In Looser Tone, Speakers Urge Graduates to Take Risks and Be Engaged

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A long, unpopular war had ended, but conflict brewed in the Middle East and the role of the United States in world affairs was in question. Months after his re-election, the president seemed to be in trouble amid revelations of government surveillance and secrecy.

This uncertain landscape of rapid change and deep unease greets the college graduates of 2013, just as it faced graduates in 1973. The parallels are striking. The apocalyptic mood that gripped the country when these graduates entered college (the Vietnam War and the draft for one generation, the financial meltdown and the recession for the other) had receded by graduation, and along with it a vocal protest movement.

Commencement speakers now and then worried about apathy born of cynicism and crisis fatigue. "When my contemporaries ask me, 'What is the impact of the Watergate scandal on the young?' I have to reply, 'Very slight,' " Kingman Brewster Jr., the president of Yale, said 40 years ago. "They are not surprised. Their basic response is 'What would you expect?' That is too bad, but it's so."

In each time, a profound, long-term change in social attitudes was under way, to the benefit of gays now and women and blacks then. In 1973, Princeton graduated the first class to have had women in it from the beginning; they numbered only in the dozens.

"The revolution which women are trying to make is one so long and so deep and so serious that it makes all the Watergates of the world seem like very small patriarchal episodes," Gloria Steinem told graduating students at Simmons College in Boston 40 years ago.

But the speeches have changed, and not just because a single topic, Watergate, dominated them in 1973. The speakers then were overwhelmingly white and male, addressing lofty matters in mostly impersonal terms.

The addresses of 2013 were much more personal, infused with self-deprecating humor, raunchy asides and references to the speakers' own humble or distant origins. The looser tone fits a looser time, and some speakers now work with neither prepared texts nor fear of grammatical error.

In an era of less rigid career and life expectations, the speeches are peppered with exhortations to take risks. There are acknowledgments that making a living could be hard, as well as an embrace of failure as a learning experience, that would have been hard to imagine in 1973.

But one central message has not changed: Be engaged in the world around you, politically and otherwise, for there is much work to do.

Richard Costolo

CHIEF EXECUTIVE OF TWITTER

University of Michigan

"None of us at Twitter thought during the earthquake and ensuing tsunami in Fukushima, Japan, that our service would be a great alternative communication platform if the mobile networks in Japan were spotty in the aftermath. And certainly none of us even hoped, let alone considered, that our platform would be one of those used to organize protests across the Middle East, in Tunisia and Egypt during the Arab Spring.

Here's the amazing thing about what I've observed when I've witnessed all those things. Not only can you not plan the impact you're going to have, you often won't recognize it even while you're having it. ...

From here on out, you have to switch gears. You're no longer meeting and exceeding expectations. There are no expectations. There's no script. When you're doing what you love to do, you become resilient, because that's the habit you create for yourself. You create a habit of taking chances on yourself and making bold choices in service to doing what you love.

If, on the other hand, you do what's expected of you, or what you're supposed to do, and things go poor or chaos ensues -- as it surely will -- you will look to external sources for what to do next, because that will be the habit you've created for yourself. You'll be standing there, frozen, on the stage of your own life."

Terrence McNally

PLAYWRIGHT

Columbia College

"My parents were aghast. They had been told Columbia was a hotbed of communism. To me, that was a selling point. It was 1956, and I was in full James Dean rebellion mode in Corpus Christi, Tex. ...

Freshman orientation week, my adviser told me that he expected my time at Columbia to be brief. He thought my Texas public schools background had ill prepared me for the rigors of a Columbia education and that I had only been given a scholarship in a, he thought, misguided effort on the college's part to attract a more diverse student body and mitigate Columbia's reputation as the Jewish commuter college in the Ivy League. ...

We here today are so overprivileged it hurts. If we don't take advantage of the opportunity we have been given, we are true fools -- and callous ones at that. Columbia is a gift. It's so easy to matter, to make a difference. It's even easier not to do either. But then we have failed ourselves and this institution."

