Graduation Speeches to Live By

In the spirit of the season for soaring rhetoric and sometimes pious or recently even self-serving bland admonitions provided free of charge (I hope) at High School and College graduation ceremonies, I offer the following selections from commencement addresses I consider “The Best” from “The Brightest” (in honor of the late David Halberstam).

The selection process for these selections was rigorous and multifaceted. It consisted of going through my files several times.

The best by far in my humble opinion was Bill Gate’s speech to the Mt. Whitney High School class in Visalia, California about the “Things You Did Not and Will Not Learn in School”. They are:

Rule 1: Life is not fair- get used to it!

Rule 2: The world won’t care about your self-esteem. The world will expect you to accomplish something BEFORE you feel good about yourself.

Rule 3: You will not make $60,000 a year right out of high school. You won’t be a vice-president with a car phone until you earn both.

Rule 4: If you think your teacher is tough, wait till you get a boss.

Rule 5: Flipping burgers is not beneath your dignity. Your Grandparents had a different word for burger flipping- they called it opportunity.

Rule 6: If you mess up, it’s not your parents’ fault; so, don’t whine about your mistakes; learn from them.

Rule 7: Before you were born, your parents weren’t as boring as they are now. They got that way from paying your bills, cleaning your clothes and listening to you talk about how cool you thought you were. So, before you save the rain forest from the parasites of your parent’s generation, try delousing the closet in your own room.

Rule 8: Your school may have done away with winners and losers, but life HAS NOT. In some schools, they have abolished failing grades and they’ll give you as MANY TIMES as you want to get the right answer. This doesn’t bear the slightest resemblance to ANYTHING in real life.

Rule 9: Life is not divided into semesters. You don’t get summers off, and very few employers are interested in helping you FIND YOURSELF. Do that on your own time.

Rule 10: Television is NOT real life. In real life people actually leave the coffee shop and go to jobs.

Rule 11: Be nice to nerds. Chances are you’ll end up working for one.

For all you Law School graduates, fellow lawyers and judges, as well as the portion of the citizenry who still like and respect, indeed value, the judiciary and want It to step up and fulfill its vital role as a check and balance on the Executive and Legislative Branches of Government, my favorite Law School Commencement Address came from Harold Hongju Koh, the former Gerald C. and Bernice Latrobe Smith Professor of International Law at Yale Law School. Professor Koh ventured five predictions to the graduates assembled for the University of Maryland Law School Commencement on May 19, 1995. They remain valid almost two decades later for graduates in 2017.

The first was the following: “…Your first job will not be your career…Most of you will start jobs, but change them at least once, maybe twice or even more…So let me tell you that changing jobs is no cause for fear or shame…changing jobs will be a normal and natural part of your post-graduate legal education as you think relentlessly about who you want to work for and what skills you want to develop.”

The second prediction was that “Over the next few years, you will face hard choices not just about careers and lifestyles, but also how to balance the two. Until now, the choosing has been easy- you have simply picked the option that left the most other options open….But during the next few years some of those options will close. With regret, you’ll give up some of your dreams. Even if you achieve your professional goals, success with exact a personal cost. You have to decide how much time to devote to your job and how much to yourself and your family. As you confront the questions of how much money and prestige mean to you, you may have to choose between doing good and doing well”.

Koh’s third prediction was that the graduates would face “constant and difficult ethical choices and that the stakes will be high”. Who can deny over two decades later that as the Professor prognosticated, “Matters of public importance, joy and heartbreak, and real money plus a lawyer’s reputation are on the line whenever you open your mouth or sign your name”.

Realizing that hopefully will, as Koh predicted cause the 2017 graduates like the 1995 graduates to trust yourselves more and more and “to believe in yourselves as you make decisions about life and law.” This was his fourth prediction. This in turn brought on the final prediction which Professor Koh explained as follows:

“As you wander through life, you may feel that your life has no plan, no rhyme or reason. Like the feathers in Forest Gump, you will fell buffeted by random events and
coincidences. But there will come a day when you stop asking, “What satisfies them?” and start asking, “What satisfies me?” There will come a day when you realize that what the client wants is not necessarily what’s right. There will be a day when you remember that you entered this profession to do so much more than keep your options open. And on that day, you will decide not only what you won’t stand for, but also what you do stand for. When your moment comes, I hope you will commit yourself to careers not of selfishness but of service to people in this world who have little and need your services.”

To that I would add to the 2017 graduates the words of Robert F. Kennedy in his Capetown University speech. “Few will have the greatness to bend history, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all these acts will be written the history of this generation.”

Good luck to the 2017 graduates from all schools!