Saturday, November 25, 2017
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Trigaux: For the class of 2017, words of wisdom that couldn't hurt any of us to hear

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At graduation time, the buffet table of advice from commencement speakers seems endless. And often indigestible.

There are exceptions.

"Whether you are in Tipitina's, the French Quarter or the Oval Office, no good can ever come from tweeting at 3 a.m.," chided actor Helen Mirren to her rapt audience at Tulane University.

"We build resilience into the people we love. And we build it together, as a community. That's called collective resilience," Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg told Virginia Tech grads. "It's an incredibly powerful force — and it's one that our country and our world need a lot more of right about now."

"I will always love you, will always love you, Class of 2017," crooned comedian Will Ferrell to the University of Southern California in his best Whitney Houston imitation.

To the Class of 2017, university commencement speakers in recent weeks offered their own styles of counsel and criticism — from mocking to consoling to sheer cornball — on campuses across Florida and the country.

Some of the most important themes this year? Embrace the faster pace of technological change — but do not do so blindly. Take a stand when you see things going wrong. And the stronger your sense of purpose in life, the more likely you are to be happy.

Typical of commencement speeches, much of what was said this graduation season was painfully predictable. Some of it was maudlin and philosophical. Still other speakers attempted to offer practical tips to grads leaving the comfortable college fold after four (or five or six or more years) for the harsher world of job hunting, high rents and, for many, heavy student debts.

Still, there is much to praise in the content of some commencement speeches. You just have to look hard and listen harder for a few uplifting gems to slip out from speakers' mouths.

I've done you a small favor of listening to a whole bunch of commencement remarks made this spring in college towns and university cities across the country. Amid too many calls to "follow your passion" and "be true to yourself" are more compelling remarks that might resonate with graduates both with or without a clue as to their next steps.

Technology leaders running some of the most transformative companies on the planet delivered notable remarks: Facebook CEO/founder Mark Zuckerberg spoke at Harvard and Apple CEO Tim Cook spoke at MIT.

(There's an amusing YouTube video that shows Zuckerberg earlier this year asking Microsoft founder and billionaire Bill Gates for advice about what to say to the Harvard graduates. "They know we actually didn't graduate, right?" Zuckerberg asks Gates, who delivered the Harvard commencement speech 10 years ago. Both attended but did not graduate from Harvard.)

"I'm honored to be here with you today because, let's face it, you accomplished something I never could," Zuckerberg, 33, says in his opening remarks as the youngest-ever commencement speaker at Harvard, prompting plenty of laughter. Then he got more serious, calling for graduates to embrace immigration, trade and a global world view in a time of rising nationalism and authoritarianism. He also urged graduates to reduce the growing gap between the poor and the wealthy, using himself as a case in point.

Gates, in remarks (not at a commencement event) made earlier this year at Columbia University, was asked what three fields he would pursue if he were just getting started. His picks: artificial intelligence, energy or biotech.

Apple's Cook delivered a cautionary commencement tale to MIT graduates. Technology is usually a force for good. But, he said, "The potential adverse consequences are spreading faster and cutting deeper than ever before. Threats to our security, threats to our privacy, fake news, and social media that sometimes becomes antisocial."

Technology must be infused with decency and kindness, Cook said.

Speaking last month at Florida State University, Brian Murphy —founder and CEO in Tampa of fast growing cybersecurity firm ReliaQuest — reminisced how only 17 years ago he sat where his audience was now seated.

"I remember thinking: 'This is it. Now it's time to go find success. Now it's time to win. Now it's time to go be great,' " he said. "At the time, I thought success was this singular thing. This destination. This place you packed a bag to get to. And once you get there, you're done. … I couldn't have been more wrong."

Success, said Murphy is personal. "It's something you strive for, and I'm not sure you ever reach it. … Hopefully I'll never reach it. Hopefully it's something I keep striving for."

In Miami, Florida International University law school's class of 2017 heard from FIU's own former law school dean Alex Acosta. He is currently U.S. Labor secretary in the Trump Cabinet.

Acosta touched on the rise of automation — even in the legal field — and the need for lawyers to keep learning to stay ahead of the algorithms and apps that will continue to do more of what was once the bread-and-butter business of lawyers.

Perhaps the best message for graduates is this last one. It comes courtesy of Michael Bloomberg, former Republican mayor of New York City, who spoke at commencement to Villanova University students on the critical subject of patriotism.

"Today, patriotism doesn't require us to endure starvation or extreme deprivation. But it does require us to have the courage to do not what is easy but what is hard," Bloomberg said.

What does that mean?

"Well, it means having the courage to keep studying new subjects throughout your life, to listen to those on the other side of an argument with an open mind — instead of retreating into safe spaces," he said.

"It means having the courage to re-examine your beliefs when data and science contradict them. It means having the courage to stand up to members of your own party when you believe they are wrong — or when their actions put our great American experiment at risk."

Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com. Follow @venturetampabay.

     
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