How To Be Great: An Annual Commencement Address

By | 2017-05-13T06:31:54+00:00 May 9th, 2017|
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This time of year, commencement season, brings with it a number of speeches having to do with culture and politics. Some of the most important messages adults communicate to high school and college seniors are in these commencement ceremonies; but too often those are some of the messages where the political and non-political messages get confused. Too many who are political try to communicate life messages and advice in ways that are political or in ways where the political point of view of the speaker confuses any generally helpful non-political or life, commencement, advice. Politics and political views, after all, can change depending on circumstances—life messages, reliable time-tested verities, should not.

And yet, one of the reasons I think commencement addresses are so important is because I think our young adults need help today in ways they never before have—in truth, we all do. To that end, as many of you know, I do an annual on-air commencement speech on “The Seth and Chris Show” (AM 960, KKNT). Here is 2017’s.

Graduates, here are some life lessons I hope you’ll take: some from journalists, some from philosophers, some from political leaders, some from religious sources and leaders, some from scholars, some from movies, some from lyricists, and some from just ordinary, wise people.

And before I begin any of it, let me first wish you congratulations on your achievement. A lot of people wish they could be where you are right now. Well done. Enjoy. First and foremost, enjoy. There will be plenty of times in life where things are not happy or joyful—this is not one of them, savor your moment. You have earned it.

1. The best line I ever heard in a commencement speech was Ted Koppel’s. He told a Stanford class: “Apply a strong standard of morality to your lives; and if, periodically, you fail—as you surely will—adjust your lives, and not the standards.”

2.  I have never, ever, met a perfect person. Indeed, to many, the only perfect person died 2,000 years ago. Do not put people on pedestals, do not engage in hero-worship. People will disappoint you. This includes parents, teachers, friends, spouses, politicians, favorite authors, and religious leaders—the person you admire most. Dennis Prager said something like this once: If you are not prepared to be disappointed in your friends, you are not prepared to have friends. There’s a lot of wisdom there—don’t forget it; people will disappoint, and that’s life because:

3. Life can be hard from time to time and the only person who makes no errors is the person who does not exist. The famous psychiatrist Karl Menninger wrote this:

When a trout rising to a fly gets hooked and finds

   himself unable to swim about freely, he begins a fight

   which results in struggles and splashes and sometimes

   an escape…. In the same way, the human struggles …

   with the hooks that catch him. Sometime he masters his

   difficulties; sometimes they are too much for him. The

   struggles are all that the world sees, and it usually

   misunderstands them. It is hard for a free fish to

understand what is happening to a hooked one…[until he is on the hook one day himself.]

4.  So, try to be understanding of others’ struggles. We will all have them. That’s a guarantee. We will all have successes, but we will all have struggles and failures, too—and often, by the way, those failures will lead to great successes. If you doubt this, read the biographies of any great inventor or leader, from Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs; from Abraham Lincoln to Margaret Thatcher or Barack Obama or Ronald Reagan or Donald Trump. But know this: Failure is temporary, it will happen. And usually it is simply the world’s way, life’s way, of clearing a path to a success you never dreamed of. This takes me to…

….5. Take it easy on yourself. Today you are flying high, tomorrow you may also be. Or you may not be. You may not have gotten the job you wanted. Or you may have messed up the first task you were given in the new job you did get and wanted. It’s OK. It happens. To everyone.

I promise. A failure is not, is never, the end of a story or your story…and in time, I guarantee, you will forget it…and so, too, will others.

If you are concerned about what others think of you, live and comport your life in a way that is a living, walking, breathing disproof of negative comments or disparaging remarks. Live so that nobody will believe them. It is more important to see a sermon than hear one.

6.  Don’t worry too much about what others think of you. Worry about what you think of you. Ann Landers got something very important and very right about this. If you worry too much about what others think or say about you, you will never move forward, you will be frozen, paralyzed. She put it this way: “Pay no attention to disparaging remarks. Remember, the person who carried the message may not be the most accurate reporter in the world, and things become twisted in the retelling. Live so that nobody will believe them.” That last part bears repeating: If you are concerned about what others think of you, live and comport your life in a way that is a living, walking, breathing disproof of negative comments or disparaging remarks. Live so that nobody will believe them. It is more important to see a sermon than hear one.

7.  Two things are very important: patience and authenticity. On authenticity, a famous Hassidic rabbi said the only question we will be asked when we die is not why didn’t we become this or that, or why were we not more like so-and-so. Instead, we will be asked: “Why didn’t you become you?” Think about that the next time you’re tempted to worship someone else as I mentioned earlier—don’t be someone else, be you.

On patience, I can only relay something I’ve heard a lot of leaders and successful people tell me over and over again: The greatest decisions they ever made were not decisions they thought were especially important at the time because the greatest things that ever happened to them could not have been planned or, sometimes, even dreamed. I know this to be true in my life, too.

