It’s years in the future and you are on death’s door, surrounded by family and confronting a question: Did my life matter?
That was the premise of a graduation speech for the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Business, given this year by new graduate Austin Hermann – an address featured on Huffington Post.
Hermann faced that very question himself a year ago during a near-death experience in Africa, and it dramatically changed the way he looked at life, he said.
“I saw how meaningless my passions for wealth and attention were, I reflected on old relationships that either my pride or my ambition had destroyed. I saw the pointlessness of everything I had put status and value in: image, wealth, consumption, title…”
Hermann said that the core of who was was shifted in Africa, from self-importance to gratefulness.
“The perspective flips from, “What experiences can I get? How much wealth can I accumulate? How much money can I make? What kind of car do I want to drive, how big of a house can I afford?
“How many people can I welcome? What good can I do? How much can I give away? How many people can I genuinely engage with and be present with?”
As another season of graduation speeches comes to an end, here’s another question worth pondering: Which addresses were the best ever?
NPR ambitiously tried to compile such a list – 300 addresses dating to 1774, and it included one speech given at the University of Minnesota, by investor and public speaker Chris Sacca in 2011. The young entrepreneur also offered graduates a don’t-chase-wealth message: “What’s success anyway? Is success about making the most money? No, money for the most part turns people into jerks.”
Three hundred too many to wade through? Parade magazine picked the top five speeches from the last decade, which include addresses by Steve Jobs and Oprah Winfrey.
The list of speech makers at colleges nationwide this year ranged from Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, Vice President Joe Biden, President Obama and Michelle Obama to Peyton Manning and Bill and Melinda Gates.
Among the most memorable speeches this year was one given from space, as well as an address by actress Sandra Bullock, who advised Warren Easton Charter High School graduates in New Orleans not to pick their noses in public. Here are some of the most memorable lines from this year’s addresses.
The Washington Post said a speech given by Adm. William McRaven was the very best of the year. He gave University of Texas graduates some advice about how to change the world. And it starts small, he said:
“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.
“By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter.
“If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.
“And, if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made—that you made—and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better.”
What makes a memorable graduation speech? MPR examined that question a few years ago and found a few themes – addresses that are authentic, humble, startling to listeners, tough on listeners, offer harsh lessons wrapped in humor, and speeches that focus on failure.
And a pithy zinger can help. Ellen DeGeneres told Tulane graduates in 2009: “Follow your passion, stay true to yourself, never follow someone else’s path. Unless you’re in the woods and you’re lost, and you see a path. Then, by all means, you should follow that.”