Every year around this time, writers like myself are dutifully sent by their publishers to listen and report on what the nation’s bigwigs say to new college grads. I confess to trying to (metaphorically at least) hide in a closet whenever commencement speech assignments are handed out.
My own college graduation speech is a complete void in my brain and, with a handful of notable exceptions, nearly every keynote I’ve ever read or heard has been equally forgettable. Still, with so many powerful, super-successful people doling out free advice, surely there must be some hidden diamonds in this massive mountain of cliches and kudos.
Fortunately, someone else dug them up.
100 speeches boiled down to four lessons.
For its newsletter, “nonlinear life“, bestseller author Bruce Feiler is always on the lookout for ideas that can help people live richer, more fulfilling lives. And in a recent excerpt from his writings published on the TED Ideas blogFeiler says he scoured the extensive online library of past commencement speeches for this helpful information.
“I have spent the past few years collecting and coding hundreds of life stories, looking for patterns and takeaways that might help us live with more meaning, purpose and joy. I have decided to put some of my coding tools to work, analyzing 100 of the most popular recent keynotes,” he explains.
Better him than me. What did he find through this heroic act of service? Feiler insists that all of these keynotes boil down to the four fundamental but essential life lessons.
Dream big. Whether it’s VP Kamala Harris pleading “Grads, we need you,” or Google co-founder Larry Page offering the counterintuitive idea that “it’s often easier to get ahead on mega-ambitious dreams”, speaker after speaker returns to this basic point: do not underestimate yourself before you have even tried. Self-doubt is a part of life, but we are all capable of doing so much more than we think we can on our least confident days.
Work hard. Huge dreams are a necessary starting point, but almost all speakers agree that achieving them requires immense amounts of simple, hard work.
Make mistakes. “My experience has been that my mistakes have led to the best thing of my life,” Taylor Swift told NYU graduates this year. She is just the latest in a long line of speakers urging graduates to view setbacks as inevitable learning experiences rather than dream-ending disasters.
Be kind. “What I regret the most in my life are the failures of kindness”, writer George Saunders told Syracuse University graduates in 2013. He is one of many speakers reminding us that while effort is wonderful, the purpose of all effort is to better the lives of our fellow human beings. Simple acts of kindness are the surest way to advance this mission and live a fulfilling life.
Are these earth-shattering ideas? Absolutely not. These are some of the most widely agreed upon tips in the world. But just because tips are common because dirt doesn’t make them worthless. The fact that all of these exceptional people offer such unexceptional advice might even be a valuable lesson in itself.
Obvious does not mean worthless.
Few of us may have the songwriting gifts of Taylor Swift or the technical skills of Larry Page, but the basic tools these superstars used to rise to the top of their professions are neither rare nor flashy. . They dream big, work hard, go on and play well with others, just like all of us.
Which suggests that the secret to success may simply be that there really isn’t a secret. Sometimes talent and luck combine to create exceptional results. We don’t have much control over these variables. The other key ingredients for more day-to-day success seem to be the principles you’ve been taught since elementary school.
Feiler’s deep dive into past keynotes only underscores the importance of fundamentals like hard work, empathy and resilience. Which suggests that most of us should spend less time trying to unearth secrets and shortcuts and more time chasing our dreams.