The Anti-Graduation Speech

Many of you probably sat through a graduation ceremony recently. There’s a chance that the commencement address was deeply profound and you walked away with new insight on how to live your life.

There’s also a chance that you heard a bunch of strung-together clichés that sounded great but didn’t mean much of anything.

Can we talk about the fact that the stars are *significantly* farther away from the moon? If you can't even hit the moon, you'll probably just burn up in Earth's atmosphere on the way back down.

Can we talk about the fact that the stars are *significantly* farther away than the moon? If you can’t even hit the moon, you’ll probably just burn up in Earth’s atmosphere on the way back down.

I was in choir during high school, which meant I showed up at three graduation ceremonies to sing the sappy graduation song. My junior year, here’s a snippet from the chosen anthem:

Each day I live, I want to be,
A day to give the best of me.
I’m only one, but not alone.
My finest day is yet unknown.
I’ve lived to be the very best.
I want it all, no time for less.

I want one moment in time,
When I’m more than I thought I could be.
When all of my dreams are a heartbeat away,
And the answers are all up to me.


To the surprise of all of you, I’m sure, I was a bit of a cynical sixteen-year-old. So I re-wrote the song with my own lyrics, including:

Each day I live I want to be,
A day to prove my apathy.
The only mark I’ll leave at all,
Is writing on a bathroom stall.
I sit in class, don’t learn a thing,
I like my job at Burger King.

Give me one moment in time,
When I’m just what they said I would be.
When all of my dreams are in video games,
And my values are found on T.V.

There was a reverse key change and everything. It was great.

Okay, so the execution wasn’t terribly gracious, but I remember the feeling of frustration I had when faced with motivational quotes and choruses. They seemed so…empty. Even then, I knew I didn’t want the answers to be all up to me. I had seen some very miserable people who lived to be the very best. And I was pretty sure that even if I got it all, it wouldn’t make me happy. There was always something missing.

That same year, I watched The Dead Poets Society for the first time, and I thought the same thing about Robin William’s dramatic Carpe Diem speech. Especially with the ending, I was left staring at the screen wondering, “Seriously? Seize the day? That’s what we’re supposed to take out of this? Seize it for what purpose? Don’t you see where that can end, if you make your own personal happiness the entire goal?”


It should be said, though, that I still loved the movie.

It should be said, though, that I still loved the movie.

A lot of motivational speeches in graduations or in fiction are so very close to being right…but they’re just slightly off. Or unbalanced. Or not really grounded in anything. So, to any recent graduates out there, or those who suffered through a saccharine speech or two, here is my commentary of a few typical sentiments:

  • Don’t follow your dreams. They are not going to spiral gently ahead of you, lighting your path with a golden glow for you to reach out and touch. Sometimes, you have to drag your dreams kicking and screaming with you. Sometimes you have to work for them, and set goals and follow budgets and do the unglamorous tasks to get there. Sometimes your dreams change, and sometimes you have to choose between two of your dreams, and all of it is hard and it is still worth it.
  • It’s not just the journey, it’s also the destination. And the whole point of the journey is the destination anyway, so why do we even pretend it’s a good idea to wander around aimlessly without a sense of purpose? You don’t need to have everything figured out. It’s a process. But I honestly don’t understand how people have a sense of perspective without God. Seize the day, sure…but seize it to the glory of God, or else you’ll find yourself wondering why you don’t feel happy when everyone told you that you were supposed to.
  • You don’t need to change the world. The number of people who have actually done that is super small, and not much about our planet is actually capable of being changed in one lifetime. Don’t be afraid to make your goal a little smaller. Love the people around you, do the tasks in front of you with everything you have, pray for opportunities to do what God wants you to do…which may not, in fact, change the entire course of history. That doesn’t mean your life won’t matter.
  • Your success is not 98 ¾ % guaranteed. Despite what Dr. Seuss says, you will fail. You will fail, you will want things you can’t have, you will hurt people (accidentally and intentionally), and you will be hurt (accidentally and intentionally). We are broken people in a broken world…but that’s a really good thing and not depressing at all (really, I promise). Because it’s meant to remind us that only God is good, and that one day we’ll be with him in a place where we won’t have to be tired or lonely or ashamed, where we won’t have to fear failure anymore.
  • Be yourself…except when your self is arrogant or selfish or fearful or melodramatic or whiny or rude, which is pretty much all the time. Then don’t be yourself. Be like Christ—or, more accurately, pray that God would help you live out who you are in Christ.