8.  To that point, almost everything you do matters, at almost all times. A U.S. Senator I know of once put it this way: “The only testing ground for the heroic is the mundane.” Think on that—if you can’t do the small things right, you will never get the big things right, or the opportunity to do them. Small things matter, how you handle them matters. Almost always and almost always at all times. So be patient, life has a way of working out if your internal compass is pointed true north, and, often when you least expect it.

9.  Be forgiving. To yourself, and to others. Remember the Lord’s prayer. We ask God’s forgiveness—a lot. And we hope for it. We depend on it. How much more so should we be forgiving of others? I know how much I appreciate it when I’m forgiven for something. So the shoe should be on the other foot, too. Be forgiving to others.

10.  Francis of Assisi said a lot of beautiful things, here’s a sentence from him that is worth remembering: “Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort than to be comforted.” Here’s why:

11.  The best way to get out of your own head, to ease your own mind, to solve your own troubles is to help another with his or her troubles. When you are in what you perceive to be dire straights, try to help someone else, try to comfort someone else. You’ll find a magical solution to your own troubles that way. You truly will. Again: It is more important to comfort rather than be comforted. And, it’s a good thing to do anyway as…

….12. The Dalai Lama—maybe the happiest, most joyful man on earth—put it this way: “Our chief purpose in life is to help other people…and if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.” This from a man who is entitled to have a lot of resentments, watching his country be taken over and destroyed. And yet his philosophy in life is not about revenge, but about helping others…or at the very minimum, not hurting them.

13.  Be decent. At all times. If there’s a question as to what to do in a certain situation, difficult or not, ask yourself, “what’s the decent thing to do?” It’s a great word, “decent,” and it’s too often forgotten, but when you think about how to implement that word, how to act on it, it’s a word that almost always tells you what to do and how to do it. I know of few better, self-defining words.

14.  I don’t remember where I heard this, but someone once said when there’s a difficult or maddening or tense situation where you think you need to say something, put yourself through this three-part test. Ask yourself: “Does something need to be said? Does something need to be said now? And does it need to be said by me?”

15.  Another piece of advice for difficult or maddening situations, it’s from Mark Twain: “Calm is a language the blind can read and the deaf can hear.” Be as calm as you can as often as you can.

16.  Jimmy Buffett has a song called “That’s What Living is to Me.” He has a line in there I have seen come true again and again and again: “Live a lie and you will live to regret it.” I can’t convey how true that is. A lie will come out someday, and usually not in a way or time of your choosing. Live a lie and you will live to regret it.

17.  Keep in mind this: People, especially young people, most often damage themselves with drugs or alcohol in order to change the way they feel, to feel “normal,” or to change their normal if you will. Give them reasons not to need or perceive the need to change their normal. You do this by putting them at ease over whatever their situation is. We all have crosses to carry, let them know theirs can be carried too, and it does not require a quick and damaging fix, that fix can be life altering. Trust me, I’ve seen a lot of this. Too often, easy temporary fixes can have lifelong repercussions. There may be three strikes in baseball, or in law, but as Phoenix Suns Coach Earl Watson put it in the context of drug experimentation: you don’t get six fouls or three strikes in real life—you can be one and done.

The best way to get out of your own head, to ease your own mind, to solve your own troubles is to help another with his or her troubles. When you are in what you perceive to be dire straights, try to help someone else, try to comfort someone else.

18.  When in doubt about how to deal with a difficult person, try and find a way to love that person, or at least see the child in them, or some redeeming quality. Most people have something redeeming about them…something worthy of love. I recently read a great line by Helen Keller on this: “It is wonderful how much time good people spend fighting the devil. If they would only expend the same amount of energy loving their fellow men, the devil would die in his own tracks from boredom.”

19.  She had a lot of wonderful things to say and teach. And some of the smartest people come back to the same lesson these two quotes embody: Helen Keller, once more: “Life is either a great adventure or it is nothing.” A great writer, Norman Cousins, put it this way: “The tragedy of life is not death, but, rather, that which dies inside us while we are still living.” You are at the beginnings of your lives, enjoy this time. It’s been a gift given to you for just that.

20.  The last thing I’ll say is perhaps my favorite line ever. It’s from the late education professor, Leo Buscaglia, whose specialty was those with special needs. It’s something I’ve always loved, and I close with it: “It is only the weak are cruel. Gentleness can only be expected from the strong.”

Now, one final and important note as I close: Maybe something I’ve said today will resonate with you. Maybe not. But it’s advice I love. And, I fail each piece of advice here daily. To come back to where I started: People simply are not perfect.

Class of 2017—Congratulations and welcome to your adventure.

About the Author:

Seth Leibsohn
Seth Leibsohn is a Contributing Editor to American Greatness and is the host of The Seth & Chris Show, heard nightly on 960am/KKNT in Phoenix. You can connect with Seth on Twitter: @SethLeibsohn