Now for a few rousing words that may change your life for the better

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 June, 2012, 12:00am


It is graduation time, both at universities and schools. This marks a moment of change that even students advancing from primary to secondary school can identify with. And the hallmark of graduation ceremonies is 'the speech'.

Leaders the world over take time to offer their wit and wisdom to empower students because, as Katherine Bindley wrote in The Huffington Post, a good commencement speech gets graduates motivated about their futures; a great one gets cited as a source of inspiration and resonates with more than just school and college students.

My five all-time favourite speeches are certainly words to live by: first is the talk that Winston Churchill gave in 1941 at Harrow, his old school. He urged students to never, never yield to force - 'except to convictions of honour and good sense'.

Then there's Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, who in 2010 inspired students at his alma mater, Princeton University, with a speech based on advice given to him by his grandfather. He reminded them that cleverness and kindness are not mutually exclusive. 'Cleverness is a gift, kindness is a choice. Gifts are easy - they're given, after all. Choices can be hard. Tomorrow, in a very real sense, your life - the life you author from scratch on your own - begins. How will you use your gifts? What choices will you make? Will inertia be your guide, or will you follow your passions? Will you bluff it out when you're wrong, or will you apologise? Will you be clever at the expense of others, or will you be kind?'

The third comes from three-time Oscar-winning actress Meryl Streep. The power of the message in her 2010 speech at Barnard College, Columbia University's women-only sister institution, lay in its sheer simplicity. She said: 'You don't have to be famous. You just have to make your mother and father proud of you, and you already have.'

Equating 'women's issues' with human issues, she suggested that global problems ranging from poverty to the age crisis, the rise in violent fundamentalist juntas, human trafficking and human rights abuses have gender inequality at their heart.

Speaking at Stanford in 2005, Steve Jobs reflected on his personal life and reminded graduating students of an imminent mortality and the importance of doing what they love: 'Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose,' he advised. 'Your work is going to fill a large part of your life and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking.'

Last is the speech J.K. Rowling made in 2008 to the graduating class of Harvard University, about the value of failure. It is important because 'the knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive', she said. 'There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you.'

Pulitzer-winning columnist Mary Schmich has said that inside every adult lurks a graduation speaker dying to get out. And to the classes of 2012, who have grown up in a world of saturation advertising, the speaker in me offers some familiar catchphrases:

Hong Kong Telecom: 'What can be imagined can be achieved.'

Reebok: 'Life is not a spectator sport.'

Nike: 'Just do it.'

But the line that best encapsulates my life philosophy comes from a cartoon character, Popeye the Sailor: 'I yam what I yam, and that's all what I yam.'

That is to say, accept yourself, recognise your strengths and your weaknesses and endeavour to be the best possible version of yourself.

Anjali Hazari teaches IB and IGCSE Biology at an international school