I don’t mean to universally make fun of all graduation speech wisdom. There is a lot of truth in reminders to take risks, resist conformity, live boldly, and whatever else they usually tell you to do. But make sure it’s not either empty—held in place with nothing but fancy propaganda and self-esteem chatter—or exhausting—entirely depending on you and your checklists. It has to mean something.


      1. It definitely was–I graduated with a bunch of other homeschoolers and had a great time. And none of the cliches popped up in the speech (except maybe the changing-the-world one, and the speaker did say that it might be in very humble ways). =D So win-win all around.

  1. I’ve heard my fair share of empty, saccharine graduation speeches, but I was privileged in my year to hear a good one. The speaker, a mild teacher we called Mr. G, stood up nervously and said, “Dios le pague. [This means, “May God repay you,” a warm thank-you in Spanish.] See ya later.”

    Then he sat down.

    We applauded wildly, only for Mr. G to stand up again and add, “I know that’s the speech you all want to hear, but I have a little more.” The rest of his speech, though not as funny, was probably the best I’ve heard at any graduation.

    Sadly, Mr. G’s speech was an exception to the wretched rule that graduation speeches are full of sentimental fluff. You make good points, Amy. Thanks for your honesty.

      1. Mr. G reminded the graduates that life after high school would sometimes be difficult and confusing, but Christ would always be there, even when we couldn’t see him. (I graduated from a Christian school, so faculty were free to share religious views.) My memory is abysmal, but I remember his speech thanks to a neat optical illusion he used to illustrate his point.

        1. Gotcha. Sounds like it avoided the fluff being complained about here. Amazing how that works! You talk about deep things and it tends to stick with people. 🙂

        2. Yep, Adam, that’s why I didn’t use my college graduation as an example, because it did have substance to it. Glad even your high school graduation speech was meaningful! We need more of them like that out there.

  2. that was absolutely beautiful. 🙂 your insights are refreshing, and i like the way you look at the side of the coin that most people ignore/pretend not to see. i’m glad we’re friends.

  3. One of the trickiest things about graduation speeches is that 99% of the audience either doesn’t listen, or doesn’t WANT to listen. Especially the students, who are just ready to be done with the whole process. So the words are almost entirely meaningless. Yet people still get up and give the same ones, over and over, in the hope of connecting with that 1%. Graduation speeches are really given to the people who have long since graduated, to nod their heads and say “Yep, that’s true, wish I knew that back then!”

    It’s certainly complicated.

    I did want to touch on one other thing:

    “But I honestly don’t understand how people have a sense of perspective without God.”

    No one has a sense of perspective without God, it’s just many people worship things other than Him. When it’s all about us, we take that spot. Our happiness becomes our god. Money becomes our god, or “success” or even helping others. Whatever our greatest passion is takes the place of our Creator, which is why the Bible warns against it. Then we build our world, perspective, and schedules around whatever god we’ve created for ourselves.

    But no one has any perspective without worshiping something, in my opinion. A lot of people just don’t want to face calling it worship.

    When you come to the point where you’re not fulfilled by the god you’ve set up, you start looking for another. The hope then becomes you look in the right place this time. 🙂 (And if not, God will keep waiting patiently. He’s very good at waiting. He’ll wait your whole life if that’s what you want.)

    1. Love these thoughts, JK Rikki! It’s true that some speeches with actual good advice are probably better received by the audience. Mine, however, was full of bad advice (like listening to your “inner light”), which can sometimes be amusing, but not especially helpful.

      And I love your perspective on worship! I actually wrote about that in my next post. Good stuff!

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