The wisdom of graduations

May marks the season of commencements, which provide graduates with the opportunity to reflect on the lessons of their university careers and imagine the future. The themes of commencement speeches recur, but every speaker adds a unique tone to the ceremonies. In this post, the Red Thread Foundation for Women glimpses into two 2012 commencement speeches rife with wisdom.

In a much-quoted address to the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, novelist Neil Gaiman everything he wished he knew when he began his career and shared some of the best advice that he failed to follow:

And remember that whatever discipline you are in, whether you are a musician or a photographer, a fine artist or a cartoonist, a writer, a dancer, a designer, whatever you do you have one thing that’s unique. You have the ability to make art.

And for me, and for so many of the people I have known, that’s been a lifesaver. The ultimate lifesaver. It gets you through good times and it gets you through the other ones.

Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do.

Make good art.

I’m serious. Husband runs off with a politician? Make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by mutated boa constrictor? Make good art. IRS on your trail? Make good art. Cat exploded? Make good art. Somebody on the Internet thinks what you do is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before? Make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, and eventually time will take the sting away, but that doesn’t matter. Do what only you do best. Make good art.

He also encouraged graduates to embrace their vulnerability, by saying that “the moment that you feel that, just possibly, you’re walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself. That’s the moment you may be starting to get it right.”

Gaiman did not fail to acknowledge the anxiety and worry that plagues recent graduates and seasoned professionals alike:

I worried about it. I worried about the next deadline, the next idea, the next story. There wasn’t a moment for the next fourteen or fifteen years that I wasn’t writing something in my head, or wondering about it. And I didn’t stop and look around and go, this is really fun. I wish I’d enjoyed it more. It’s been an amazing ride. But there were parts of the ride I missed, because I was too worried about things going wrong, about what came next, to enjoy the bit I was on.

That was the hardest lesson for me, I think: to let go and enjoy the ride, because the ride takes you to some remarkable and unexpected places.

Harvard University President Drew Faust extolled the role of luck in our lives. In her Baccalaureate address titled “The Updraft of Inexplicable Luck“, she posited:

Recognize your own good fortune. It is a relief. Once you do, being extraordinary is no longer the point. The point is to be a worthy person in the world. And when you acknowledge luck, you recognize your connection to those who did not have the same opportunities. […] Merit is hierarchical. The spark of learning, the thing that catches us on fire, is more like a gift, more like luck, more like grace.

Did you hear or read a graduation speech this year that truly resonated with you? Do you remember any insights from speeches at your own graduation? Do share them with us in the comments! Congratulations to the Class of 2012, and happy new beginnings.

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