Z.’ Additionally, we are surrounded, in media today, with those personifications of doctors and nurses who promote this type of entitlement as well. Think about House MD, who knows it all, Dr. McSteamy, or Dreamy, the sexy, take-over, take-charge surgeon in the OR.”
“However, patients not only come to you looking for answers, treatment, expertise and sometimes miracles, but what they want to know what they need the most, is humility and compassion.”
Adm. William McRaven
- Make your bed.
“If you make your bed every morning, you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another.”
- Find a paddle buddy.
“You can’t change the world alone — you will need some help — and to truly get from your starting point to your destination takes friends, colleagues, the goodwill of strangers and a strong coxswain to guide them.”
- Use the heart to measure.
“The big men in the other boat crews would always make good-natured fun of the tiny little flippers the munchkins put on their tiny little feet prior to every swim.”
“But somehow these little guys, from every corner of the nation and the world, always had the last laugh — swimming faster than everyone and reaching the shore long before the rest of us.”
“SEAL training was a great equalizer. Nothing mattered but your will to succeed. Not your color, not your ethnic background, not your education and not your social status.”
- Stop being a sugar cookie.
“For failing the uniform inspection, the student had to run, fully clothed, into the surf zone and then, wet from head to toe, roll around on the beach until every part of your body was covered with sand.”
“The effect was known as a ‘sugar cookie.’ You stayed in that uniform the rest of the day — cold, wet and sandy.”
“You were never going to have a perfect uniform.”
“Sometimes, no matter how well you prepare or how well you perform, you still end up as a sugar cookie.”
- Don’t fear circuses.
“Every event had standards — times you had to meet. If you failed to meet those standards, your name was posted on a list, and at the end of the day those on the list were invited to a ‘circus.’”
“A circus was two hours of additional calisthenics — designed to wear you down, to break your spirit, to force you to quit.”
“An interesting thing happened to those who were constantly on the list. Over time, those students — who did two hours of extra calisthenics — got stronger and stronger.”
“The pain of the circuses built inner strength, built physical resiliency.”
- Sometimes, slide headfirst.
“You had to climb the three-tiered tower, and once at the top, you grabbed the rope, swung underneath the rope and pulled yourself hand over hand until you got to the other end.”
“The record for the obstacle course had stood for years when my class began training in 1977.”
“The record seemed unbeatable until one day, a student decided to go down the slide for life headfirst.”
“Instead of swinging his body underneath the rope and inching his way down, he bravely mounted the top of the rope and thrust himself forward.”
- Fight sharks.
“If a shark begins to circle your position, stand your ground. Do not swim away. Do not act afraid.”
“And if the shark, hungry for a midnight snack, darts towards you, then summon up all your strength and punch him in the snout, and he will turn and swim away.”
“There are a lot of sharks in the world. If you hope to complete the swim, you will have to deal with them.”
- Revel in the darkest moment.
“Every SEAL knows that under the keel [of a ship], at the darkest moment of the mission is the time when you must be calm, composed — when all your tactical skills, your physical power and all your inner strength must be brought to bear.”
- Neck-deep in mud? Sing.
“The ninth week of training is referred to as hell week. It is six days of no sleep, constant physical and mental harassment and one special day at the mud flats. The mud flats are an area between San Diego and Tijuana where the water runs off and creates the Tijuana Slough, a swampy patch of terrain where the mud will engulf you.”
“The chattering teeth and shivering moans of the trainees were so loud it was hard to hear anything, and then one voice began to echo through the night — one voice raised in song.”
“The song was terribly out of tune, but sung with great enthusiasm.”
“One voice became two, and two became three, and before long everyone in the class was singing.”
“We knew that if one man could rise above the misery, then others could as well.”
- Don’t ever, ever ring the bell.
“All you have to do to quit is ring the bell. Ring the bell and you no longer have to wake up at 5 o’clock. Ring the bell and you no longer have to do the freezing cold swims.”
Top photo: U.S. Navy Adm. William McRaven speaking May 17 at the University of Texas at Austin. (Marsha Miller / University of Texas at Austin)