Why commencement speeches should be realistic, not idealistic


First aired on Q (8/5/12)

Spring is in the air. Also in the air? The profound words of commencement speakers at graduation ceremonies at colleges and universities across North America These addresses tend to be reflective, motivational, inspirational and, according to Charles Wheelan, in need of serious revision. Do new graduates really want to hear advice that ranges from "don't try to be great" to "your parents don't want what's best for you"? Wheelan, a senior lecturer in public policy at the University of Chicago and a visiting professor at Dartmouth College, says yes. He outlines his suggestions for commencement speakers in in new book, 10 ½ Things No Commencement Speaker Has Ever Said.


Wheelan's first experience of writing a commencement speech came in his very first job as a speechwriter for the governor of Maine. Only 23 at the time, he spewed the regular clichés about life, aspiration and inspiration. Looking back, he feels they did the job, but didn't offer the graduates what they really needed: advice that would stick with them in the weeks, months and even years to come. "They're not ugly enough. They're mostly about successful people reflecting on success, or the path to success," he explained to Jian Ghomeshi in a recent interview on Q. "What I found when I was talking to students over the years, they want to hear about the ugliness between jobs. They want to hear about the tough times on the road to the good times. The tougher, more grittier you can make it, the better the students feel."

However, Wheelan didn't put his theory into action until he was asked to give the Class Day speech at Dartmouth College in 2011. The Class Day speech is a less formal affair than the commencement speech, but has the same intention: to send new graduates into the world with enthusiasm and intention. Wheelan, as a graduate of Dartmouth College himself, started thinking: what did he want, 23 years earlier, from his Class Day speaker? It turns out, Wheelan didn't want anything from the commencement speeches he wrote as a 23-year-old. "The whole speech was born really quite emotionally from the stuff I felt I would have benefited from when I was sitting in their shoes."

Some of the advice he gave? 

"Some of your worst days lie ahead."

Wheelan points to his college roommate, John, as an example of why this is the case — and why it's good for you. John really wanted to work on Wall Street, but after months of searching for a job, he couldn't get hired. He ended up living at home with his mom for several months before taking the job as assistant food and beverage manager at a hotel on the remote island Si Phan. While there, he met his future wife and discovered his love for the hospitality and tourism business — and is now the CEO of a major hotel chain. This story "was actually one of the most popular parts of the speech," Wheelan said. "For the students out there who are feeling about what like John felt when he was living with his mother in October, it actually has a decent moral in the end."

"Don't make the world worse."


Wheelan points to the tobacco executives who, in the infamous case in the 1950s, insisted that cigarettes were not harmful or addictive, despite substantial research suggesting otherwise. After investigating the educational backgrounds of these executives, Wheelan learned that three of them went to Harvard. "There are plenty of smart people using this genius and hard work to do really nasty things," Wheelan said. Which means struggling college graduates should feel ahead of the game just by not being a jerk. "So just don't do that. Don't go out there and use this gift for a really nefarious end."

"Your parents don't want what is best for you."

It took until Wheelan himself was a parent to understand this one. But he's realized that there's a difference between what's best for you and what's good for you — and parents want what's good for you. Wheelan says that the three biggest decisions he's made so far — taking a year off to travel the world, becoming a writer and pursuing a PhD — were "opposed strenuously" by his parents. And with good reason. "[Parents] will steer you away from risky endeavours because, as a parent, you just don't want to see your child face-down in a puddle." Wheelan says new graduates should appreciate their parents' input, but follow their heart.

There are seven and a half other pieces of advice in Wheelan's book. But each relates to his overarching theme: that while idealism is good, being realistic about what lies ahead will make the journey easier. He wants graduates to be excited for the future, to be ambitious and to dream big. But he also wants them to know that life can't be packaged into a pretty little commencement speech.

"Temper that idealism with the bumps on the road, so that when you hit the bumps, you're ready for them and you don't jettison the idealism you should always have with you."

Do you agree with Wheelan's new lessons? What advice would you give in a commencement speech to the class of 2012?

Related links: