Aaron Sorkin's College Commencement Speech: 5 Memorable Quotes


It’s the season of commencement speeches, where everyone accomplished and famous provides insights and advice for the class of 2012. Aaron Sorkin’s May 13th graduation speech at Syracuse University blended the humorous, the realistic, and the inspiring. It’s a powerful reminder of all that we have accomplished so far, and all we still have left to learn about life. It is reminiscent of his characters and their many speeches, which blended idealism and calls to action. 

While listening to, and then reading, his speech this past weekend, a few pieces of advice stayed with me. In typical Sorkin style, the advice often comes in the form of the positive and inspirational:

“We have this in common, you and I — we want to be able to earn a living doing what we love. Whether you’re a writer, mathematician, engineer, architect, butcher, baker or candlestick maker, you want an invitation to the show.” 

He’s right – we, as college graduates, do want an invitation to the show and we want to love every minute of our lifelong performance. We want to wake up each morning inspired by the world, our place in it, and the journey before us. In fact, often times we want to write the script; but let’s be frank, it is unlikely to be as good as The West Wing. Ever. 

“Develop your own compass, and trust it. Take risks, dare to fail, remember the first person through the wall always gets hurt.” 

The people who charge forward will often get hurt. The person with the idea or who leads this charge is bound to feel the impact. But there are two key parts of this advice that we all wrestle with, regardless of age. The first is that even if we know our compass, we often wonder if we really trust ourselves to take a step into the unknown or the unpopular. Recent graduates may have a compass, but do they trust it? How many of us trust the compass enough to stick our necks out? The second issue is do we dare to fail? Failure is acceptable, according to Sorkin, but we are not a society or generation that deals well with failure. Failure means bad grades, which means you aren’t as competitive getting into school. That real world is about a compass, a direction, and understanding how to experience and respond to failure. Failure means that at least you tried. So try.

"… it seems to me that more and more we’ve come to expect less and less of each other, and that’s got to change. Today is May 13th and today you graduate and the rules are about to change, and one of them is this: Decisions are made by those who show up. Don’t ever forget that you’re a citizen of this world.

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. You’re too good for schadenfreude, you’re too good for gossip and snark, you’re too good for intolerance — and since you’re walking into the middle of a presidential election, it’s worth mentioning that you’re too good to think people who disagree with you are your enemy. Unless they went to Georgetown, in which case, they can go to hell.” 

This is a long segment, but it is one of my favorites. It encapsulates two important ideas. The first is that we are all citizens of a vast planet, that as individuals, we are part of a global community and that it is okay to have expectations of each other. Showing up is not just about getting to class on time, it means that you are part of the decision-making process and the resulting outcomes. Our generation needs to show up. The second idea is that as a citizen, there are things we each can do every day for one another, treating each other with respect and civility. It means that each of us has the power to do things that lift a collective, that benefit each other and that contribute to a stronger fabric of society. I love that – and it doesn’t cost you anything. Individually, we are responsible for our behavior. Living in the beltway, his mention of the upcoming election hit home; it’s difficult to avoid getting caught up in that enemy mentality. But I am first and foremost a citizen, an American citizen, but a global one as well. 

“Rehearsal’s over. You’re going out there now, you’re going to do this thing. How you live matters. You’re going to fall down, but the world doesn’t care how many times you fall down, as long as it’s one fewer than the number of times you get back up.”

While I was in school, I didn’t always consider college to be a rehearsal. It seemed painfully real to me. Now, it really is about getting back up. College graded you on words, papers, arguments, and performance, but the world is make or break. Every decision has a consequence that determines your path, the play button is back, and the world beckons. Your life is not defined solely by career accomplishments, you will be judged based on character, tenacity, and performance on multiple fronts. We cannot know how many times we will fall, but we cannot stay down.

“So I wish for you a moment — a moment soon — when you really put the bat on the ball, when you really get a hold of one and drive it into the upper deck, when you feel it.” 

Yes, yes, I wish that for everyone I know and will meet. I wish for every young person to feel that sensation. I don’t play sports, but I’ve even felt that once. It’s a powerful feeling to connect the bat to the ball and watch it soar; that anaology applies to life moments, when things fall into place and effort pays off. This spring, another well-educated group will join the workforce and the real world. They will experience growing pains and possibly a healthy amount of denial. But Sorkin’s themes and advice speak to those and more. Do what you love, trust yourself and pursue your dreams, be a citizen and be respectful of others, get back up if you fall, and every now and then, stand on the plate, plant your feet, watch the ball come towards you and drive it home.