Steven Chu

NOBEL LAUREATE AND

FORMER ENERGY SECRETARY

University of Rochester

"It's O.K. to fail, as long as you give it your best, fail fast and move on quickly. Now you ask: 'How do you do that? How do you fail fast? And efficiently?' You think about the problem, and you work on the most critical and essential part of the challenge first -- don't do the easy stuff. ...

Over the course of my scientific career, I would say that roughly three-quarters of the things I tried either failed or morphed into something oftentimes better."

Oprah Winfrey

ENTREPRENEUR

Harvard University

"If you're constantly pushing yourself higher, higher, the law of averages -- not to mention the myth of Icarus -- predicts that you will at some point fall. And when you do, I want you to know this, remember this: There is no such thing as failure. Failure is just life trying to move us in another direction.

Now, when you're down there in the hole, it looks like failure. So this past year I had to spoon-feed those words to myself. And when you're down in the hole, when that moment comes, it's really O.K. to feel bad for a little while. Give yourself time to mourn what you think you may have lost, but then here's the key: Learn from every mistake because every experience, encounter and particularly your mistakes are there to teach you and force you into being more who you are. And then figure out what is the next right move. And the key to life is to develop an internal moral, emotional GPS that can tell you which way to go."

Ben S. Bernanke

ECONOMIST AND

FED CHAIRMAN

Princeton University

"A meritocracy is a system in which the people who are the luckiest in their health and genetic endowment; luckiest in terms of family support, encouragement and, probably, income; luckiest in their educational and career opportunities; and luckiest in so many other ways difficult to enumerate -- these are the folks who reap the largest rewards.

The only way for even a putative meritocracy to hope to pass ethical muster, to be considered fair, is if those who are the luckiest in all of those respects also have the greatest responsibility to work hard, to contribute to the betterment of the world and to share their luck with others."

Cory A. Booker

MAYOR OF NEWARK

Yale University

"There was a group of kids that used to hang in the lobby of my building. ... One in particular, he reminded me of my dad. He had that quick wit, that great swagger. ...

One month into my time as mayor, I got another call for a shooting. It was on Court Street in our city, and I go down there and I do the same thing. I'm going to people, telling them about our plans, telling them that we had to pull together, that we were going to fight through this crime, that we were going to drive down the violence. I barely paid attention to the dead body on the sidewalk and another one being rolled into an ambulance.

After that night of being important, of being mayor of New Jersey's biggest city, I went back to my home in the high-rises of Brick Towers. I sat there with my BlackBerry reviewing the incident reports of the day, and then it came to that shooting on Court Street. And I looked at that BlackBerry, and I saw the name of the murder victim. It was the kid from my lobby. It was the young man who was my father. It was this smart and charismatic young man who God had put in front of me every single day.

I looked at my BlackBerry praying that the name would somehow change, praying that it was a mistake or maybe not the same young man, but it was him. ... How could we all crowd a funeral home for his death? Where were we for his life? God had put him right in front of my face, but I was charging off, to do important things. I could not see what was right in front of me."

Chris Hughes

CO-FOUNDER OF FACEBOOK AND

OWNER OF THE NEW REPUBLIC

Georgia State University

"All too often, those big ideas run up against the challenge of the everyday: in particular, how to find work that pays the bills. A lot of the time, meaningful work becomes necessary work, and passions are forced to fade. The easy part is knowing that you should follow your heart and do something important; the hard part is coping with the world as it is today at the same time as you invent how it should be in the future.

But inventing the future -- in spite of the greatest recession since the Great Depression -- is exactly what our generation does. If there's any core attribute that connects you to me to everyone else of our age, it's this conviction that we do not have to take the world as it is; in fact, it's up to us to make it what it should be. ...

