Commencement (2 of 3)

Joe Maloy Uncategorized

#4:  Aaron Sorkin, Syracuse University, 2012

This is one of the more recent speeches on my list.  I read it because–thanks to my brother, John, and friend Tommy–I’ve become fascinated by the HBO series The Newsroom.  Sorkin’s previous works include A Few Good Men and the television series The West Wing, among others.  It turns out he’s pretty good at offering advice as well.  
Note:  If you enjoy these excerpts, I’d highly recommend watching and listening to the YouTube of his delivery (link is below).  It’s exceptional.  
  • “And make no mistake about it, you are dumb…There are some screw-ups headed your way. I wish I could tell you that there was a trick to avoiding the screw-ups, but the screw-ups, they’re a-coming for ya. It’s a combination of life being unpredictable, and you being super dumb.”
  • “To get where you’re going, you have to be good, and to be good where you’re going, you have to be damned good.  Every once in a while, you’ll succeed.  Most of the time you’ll fail, and most of the time the circumstances will be well beyond your control.”
  • “In the summer of 1983, after I graduated, I moved to New York to begin my life as a struggling writer.  I got a series of survival jobs that included bartending, ticket-taking, telemarketing, limo driving, and dressing up as a moose to pass out leaflets in a mall.”
  • “You’ll meet a lot of people who, to put it simply, don’t know what they’re talking about.  In 1970 a CBS executive famously said that there were four things that we would never, ever see on television: a divorced person, a Jewish person, a person living in New York City and a man with a mustache.” 
  • “Develop your own compass, and trust it.  Take risks, dare to fail, remember the first person through the wall always gets hurt.”
  • “Don’t ever forget that you’re a citizen of this world, and there are things you can do to lift the human spirit, things that are easy, things that are free, things that you can do every day. Civility, respect, kindness, character.”
  • “Rehearsal’s over. You’re going out there now, you’re going to do this thing. How you live matters.”

#3:  Conan O’Brien, Harvard University (2000) and Dartmouth University (2011) 

Look at that–you’re getting two for the price of one here!  This is not a “cop-out” to try and squeeze six speeches on a list with room for five.  These speeches must be presented together because their messages build upon each other.  While I guarantee these speeches will make you laugh, they will also make you think.  The person who delivered the speech at Harvard in 2000 is not the same person who delivers the speech to Dartmouth in 2011.

Wait, you’re right, I got a little carried away there.  It is the same person…but he’s grown.  He’s learned from his experiences and adapted to changing circumstances.  In 2000, O’Brien lectured the graduates on the virtues of failure.  He credits his past failures for his current successes.  Yet, he appears to think  his greatest failures are in the past.  At Harvard, Conan has a linear view of the way the world works.  His failures were valuable, he is successful now, and he will continue to move in that direction.   Even though he told the Harvard grads “the story is never over,” Conan realized the hard way that failure–even when you know it’s a possibility–is paralyzing!  In a world where change is the only law, Conan’s 2011 address shows someone who has grown in ways that even he had never imagined.  Often, it is our reaction to a particular circumstance that defines it as either “good” or “bad.”


Harvard, 2000

  • “I’d like to thank the Class Marshals for inviting me here today. The last time I was invited to Harvard it cost me $110,000, so you’ll forgive me if I’m a bit suspicious.”
  • “1985 seems like a long time ago now… In 1985 we drove cars with driver’s side airbags, but if you told us that one day there’d be passenger side airbags, we’d have burned you for witchcraft.”
  • “I’m going to tell you my story because, first of all, my perspective may give many of you hope, and, secondly, it’s an amazing rush to stand in front of six thousand people and talk about yourself.”
  • “I was finally putting my Harvard education to good use, writing dialogue for a man who’s so stupid that in one episode he forgot to make his own heart beat. Life was good.”
  • “I took the opportunity seriously but, at the same time, I had the relaxed confidence of someone who knew he had no real shot. I couldn’t fear losing a great job I had never had. And, I think that attitude made the difference.”  (This is very interesting when viewed in the context of his 2011 Dartmouth address.  It’s amazing to think that he said this in 2000…before he was fired from The Tonight Show after ratings fell and Jay Leno decided to return.)
  • “I’ve dwelled on my failures today because, as graduates of Harvard, your biggest liability is your need to succeed. Your need to always find yourself on the sweet side of the bell curve. Because success is a lot like a bright, white tuxedo. You feel terrific when you get it, but then you’re desperately afraid of getting it dirty, of spoiling it in any way.”
  •  Fall down, make a mess, break something occasionally. And remember that the story is never over.

Dartmouth, 2011
  • “Before I begin, I must point out that behind me sits a highly admired President of the United States and decorated war hero while I, a cable television talk show host, has been chosen to stand here and impart wisdom. I pray I never witness a more damning example of what is wrong with America today.”
  •  “That’s right, with your college diploma you now have a crushing advantage over 8 percent of the workforce. I’m talking about dropout losers like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg. Incidentally, speaking of Mr. Zuckerberg, only at Harvard would someone have to invent a massive social network just to talk with someone in the next room.”
  • “But don’t get me wrong, I take my task today very seriously. When I got the call two months ago to be your speaker, I decided to prepare with the same intensity many of you have devoted to an important term paper. So late last night, I began.”
  • “And one of the reasons it’s so tough finding work is that aging baby boomers refuse to leave their jobs. Trust me on this. Even when they promise you for five years that they are going to leave—and say it on television—I mean you can go on YouTube right now and watch the guy do it, there is no guarantee they won’t come back. Of course I’m speaking generally.”
  • “Disappointment stings and, for driven, successful people like yourselves it is disorienting.”
  • “There are few things more liberating in this life than having your worst fear realized. I went to college with many people who prided themselves on knowing exactly who they were and exactly where they were going.”

  • “Your path at 22 will not necessarily be your path at 32 or 42. One’s dream is constantly evolving, rising and falling, changing course.”
  • “It’s not easy, but if you accept your misfortune and handle it right, your perceived failure can become a catalyst for profound re-invention.”