Will Ferrell and Sunscreen… Thinking About Graduation Speeches

It’s graduation season at high schools and colleges across the country. The ill-fitting, stuffy polyester gowns have been purchased, the weird square cardboard caps have been decorated and tickets to the ceremony doled out to family members who eagerly await the opportunity to sit in a crowed gym, arena or theater - in often sweltering temps - to see their loved ones walk across a stage. While some graduation ceremonies can be painfully long and boring, others are imbibed with the levity and air of celebration the occasion warrants. In fact, commencement day is my favorite day of the year- and this is coming from someone who has the unenviable task of announcing the names of the graduates at our ceremony. I love seeing the students’ enthusiasm. I love the smiles on their faces and the beaming pride of parents and grandparents. It really is spectacular.

One thing that can make or break a graduation ceremony is the speaker invited to give the commencement address. This person can set the tone for the entire event. Will it be humorous? Serious? Critical? Will the person be able to convey the importance of the day, while also encourage graduating students toward future successes? Will the person keep their comments to a reasonable amount of time or ramble on? This last question can be of particular importance.

This year, Will Ferrell’s speech at the University of Southern California seemed to hit all the right notes and the video is being widely circulated on social media (it’s worth a watch).

As one might expect, Ferrell was funny- he even ended by singing “I will always love you” to the crowd. But he also struck a serious tone, remarking: “No matter how cliché it may sound you will never truly be successful until you learn to give beyond yourself. Empathy and kindness are the true signs of emotional intelligence...” Also, he recalled that his path had many unexpected turns.

Ferrell’s speech had me thinking of another “address.” Twenty years ago, Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich wrote a hypothetical commencement address to the class of 1997 that went viral before “going viral” was even a thing. Two years later, the talented Baz Luhrman took her text and produced an incredibly successful spoken word song titled, Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen). A college student at the time, I vividly remember driving down the Pacific Coast Highway in the Spring of 1999 listening to this 5-minute song that seemed to reflect where I was in life. The song was catchy, fun, and chock-full of good advice- reminding the listener, for example, not just to wear sunscreen but to “live in New York City, but leave before it makes you hard” and to “live in Northern California, but leave before it makes you soft.”

So, as my piece of graduation season advice, might I suggest that you go forth and check out this video.

What is the best graduation advice you received?