12 Biggest Lies We're Told in College Graduation Speeches


Commencement speeches are inspiring. They're filled with goosebump inducing anecdotes, brilliant metaphors and words of wisdom and advice that make you want to run out the door and chase your dreams down the block. And they all propagate the same bottom line message: The world is your oyster, go out there and make the life you are dreaming about. What are you waiting for?

As empowering as these messages are, the truth is that we are still the most under-employed generation, with 15% of 25 to 32-year-olds still living at home and many of us saddled with student loans and giving up dreams to pay the bills. That's not quite the picture of a brilliant future graduation speeches paint.  

The reality is things are tough, and while it's important to remain optimistic, it's also crucial to be realistic. Grads, as you head into the real world and away from those hallowed halls, here's the real talk behind some of those inspiring commencement speech platitudes.

1. "This diploma opens up new possibilities."

His oratorical duties require Barack Obama to fill the air with fluffy rhetoric, but this line just won't do. While the cost of a college degree continues to go up, the career certainty it brings marches steadily down. A college degree is only a condition (and in some cases, not even a necessary one) for success. For most of us, it's the minimum requirement for the jobs we want. It opens up new possibilities, but it no longer makes them probabilities.

2. "Follow your passion."

Most graduation speeches focus on the idea of following your passions. But the reality for a lot of 20-somethings is that we either have no idea what our passions are or we just not in a financial position to pursue them. In her 2009 commencement speech at Tulane, Ellen DeGeneres touched on the idea of post-grad confusion talking about her 19-year-old self saying, "by the time I was your age, I really thought I knew who I was but I had no idea."

While graduation speeches might encourage us to follow our passions, don't get constricted by what you think your passion is. Allow yourself the opportunity to change. You'll go through many evolutions before you become the person you want to be.

3. "The world is waiting for you to hammer it into shape."

Bono told the University of Pennsylvania class of 2004: "The world is more malleable than you think and it's waiting for you to hammer it into shape." Unfortunately, that's wishful thinking. 

When we sink into the reality of our first jobs, we realize that the world is not waiting for us and it never was. The world is an overcrowded elevator at 9 a.m., and we're the person blasting music through our headphones, holding coffee in one hand, a gym bag in the other and asking the person by the buttons if they can press 12. Hammering this world into shape is much harder than it sounds.

4. "Stay hungry. Stay foolish."

Steve Jobs ended his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford with a simple message: "Stay hungry. Stay foolish." While it may be realistic to stay hungry — for success, for happiness, for love — staying foolish, not so much. As the freshmen in life, we are already as foolish as they come. If we don't figure out how to navigate, to succeed and to play the game, we'll stay foolish and living in our parents basements forever.  

5. "You will never have more energy or enthusiasm, hair, or brain cells than you have today."

When Tom and Ray Magliozzi gave the 1999 commencement speech at MIT they told the graduating class: "You will never have more energy or enthusiasm, hair, or brain cells than you have today." While the last two parts of that sentence may be true, don't hold too dearly to the first half — it puts a lot of pressure on us.

The "go get 'em" attitude of graduation speeches assumes that if you're not immediately attacking post-grad life with gusto, then you're not reaching your full potential. Don't fall for that yet. Some great careers take time. Hillary Clinton didn't really start getting major recognition until she was 32, and J.K. Rowling was the same age when Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was published. We don't all peak at 22, and the things for which we have energy and enthusiasm will change as we set out to reach our potential. 

6. "The most unrealistic person in the world is the cynic, not the dreamer."

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"The most unrealistic person in the world is the cynic, not the dreamer," or at least that's what the environmentalist Paul Hawken told the University of Portland class of 2009.

Nobody likes the cynical member of the group, but a little pessimism is necessary in this 21st century world. Can you blame us for a little cynicism when our generation is facing the highest unemployment rates of any group of 25-32 year olds in recent history? A healthy mix of cynicism, reality and optimism is key. Don't lean too far in any direction and you'll be OK. 

7. "Tomorrow, in a very real sense, your life, the life you author from scratch on your own, begins."

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos told Princeton's graduating class of 2010 that life begins the moment we step off our college campus. Au contraire, life doesn't start when we graduate college life has been going on for quite some time.  

We've been authoring our own lives since we first started making our own decisions: which colleges to apply to and attend, what to major in, and what summer jobs or internships to pursue. Life after college is a new phase, but its a life influenced by experience you've already gathered and decisions you've already made. 

8. "Think about this: Think about NOT waiting your turn."

That's a nice thought — not waiting your turn — except in our entry-level lives, waiting our turns is the reality. Not to mention, our generation is always faulted for wanting too much too quickly, so this is a bit of mixed messaging.

The reality is, when you graduate college and enter the workforce, you're at the bottom of the food chain. The only way to move up is to learn the ropes, and that’s what you do while you're waiting your turn.

9. "The person you are is like nobody else on the planet."

Toni Morrison gave this advice to Wellesley's graduating class of 2014, and while genetically speaking or spiritually speaking this might be true, professionally speaking, not so much. The job market is as competitive as it's ever been and standing out from the pack is harder than ever. It's not a lost cause to market yourself like no one else on the planet, but it will definitely take a lot of creativity. 

10. "Things are changing now and it's in your generation that we're seeing this."

Meryl Streep told Barnard's 2010 graduates that the era of change is now. While it may be empowering to think so and to believe that we're the special ones who get to experience this revolution, we're not. Things are always changing, and our generation won't be the first or last to see and act on it.

11. "Imagine immensities, don't compromise and don't waste time."

That was artist and interviewer Debbie Millman's advice to the graduating class of San Jose State University. But compromise is the basis of all lasting relationships and often of many successful careers. We shouldn't get stuck in our ways nor should we let the opinions of other people muddy our own; the common ground is compromise.

Also: Waste some time. It's fun and makes hard work more rewarding. 

12. "On a day like today, you might feel exhilarated like you've just been shot out of a cannon at the circus and even invincible. Don't ever forget that incredible feeling."

Google CEO Larry Page gave this invincibility advice to the University of Michigan's 2009 graduating class. The truth is, nobody should feel invincible upon college graduation. Graduation is the definition of bittersweet — it's exciting, but it's also sad and scary. You've spent the past four years being fostered by people who want to help you succeed, and suddenly you're thrown into the unknown.

Wherever you're going, you're not cannon-balling there. You're strapping yourself into a roller coaster of transition and it could take decades to get where you want to go.