I never expected to join the ranks of commencement speakers, especially at my alma mater.
I had a tough time there, left eagerly, and returned rarely. But 20 years after graduation, they called and — feeling both honored and terrified — I agreed.
I don’t remember at all what was said at my college graduation, and I think that’s the case for many people. The truth is, graduation day isn’t really for the graduates. It’s more about their families and these institutions celebrating a new generation through the trappings of tradition and then tossing them out into the world.
Completing college is a big deal and commencements do a good job of making the moment feel big. There’s regalia and a processional and prayers and that classical march actually named “Pomp and Circumstance,” in case the gravity is still lost on anyone. And then of course there’s a dignitary marveling about the graduates or lobbing big ideas at them. "This generation will change the world," they might say, or, "You’re graduating in the golden age of American entrepreneurship."
If I’m wearing a polyester robe, squished among hundreds of my closest friends and rivals, on the wrong end of a long night, I would be wondering how all this graduation noise is going to help me through tomorrow.
When I got my turn as one of those dignitaries I found out it’s really hard to say something new and meaningful. All I wanted to do was try to speak to graduates at a scary time when we can’t afford to be scared. My favorite commencement addresses are the ones that get real and don’t make too many promises. I hope mine falls in that category.