What Graduation Speeches Should Say but Don’t

There is a strong chance you will wind up miserable with no sense of purpose if you don't figure out one very important thing.

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The U.S. spends more on education than many other countries, yet it has one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the world. The problems of education are complicated, and fixing them is a long-term task. But somewhere near the heart of that effort, there has to be a better understanding of what really motivates people to succeed in their lives and to engage with the world around them. There are simply too many adults who actively dislike what they do and lack any sense of purpose in it.

There are, of course, many people who absolutely love their lives and feel they’re doing just what they were born to do. But the evidence of disengagement is the legions of people who are dull-eyed at work and do the minimum to get by. We pay a high price for this disaffection — in our schools, organizations and communities. Ironically, one of the root causes can be education itself.

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In my new book, I describe people who love what they do as being in their element. To begin with, they’re doing something for which they have a natural flair. It could be for business, the law, teaching, social work, music, carpentry, sport or working with animals. You name it. But being in your element is more than doing things you’re good at. To be in your element, you have to love the work too. As they say, “Find a job you love and you’ll never work another day in your life.”

An essential step in finding your element is to understand your talents, and this is where education so often goes astray. Schools often overlook the diversity of students’ talents because they’re typically focused on a very narrow view of academic ability. Students sit at their desks all day writing, calculating or doing low-grade clerical work. So-called nonacademic courses — in the visual and performing arts, physical education and many practical and “vocational” subjects — have much lower status. Consequently, students who come to life in these other disciplines and activities often find that their particular talents are marginalized or denied.

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This long-standing division between academic and nonacademic is being widened by the current emphasis on the STEM disciplines – science, technology, engineering and math. As a result of the fear of falling behind, many school districts have drastically cut programs in the arts, humanities, sports and practical subjects. This is poor educational policy and poor economics too. Important as the STEM disciplines are, they are only part of a properly balanced education and cover only a few of the many skills and passions on which successful economies actually depend.

It doesn’t have to be this way. I was recently at a meeting in Los Angeles on alternative-education programs. These are for young people who have dropped out of high school and are designed to re-engage them in education. They’re all different, but they have some common features.

One is that they aim to connect with the individual interests, talents and learning styles of each student. They also help them discover the things they’re good at that they love to do. These programs work because they treat education as a complex, personal process, not a sterile, standardized one. If all education were like that, there’d be no need for alternatives.

One of the myths of standardized education is that life is linear. A message we should give all young people is that it is not. Students are often steered away from courses they would like to take in school by well-meaning parents, friends or teachers who tell them they will never get a job doing that. Real life tells a different story, and there is often little relationship between what people study in school and what they do for the rest of their lives.

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You might imagine, for example, that engineers, mathematicians and scientists dominate the innovation-strategies leadership of companies in Silicon Valley. They don’t. A survey of more than 650 CEOs and heads of product engineering found that just over 90% had college degrees. Of those, only 4 of 10 had degrees in engineering or math. The other 60% had degrees in business, the arts or the humanities.

Katharine Brooks is director of liberal-arts career services at the University of Texas at Austin. She estimates that fewer than a third of the alumni who stay in touch with her are in careers that are directly related to their college studies. After college, most people find that they are interested in other things. Are they happy in their new choices? They are if they are fulfilling their passions, she says. “The saddest thing to me,” says Brooks, “is seeing someone take the job because it pays well and then spend all that money on toys to cheer themselves up for being so miserable in their jobs. The people who are doing what they love hardly feel they’re working at all, just living.”

Helping people find what they’re good at and love to do is the surest way to increase their engagement at work and promote a deeper sense of well-being and fulfillment in their lives. I’m not saying, of course, that if education helped everyone find their element, that would solve all the social and economic problems we face. But it would certainly help. And it’s much better than the alternative.


Education must evolve quickly. This is truly a case of us fiddling while our future burns.


Couldn't Time have gotten someone else to review this guy's book? ugh




valentine, comedian.....lol


"It is better to have a permanent income than to be fascinating." - Oscar Wilde


College speeches should say the following, as truth in advertising:

"You'll work twice as hard as my generation did for half the pay with no job security. My stock market account thanks you." - NY Times


mary.waterton like.author.displayName 1 Like

The dirty little secret that graduation speeches should say but don't:


You have been suckered.

owallis like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

I always quit reading articles after I see phrases like "in my new book."


students go to school though they don't know what its mean 

AaronKelley like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 5 Like

As a current engineering student, I would say the we have completely eliminated the ability for students who are not adept at college the ability to succeed in life.  Colleges are focused on rote memorization of formulas, strategy, ideas, etc. that have been developed by brilliant, and unique people in our society.  Most people do not have the capability or the will to try and understand what those unique people have discovered about our world.  Those people (the ones not involved in progressive science) should not be left behind because they aren't adept at formal education.  We should be looking at ways to improve our society through apprenticeships and meaningful, progressive on the job training so others may have a chance to be successful.  Just because a student can't understand how to apply physics, chemistry, or math doesn't mean they should be denied a chance at doing a technical job because they couldn't get a formal degree because of their ineptitude in a particular subject.