If there's one thing you do after graduating today, create some habit that makes it easier for you to get out of your bubble. Follow someone you disagree with on Twitter. Buy a subscription to a newspaper or a magazine that will tell you the most important news of the day. Install an app on your phone that doesn't just filter the news by your social network, but by what you need to read. Not only will these habits make you a better citizen, they'll make you a more interesting husband or wife, and certainly a more informed job applicant."

Jerry Brown

GOVERNOR OF CALIFORNIA

University of California, Berkeley

"I am not saying that the big issues are going to be settled easily, that greenhouse gases will soon be curbed or that inequality will be quickly reversed. But I do affirm, based on my experience, that people can exercise power wherever they are in society. Certainly not on every occasion but, at crucial moments, imaginative and bold people make a difference. ... You have the intellect. Make sure you have the will."

Melinda Gates

PHILANTHROPIST

Duke University

"Of course, all the hype about how connected you are has contributed to a counternarrative -- that, in fact, your generation is increasingly disconnected from the things that matter. The arguments go something like this: Instead of spending time with friends, you spend it alone, collecting friend requests. Rather than savoring your food, you take pictures of it and post them on Facebook.

I want to encourage you to reject the cynics who say technology is flattening your experience of the world. ...

Technology is just a tool. It's a powerful tool, but it's just a tool. Deep human connection is very different. It's not a tool. It's not a means to an end. It is the end -- the purpose and the result of a meaningful life -- and it will inspire the most amazing acts of love, generosity and humanity. ...

I want you to connect because I believe it will inspire you to do something, to make a difference in the world. Humanity in the abstract will never inspire you in the same way as the human beings you meet. Poverty is not going to motivate you. But people will motivate you."

David Gergen

POLITICAL COMMENTATOR

Gettysburg College

"We need your leadership in transforming a public school system where less than half acquire a college or vocational degree and the rest are left behind. We need your help in rebuilding a middle class in this country so that people can find jobs, feed their families and look after themselves without asking for outside help.

We need your help in closing the yawning gaps in inequality so that your lot in life is not determined by what you inherit but by what you earn. We need you to change our culture so that we no longer accept so many men and women having children out of wedlock -- dads as well as moms must step up and end this epidemic.

In the Civil War, the sons of affluent merchants fought alongside field hands who had left their plows. Together, they became brothers. We must restore that sense that we are all one family -- that we are in this together. And yours is the generation that can get us there."

Laura Linney

ACTRESS

Juilliard

"All of you are moving into a world ever ready to remind that you aren't in school anymore, a world that demands results quickly and cares very little about how you produce them. It's true, you are not in school anymore. But now, the school is in you. ...

I wish you perspective when situations or people seem more important than they really are, and the ability to detect those people or events who have much to offer but don't inherently draw your attention. In other words, charisma is not character. This is also very good dating advice.

I hope you never give anyone the power to tell anyone how to feel about your own work. That is your responsibility alone. Critics are in a different profession than we are. Don't look to them for your truth."

Bill McKibben

ENVIRONMENTALIST

Eckerd College

"This is an incredibly cheerful and celebratory day, and you've picked as your speaker someone whose most famous book has the title 'The End of Nature.' There are moments when I think my role in the world is essentially to be a professional bummer-outer. ...

We're here at the 50th Eckerd commencement -- if we don't get it right, the 100th commencement won't be right here because this will be underwater."

Stephen Colbert

POLITICAL SATIRIST

University of Virginia

"On the one hand, in Jefferson's public life as a founding father, we often see him as the embodiment of the white male patriarchy. But in his private life, he was known for, shall we say, embracing diversity -- very affirmative in his actions. ... You are his intellectual heirs. In fact, some of you may be his actual heirs -- we're still testing the DNA.

If you must find your own path, and we have left you no easy path, then decide now to choose the hard path that leads to the life and the world you want. And don't worry if we don't approve of your choices. In our benign self-absorption, I believe we have given you a gift, a particular form of independence, because you do not owe the previous generation anything. Thanks to us, you owe it to the Chinese."

education

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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