Quarantine-Style Commencement Lessons

It’s graduation season and a lot of high school and college graduates have been stuck with the unfortunate experience of missing out on their chance to walk the stage and celebrate together. That culminating experience is a rite of passage, an indication that all of your hard work for the last number of years was worth it. Let’s be honest though, how much do you really remember from your commencement ceremonies? For me the strongest memories are of the friends I celebrated with and receiving my diploma. All of those well-planned speeches, with amazingly inspirational words of wisdom, who remembers any of that stuff?  

Luckily for us there is the internet!! After hearing President Obama’s virtual commencement speech this past weekend I went back and listened to one of my favorite commencement speeches.  I’ve watched and listened to a lot of these over the years, Ellen’s might just be the best. It’s short, it’s funny, and it has a great message.

Ellen DeGeneres (Tulane, 2009): If for no other reason, you should watch this because Ellen is funny and you’ll laugh (which is especially good these days). Aside from that though, Ellen manages to inspire us with great stories. My favorite part of her speech is: “It was so important for me to lose everything because I found out what the most important thing is, is to be true to yourself. Ultimately, that’s what’s gotten me to this place. I don’t live in fear, I’m free; I have no secrets and I know I’ll always be OK, because no matter what, I know who I am.” 

Be true to yourself, don’t compromise who you are because someone else says that you should be different. “Live your life with integrity.” In times of uncertainty, we can only be sure of who we are and what we stand for. Look inside yourself, reaffirm what it is you believe, and stand for what is right. I’ve realized, after rewatching this yesterday, that I’ve been doing this a lot lately. I’ve been questioning myself, who I am, what I stand for, and what is most important to me. I’ve shared my professional life as an open book for the last seven-plus years via my blog and twitter. I’ve learned and grown over this time, my philosophies and priorities have changed, but at the end of the day I’ve worked hard to know myself as an educator. Whether through the many forms of feedback I seek or through self-reflection, I’m constantly evaluating who I am and what I stand for, so that I can be true to myself.  Thank you Ellen for the reminder!

I mentioned President Obama’s virtual commencement speech from this past Saturday, it too is worth a listen (it’s even shorter than Ellen’s). Speaking to the high school Class of 2020, President Obama spoke about the current pandemic situation. He discussed the sad reality of the impact that this pandemic will have on everyone, especially those who were already struggling the most. He also reminded us that we’ve got a long way to go as leaders, “It’s also pulled the curtain back on another hard truth, something that we all have to eventually accept once our childhood comes to an end. All those adults that you used to think were in charge and knew what they were doing? Turns out that they don’t have all the answers. A lot of them aren’t even asking the right questions. So, if the world’s going to get better, it’s going to be up to you.”

I particularly like the second to last sentence of this quote, “A lot of them aren’t even asking the right questions.”  As an educational leader I realize that I don’t have all the answers, in fact I pride myself on not always needing to have the answer…it’s something I’ve worked on a lot throughout my career. Early on as a leader, I thought I always had to solve the problem right away and if I didn’t have the answer, I was a failure…boy was I wrong! I’ve learned that asking the right questions is much more important than having any of the answers. Having “an answer” is nice but all too often, the first answer is rarely the “best answer”. Asking the right questions helps reveal potential pitfalls, blindspots, and inefficiencies. Problem solving is never straight forward, it takes conversations, iterations, revisions, and ultimately lots of questions to get to a “best answer.” It takes courage to slow down, ask more questions, and be okay with not having an answer all the time. Be courageous, what questions will you ask?

Whether you can remember your commencement speakers as though they were yesterday or whether you’re like me and have absolutely no clue what was said during your graduation ceremonies (to be fair I haven’t walked the stage in over 20 years as I skipped both of my college graduations…I’ve promised my mom I’ll walk for my PhD), take a few minutes, we all know you’ve got the time right now, to listen to the speeches above and think about how you can apply the lessons those speakers are trying to impart upon the graduates.

Learn about yourself and seek the right questions to ask (and then ask them!) 

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