…Commencement speeches typically draw on timeless themes of optimism, goodness, and altruism. The two most frequent messages…analyzed [by researchers] were “Help Others” and “Do the Right Thing.” Next on the list in descending order of frequency were “Expand Your Horizons,” “Be True to Yourself,” “Never Give Up,” “Appreciate Diversity,” “Cherish Special Others,” and “Seek Balance.” Pamela B. Paretsky, PhD, Psychology Today
Most of the commencement quotes below do fall into the categories cited above. This should not be surprising, though, as they’ve all come directly from the mental health field.
Psychiatrist Neel Burton (Psychology Today) wrote about his “dream graduation speech.” Just a sampling of his 21 points about commencement talks:
- Keep on asking ‘silly’ questions. People may look at you funny, but at least you thought of the questions.
- Be very sensitive to your feelings and intuitions. They are your unconscious made conscious. And they are almost always right.
- Don’t be envious. Whenever you come across someone who is better or more successful than you are, you can react either with envy or with emulation. Envy is the pain that you feel because others have good things; emulation is the pain that you feel because you yourself do not have them. This is a subtle but critical difference. Unlike envy, which is useless at best and self-defeating at worst, emulation is a good thing because it makes us take steps towards securing good things.
- If you don’t appear to want something, you are far more likely to get it. More importantly, when you do want something, be sure that it is worthy of you. And remember: we are rich not only by what we have, but also and mostly by what we do not.
- When you do find success or, better still, happiness, don’t expect anyone to be pleased for you. In fact, many people will actively resent you—even, sometimes, friends and family. Some people are small. Just accept it as collateral and move on.
Psychologist Scott Barry Kauffman, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, spoke at last year’s commencement and said the following, among other things:
…Do not be scared of having your mind changed. Do not be scared of being wrong. Be aware of the fact that no one person has the truth. The truth requires multiple perspectives, and you can learn something from virtually anyone– even if you vehemently disagree with them. You will find that this way of having love for others– and even with yourself– will bring you many riches, and a much more fulfilling life…
…Trust yourself to abandon a goal or even distance yourself from people if they are no longer appropriate for your growth, and you are no longer appropriate for their growth. Constantly consult your deep values when making choices about which goals to adopt. You, and you alone, have the power to revise your goals as you learn more about yourself and your unique place in this world. Look: You will rarely regret moving in a direction that feels right to you, but you do risk living a life with a lot of regret if you constantly make choices that pull you way from who you really are. As the great humanistic psychotherapist Carl Rogers, who I have a great affinity for, once noted, ‘trust the totality of your experience. It’s often much wiser than your intellect’.
Finally, psychologist Adam Grant went against conventional wisdom in this year’s commencement speech at Utah State University (Business Insider). A few excerpted quotes:
Sometimes quitting is a virtue.
Grit doesn’t mean “keep doing the thing that’s failing.” It means “define your dreams broadly enough that you can find new ways to pursue them when your first and second plans fail.”
Sometimes resilience comes from gritting your teeth and packing your bags. Other times it comes from having the courage to admit your flaws.
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