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Five-Minute Commencement Speech



This is the time of year for commencement speeches.  You know, that onerous tradition of making graduates suffer through a speech before handing them their diplomas. 

Few commencement speeches are memorable – my high-school one was, because the speaker was the actress Margaret Hamilton, the Wicked Witch in “The Wizard of Oz.”  Nobody really listened to the speech; we were all just waiting for her to say, “I’ll get you, my pretty” – which, of course, she did. 

At my brother’s college graduation, the distinguished stateswoman Barbara Jordan spoke.  She was brilliant, but the speech went on so long I swear I could have completed grad school during it.

Commencement addresses usually involve giving advice.  Some theoretically accomplished person drones on, dispensing wisdom, while the poor graduates sweat in those hot polyester gowns and their moms worry about whether there will be enough food at the after-party. 

So, to save us all time, here’s my five-minute commencement speech for today’s high school and college graduates; everything they need to know, from A to Z.  PS, most of this I learned the hard way, and I’m also not that good at following my own advice – but here goes.

 A:  A for is Attitude and Appreciation.  Be positive.  What you fear, you attract; what you want, you can achieve.  Appreciate everyone.  Be as nice to the people who can do nothing for you as you are to the people who can help you. 

B:  Believe.  Believe in yourself, your work, your community, your ability to make a difference.

C:  Care for the people around you, your community, your cause, yourself.  Try to do something every day that brings you happiness, even joy.  Spend as little time as possible with people who bring you down.

D:  Be decisive.  Learn to sharpen, trust and follow your instincts.  And then act on them.  Don’t make a career out of trying to decide – decide.

E:  Excellence.  Strive for it, in everything you do.  Don’t cut corners.  Never settle for less than your best effort, even if you’re the only one who gives a damn.

F:  Follow-up.  Do what you say you’ll do. 

G:  Be gentle with yourself and others. 

H is for Humor and Humility.  Do serious work, but don’t take yourself too seriously.   And stay humble.   Don’t believe your own press releases, or that braggy bio you wrote yourself.  And part of being humble is not worrying about who gets the credit.  There is no end to what you can accomplish if you don’t worry about getting credit.  And don’t keep score; as in “I did this for them, and they didn’t reciprocate.”  Help people anyway.

I is for Integrity – practice it in all things, personal and professional. 

J:  Judgment.   Use good judgment, but don’t be judgmental.  Nobody likes that.

K:  Kind.  Lead with kindness.  Be candid, but be kind. 

L is for Love.  Love people.  Yes, you’ll be disappointed and you’ll even get your heart broken along the way, but love people anyway.

M:  Mirror.  Look in the mirror; be self-reflective.  When you get crosswise with somebody, try first to figure out your own role in the dysfunction. 

N is for Network.  Get out there!  Join a service organization, a faith organization, a book club – something! 

O:  Be open to new ideas, new approaches, new people.  They’ll expand your horizons. 

P:  Principles.  Have them.  Stick to them.  Sometimes you have to let people know what you stand for – and also what you won’t.  Just don’t be a self-righteous jerk in doing so.

Q:  Quality.  It’s critical.  Never sacrifice quality for collegiality – don’t “go along to get along.” 

R:  Results.  Be results-oriented.  Working effectively is just as important as working hard.  Get stuff done.

S:  is for Screw-Ups.  They happen.  They are opportunities to learn and improve.  That’s a smarmy cliché, but it’s true.  Look for what you can learn from screw-ups, but don’t hold on to failures.  Move on.

T:  Time.  It flies.  Use it well.  Don’t look back in regret at things you didn’t do – get out there and do them.  T is also for Travel – get out there!

U:  Understand.  Be understanding of others.  U is also for Unflappable.  Strive to be that.  Keep the drama on the stage.

V:  Volunteer.  Find a cause you care about, and find a way to help it advance. 

W:  Look out the window.  Don’t be so focused on your own world that you fail to take the pulse of the world outside. 

X:  Is for eXercise.  Exercise your body and your mind.  Find something you like to do, and do it.  Fill out X-word puzzles!  Go X-country-skiing! 

Y:  Be young at heart.  Surround yourself with people younger than yourself, appreciate and learn from them.  Never miss a chance to help a younger person up the ladder.  

Z:  Zzzzzzzzs.  Get some sleep.  It’s amazing how much better things look after a good night’s sleep.

Hoping that these commencement ABCs didn’t put you to sleep, I’m Susan Hay Patrick, CEO of United Way of Missoula County.  Thanks for listening.

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