Hang in there Aaron and take as many 'lab courses' as possible.  That's where you may be allowed to venture outside the memorization level (complicated perhaps, but the lowest level of thinking) during your college years.  Graduate school is better, especially if you can find some type of CO-OP program with industry to help focus (and pay) for it.  Take a course in history too.  

Retired aeronautical engineer.


@AaronKelley As we turn more and more jobs over to robots there will be less and less for humans to do. More and more people  will compete for an ever shrinking number of jobs that can't yet be automated, causing wages to decline ever faster.

The requirement for a college degree is merely 'education inflation'. There aren't enough jobs left to employ everyone, so they need to use 'something' to get the piles and piles of resumes they get sent down to a manageable size. They have chosen to use education, and that's cost us over 1 trillion in student loan debt so far. That money is gone, most of it will never be paid back.

They'll use robots instead.



@AaronKelley I can't agree with you more on this.  There are so many very intelligent, hard-working, and passionate people who never get the chance simply because they are unable to go through college for any number of reasons.  I personally would rather have been given a lower-wage apprenticeship rather than having to work full-time and go to school full-time.  It's an exhausting process with no guarantees that it will pay off in the end.

tlee like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

Set aside the objection about whether or not a college degree offers employable skills.  The fundamental problem that I have with this article is a conflation of all levels of education from K-12 through University.  Advising a 5 year old to "follow/find their passion" has very different implications than advising a 20 year old or even a 30 year old to "follow/find their passion."  Moreover, some would argue that the line between a 5 year old and a 20 year old in today's society is sometimes rather blurred.  With all due respect, how many 20 year old philosophy majors are truly "passionate" about Philosophy in the same way that Damon Horowitz (featured in the referenced Washington Post article) was passionate about Philosophy when he took a sabbatical from his technical career to pursue a doctorate in Philosophy?  I am not suggesting that all Philosophy students (as an example department) are not serious and passionate.  But how many are pursuing a given discipline simply because it is less work and leaves more time for sports, parties, and the hedonistic lifestyle portrayed in Calvin and Hobbes (primary school), Fast Times at Ridgemont High (secondary school) or Animal House (post-secondary school).  Now return to the question of employ-ability.  I would argue that using a survey of tech CEOs to justify the demand for more Humanities majors is a red-herring.  How many tech CEO positions are there?  How many of those tech CEOs would hire an army of business, humanities, and other graduates to drive the engine of their tech company?  Setting aside passion, some things are "hard."  Referencing Gladwell and Blink, there is, at least in part, a self-reinforcing phenomenon here.  People "like" things that they are good at, and they are good at the things that they like.  However, certain positions may have a start-up cost that too few students today seem to be willing to pay.  The whole notion of deferred gratification.  Why suffer for years in order to develop the proficiency and passion for something when there is already something that you (think that you) have a passion for which takes no work.  The story of the ant and the grasshopper comes to mind.  The grasshopper was _good_ at playing music and dancing and having fun.  Last thought.  Paraphrasing from the movie Fame ... "you want Fame? well Fame costs and here's where you start paying."  I think that many kids these days want Fame.  However, it is not clear that anyone wants to "pay."  While the general intuition behind "following your passion" is valid, it seems to overlook the cost-side of the equation.  To say that "if you are truly passionate about something then it will never seem like work" seems to miss the reality that, Tiger parents not-withstanding, countless parents have endured in dragging their respective children to music class, ground ball fielding practice, and language school.


@tlee beautiful. I wanted to be a writer, but I bet you most people today can't even read your post all the way through, much less pay money to read a book. It's one thing to say 'follow your dreams' to a kid, it's quite another to actually buy their books about philosophy and find time to read it! I myself quit reading to play video games! So... glad to be working in I.T. now. Though with the college debt crisis, few people are still preaching the "do whatever makes you happy" clap trap that let so many physiology majors to a gaming career in their parent's basement. 

MichaelJohnAnthony like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

The reason we are putting emphasis on STEM is that we are deficient in those areas. I would also like to hear your argument as to how the arts stimulate the economy more than, say, having an awareness of the periodic table.


