Your end-of-year assignment

Around this time of year, when people are graduating from high school and college, I like to have a look at graduation speeches. Most graduation speeches are not very good--how could they be?--but that doesn't mean that there aren't some really great ones. Over the past week I've been perusing this year's best (Chance the Rapper and Oprah seem to be the hits so far, but there are still plenty to go) and the best from last year. 

And here's your assignment: draft your own graduation speech. Don't worry, you won't have to deliver it, or even write it. But give it some good thought and make an outline. Do this whether you're a graduating senior, a soon-to-be sophomore, or a been-there-done-that parent. 

Here are the ingredients to a good graduation speech.

You need a main idea, a big idea. This is the part of your speech that is supposed to inspire and encourage. If you could give one piece of advice about life to an audience, what would it be?

For example, last year at Virginia Tech Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg spoke about resilience, about building up your own resilience and fostering it in others around us.

A controversial graduation speaker choice, the Dalai Lama, talked at U.C. San Diego about the connection between inner peace and world peace.

So that's the main part of your assignment. Think about what sort of wisdom you'd want to pass on. It doesn't need to be original (and probably can't be), but it needs to be heart-felt.

You're also going to need some bits of medium or smaller-sized wisdom. Something that fits well into a list. These aren't the Big Inspirational Ideas as much as the Important Habits that help lead to the big ideas.

Last year at Dartmouth, CNN's Jake Tapper started out with "the quick and easy stuff," reminding the audience that they could go back and find it on YouTube later: "Always write thank-you notes. Be a big tipper. Always split Aces and Eights. Floss. Call your folks. Invest in a good mattress. Shine your shoes. Don’t tweet, post, Instagram, or email anything you wouldn’t feel comfortable seeing on the front page of The New York Times. Be nice to seniors. Be nice to children. Remember birthdays. Never miss an opportunity to charge an electronic device. Use two-step verification. Shake it off. Shake it off. Stretch before exercising. Stretch after exercising. Exercise. Never play keno. Never drink airplane coffee. Never pay $200 for a pair of jeans. Never wear jean shorts; and No one has ever had fun on a paddleboat."

At Tulane last year, Helen Mirren kept her Big Inspirational Idea to just one sentence--“Whether you’re in the French Quarter or the Oval Office, no good can ever come from tweeting at 3 a.m.”--and spent most of her time explaining "Helen's Top 5 Rules for a Happy Life" and a list of do's and don'ts.

The third thing you'll want for your graduation speech is to do something memorable. Think about what your talents are, and think about what you do that is funny, and think about what your vulnerabilities are. And then put them together. Will Ferrell broke out into song. Ron Chernow did the opening rap from Hamilton at Lafayette. Chernow is a professor nearing 70 years old and not much of a rapper, but he wrote the book Hamilton is based on, so he can get away with it. 

That's all you need: a big inspirational main idea, some smaller pieces of practical advice, and something that will stand out. So...why am I asking you to do this? Because I want you to follow your own advice. On most days there's a gap between what we think of as the most important things and what we treat as the most important. Some days the gap is tiny and we feel great, some days it's huge. On most days there's a gap between the habits we would encourage others to adopt and the habits we actually practice. On most days there's a gap between the way we want people to remember us and what we actually do. 

So let this exercise be a reminder. And when you do it again next year, have even more--and even better--things to say based on a year's worth of good living.

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