Commencement Speech Lessons that Help Us Connect, Listen and Learn

This is graduation season and I love the commencement speeches that foster a great sense of hope for the future. They also offer lessons for the work that I do with cultural and arts institutions. In this week’s blog, I am sharing excerpts from five speeches that I believe offer important points I can apply to my work in the fields of community engagement, marketing and audience development.

One of the most hailed speeches of the season so far was given by Hamdi Ulukaya, founder, chairman and CEO of Chobani Greek yogurt. Mr. Ulukaya is a Turkish émigré to the U.S. and world-renowned entrepreneur, who has been praised for giving his employees a stake in the company. He gave the keynote address at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton MBA graduation ceremony. Among the points Mr. Ulukaya made:

If you want to fly high, in business or in life, you’ve got to keep your feet on the ground, and stay rooted to see what matters the most.

“If you believe in the people you work with and listen to them, and learn from them, and give them a reason to believe in you, everything is possible.”

“Acknowledging the wisdom and experience of a forklift operator or security guard with 30 years on the job doesn’t diminish your own experience. Acknowledging the sacrifice of others that enabled you to be in this position does not diminish the sacrifices you made on your own.”

“Ask others for advice, no matter their jobs. And listen, really listen, to their answers.”

 I believe it’s important to have both humility and appreciation when doing outreach to prospective audiences. I once worked with a museum that sought to engage the African-American community as patrons. When my company conducted a focus group, many commented about the warmth they felt from the African-American security guard, who was cheerful, engaging and helpful. But some of the docents weren’t welcoming at all. An important component of our work is to ensure that the staff on the frontlines represents and can translate our vision to welcome all audiences.  When you extend an invitation to the audience, be sure to remember what matters most: their total experience—from the moment they walk through your doors until the moment they walk out again.

And speaking of listening, that was the main point of the commencement address given by Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, oncologist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the book, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, at the University of Southern California. Dr. Mukherjee says listening is a “uniquely human capacity” that takes three forms: being empathetic with others; listening to the past, and listening to nature. He noted:

“It is impossible to ignore that we have stopped listening to each other. Or, for that matter, that we have stopped listening to natural laws.”

And then he went on to say:

“The word ‘listen’ can be rearranged into ‘silent…(and) silence is the absolute prerequisite of listening.”

The purpose of community engagement is to connect, listen and learn, in hopes of creating a mutually beneficial and long-term relationship. That can only occur when we’re willing to hear what others have to say to us, even if it’s painful to listen. Sometimes the message is communicated in what’s unsaid. Sometimes silence from the community leaders also is telling us something. We have to develop the skill to recognize and understand what’s being expressed, whether verbally or through silence.

Pulitzer Prize-winning New Yorker magazine contributor Ronan Farrow gave the keynote address to the graduates of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, where he urged them to stand up for their principles:

More than ever we need people to be guided by their own senses of principle—and not the whims of a culture that prizes ambition, and sensationalism, and celebrity, and vulgarity, and doing whatever it takes to win. Because if enough of you listen to that voice–if enough of you prove that this generation isn’t going to make the same mistakes as the one before–then doing the right thing won’t seem as rare, or as hard, or as special.”

We are living in an age of fast-paced whimsy, driven by whatever social media says is “trending.” The truth is “trending” rarely is able to illuminate our inner lives and enrich our emotional world in the same way as arts and culture. “Trending” is rarely able to widely or measurably impact the quality of our lives; the scope of our education; foster the improvement of our health and well-being or facilitate peaceful engagement and interactions. That’s why it’s so important for those of us in the business of promoting the value of culture and the arts remain true to our principles and the need to expand access to these life-affirming influences to the broadest audience possible.

Two-time Olympic Gold medalist and retired US Soccer star Abby Wambach gave the commencement address at Barnard College. She reminded the graduates that no matter what their best intention, they could still fall short of their goals. However, she implored them, don’t be defeated by setbacks:

“Failure is not something to be ashamed of, it’s something to be powered by. Failure is the highest octane fuel your life can run on. You gotta learn to make failure your fuel.

I learned that in order to become my very best—on the pitch and off—I’d need to spend my life letting the feelings and lessons of failure transform into my power. Failure is fuel. Fuel is power. We must embrace failure as our fuel instead of accepting it as our destruction.

This is an invaluable lesson – not just for our field, but also for our personal lives. Every campaign we create may not be wildly successful. But if we allow ourselves to truly learn from our experiences, to evaluate our shortcomings, we will be empowered with the tools we need to do our very best the next time. Self-reflection is the key to transformation and growth. I am reminded of the time I was working on a play by a Cuban-American playwright and promoting it to the Puerto Rican community. I couldn’t understand why there was no response. Then, one of the ushers who was Latinx explained that there are political nuances and sensitivities within the Latino community that are very important to understand. What was so unique for me about this experience that I didn’t know what I didn’t know. This underscores the value of surrounding yourself with people who do know; people who also are respected by their community.

Finally, Jesmyn Ward, who has twice won the National Book Award for her novels, urged the graduates of Tulane University to be both persistent and patient, because achieving one’s dream requires “constant work, constant study and constant risk-taking.” She went on to say:

“Hold your dream tightly to you and do everything you can to realize it, within reason. Take a step that will lead you toward the realization of your dream, and then take another, and another, and another.”

Most of us in this field are engaged in this work because we have both hope and a vision that the arts can transform the world. I am grateful for Ms. Ward’s reminder that hope alone is not enough. We must take action; we must be persistent, we must work really hard, and no matter what, we have to continue to hold fast to our dreams of creating a new reality. Let’s dig deep and apply these messages, wherever we may find ourselves, in order to deliver dynamic results. Stay rooted. Keep your feet on the ground. Listen with all your senses. Don’t be afraid of failure and use it to fuel the next step. Always remain hopeful and hold on to your vision.