@MichaelJohnAnthony We're also woefully deficient in emotional awareness of self and others. That's best cultivated through the arts. The arts foster creative thinking, critical analysis, and higher-level thinking skills applicable to many domains. Arts stimulate the economy. People pay for concerts, musicians (and others) get paid, performers buy instruments and equipment, the technicians who make instruments buy parts, and so on. I don't think physics does a lot to stimulate the economy either and yet no one seems to have objections to people studying that.

reese.smith87 like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

I'm all for the arts, but you "don't think physics does a lot to stimulate the economy"?



He is talking about the ability to think, problem solve, and to be creative. The awareness of the periodic table is great and some will find their element in chemistry. However, creativity is the key to advancing ideas and exploring new possibilities.

rjplummersb like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 4 Like

My problem with advice like this is that the distribution of jobs bears no relation to the distribution of talents. Very few people are "in their" element in retail sales or food service compared to the number of jobs in this area.

I'd say a bigger problem are employers. Employers are so concerned about maximizing the current quarter's earnings that creating a workplace where people find "any sense of purpose" in their work isn't going to pay off in the next three months.

JoannaRusher like.author.displayName 1 Like

What I don’t understand though is, how a country spends a minimum of 11 years educating a child, to then accept that all that child is now capable of is, is menial work. So the drop-out heads for the check-out counter and unless she gets back into education formally or otherwise she is doomed for a life of ‘bleep, bleep’ ka-tching. Seems an awful waste of human resources and talents to me. The other question I have is, who will serve us at the checkout, drive the trucks and feed the threads if everyone is engaged in ‘their element”. That is assuming that checkout work etc is not most peoples’ idea of fulfilling employment. Should we, also, be looking at how to eradicate the menial jobs in order to create more meaningful ones? 


@JoannaRusher  I have also thought about who will drive the trucks and work the checkout.  The world needs ditch diggers as well as educated people.

KenKing like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

@icstupid @JoannaRusher  This is the crux of the problem, and why I completely disagree with the author. It is fairly simple math: There are not enough jobs for everyone to achieve their dream, and there are not enough people to fill all the needed jobs. It might not be 'fair' but it is pure demographics.  What the world needs to do is understand that carpenter's helpers, cashiers, and bus drivers are people too, and society needs to set up a system where these people can enjoy life as well. Not everyone gets to be Steve Jobs. Not everyone gets to live in a $2 million home.


We must have visionaries in every walk of life, who consider the dreams of everybody. Not just those who dream of stashing money in Ireland, Cayman Islands & stateless accounts. Forget 2 million dollar homes. We must start with those who could be allowed to dream of homes even less than $100K. Many people will be very happy to live in a debt-free home even just before they die. Just as many are happy to lie about the incomes, secret accounts and camouflage their crime in the coat of philanthropy. There were visionaries like Henry Ford who felt the need to pay their employees a decent wage, so that even Ford employees could some day dream of owning a car they themselves manufacture! These days that type of visionary is rare.


@KenKing @icstupid @JoannaRusher  Yeah that's exactly the problem. If everyone toddles off to 'find their element' surely that element will not be stacking shelves! But there is als the option to see the job as a means to an end, the end being 'the element'. eg. stack shelves for 40 hours a week, play guitar in band for 40 hours a week. There are after all 72 hours free per week, after sleep and 40 hours work. 
But I still think, going forward, is that we need to create better technologies to replace mundane work and create more meaningful and enjoyable jobs.


@KenKing @icstupid @JoannaRusher 'Enjoy their life on my dime'? Nope! I smell socialist propaganda asking me to give them half my money! Pay for college, make your own position, find a way. Others have.

rpearlston like.author.displayName 1 Like

@JoannaRusher There are and always will be people who find "menial" work to be to their liking and to their abilities.  After all, not everyone has an IQ over, say 110.  These people, although developmentally disabled, can still contribute in ways you feel might be demeaning or irrelevant to others.There will also always be people who are psychologically/emotionally unable to work at anything, or at anything as challenging as say. stocking shelves in a large store.

Your concerns aren't concerns at all - you've simply overlooked reality.

JoannaRusher like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

@rpearlston @JoannaRusher  I agree with you that the unskilled work is possibly fine for developmentally challenged. Bare in mind that only about 6% of the population is mentally challenged and that includes the elderly with dementia and Alzheimer's, and they are not in the work force. The vast majority of unskilled laborers are capable and smart and working well below their level of intelligence. There is much documented research on this to back that up. It just seems a waste to me, not an overlooked reality.

DeweySayenoff like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 4 Like

So, based on the number of disaffected workers with college degrees out there, and the number who will work in their field of study, the gist of the graduation speech is, "Congratulations, graduates!  You've blown four years of your life, and gone into extreme debt, on something you'll probably hate."

Clarifying the title a bit to make sense, it should be high school graduation speeches.  If this one is saved until after a college degree is obtained, it's going to be a touch pointless.