Over The Top Commencement

Listening to my son’s high school graduation ceremony last night, I was struck by how completely implausible were many speaker claims, such as:

  1. Never let anyone tell you there is something you can’t do.
  2. You’ll have setbacks, but never let them discourage you.
  3. If I can succeed, so can you.
  4. We’ll always treasure our memories of high school.
  5. We students are so thankful to have such a friendly principal.

I was embarrassed to be associated with such transparent falsehoods, but apparently I’m in a minority.  What obvious lies have you heard at commencement, and why do you think such lies were told?

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  • I think “We’ll always treasure our memories” is the big one.

  • Enda

    6. I’m sure we’ll all stay friends.

  • Josh

    They’re told because people who need advice most tend to err in the other direction. They tend to magnify their problems, focus on the negative, overestimate the probability of bad outcomes (including failure), and so on. People who already have a balanced outlook on life most likely already possess a strong enough sense of self to put these statements into perspective.

  • I’m trying to imagine the anti-graduation in which the speakers make the following claims:

    1* Always let everyone dissuade you from believing in your own ability.
    2* Things should be easy. If they’re not, quit.
    3* I succeeded, but that doesn’t mean you will.
    4* We’ll try our best to forget this awful time in our lives.
    5* We students are so glad to be rid of the principal’s overbearing paternalism.

    I’m sure lots of people would like to say 5* but don’t get to because the principal is putting on the show. As for the rest, I’m pretty happy our equilibrium is far from the anti-graduation.

    Does Robin really believe that our abilities are innate?

    • Michael Bishop

      Does Robin really believe that our abilities are innate?

      This is not implied. But the vague answer is, “obviously to some extent, and obviously not completely.”

  • Grant

    Perhaps we should start by asking what the purpose of commencement ceremonies is? It certainly isn’t designed to give advice to students, who don’t pay any attention to it. I’m going to guess its primarily to make the parents and teachers feel good about their kids and the time and energy spend (wasted?) in that high school.

    Our society seems to glorify education. Commencements could also be socially acceptable places for teachers and school officials to boast.

  • Jay

    A solid dose of realism works for me.

    1: Most of you are about average. Many of you are not doing even that well.
    2: Life will hand you many setbacks, then kill you.
    3: The speaker’s successes, however modest, were sufficient to get him invited to speak at someone’s graduation. Few if any of you will ever be this successful.
    4: Mr. Martin nailed this one above.
    5: The principal will consider himself very lucky if his car isn’t trashed by the end of the day.

    This works for me. I think that American would be a better place if people stopped worshiping rare successes. A better America would be a good place to be average in.

  • Doug S.

    Robin Hanson reminds me of this guy more and more with each new post.

  • Psychohistorian

    The actual truth is (for most occupational goals, at least), if you try hard enough, you may very well not succeed, but you’ll be significantly better off than if you had never tried. No matter how hard you work, you’re basically not going to become a Supreme Court Justice. You will, however, with high probability be able to get a decent law degree and a stable, well-paying job if you really work hard towards becoming a Justice.

    “You can’t really accomplish whatever you put your mind to, but it’s better to try to do so than to not try to do so,” is simply a whole lot less inspiring. I’m not going to work my ass off if I think the end result is me becoming some mid-level insurance lawyer, even though that’s one helluva lot more likely than my making the Supreme Court, and it’s probably a better outcome than if I had never applied myself in the first place. Given that people are irrational, strictly untrue motivational statements can still be quite beneficial to believe because they help overcome future discounting.

  • Edward

    No offense, but I think what Robin is saying is extremely short sighted. I do appreciate candor and blunt honesty from time to time, but a graduation ceremony is certainly not one of them.

    “You’re embarrassed to be associated with such transparent falsehoods”? Have you ever told your son that it’s not nice to tell people they’re fat or to call someone stupid? Have you ever told a lie?

    The bottom line is, if you’re old enough to have a son, you should be old enough to understand the way the world works.

    • Transparent lies are much more embarrassing than lies, and understanding how the world works doesn’t imply condoning it.

      Why is it important to lie at graduation ceremonies? What danger could come of truth there? If people know it’s hard to succeed they make an informed choice about whether to try, rather than too many naively assuming they will be influential with average effort. And those who still want to would benefit from knowing it will be hard.

    • tim

      It’s not nice to tell people they’re fat, but it’s not helpful to tell fat people they aren’t.

      If you can’t say anything good without lying, why say anything at all?

      • kinbote

        because you can often make someone feel ”good” by telling them a harmless lie even when they recognize they are being lied to. the positive emotional reaction will occur even as they consciously identify the falsity. restricting yourself to utterances that are true often eliminates the most efficacious mood-boosting comments.

        since ”making others feel good” is a higher priority for most people than ”informing others of things that are likely true”, there’s a lot of lying out there.

  • Lord

    The first two are normative, not declarative, so they cannot be false. The third depends on who ‘you’ are and the last two depend on who ‘we’ are. Crazy but upbeat.

    • przemek nowaczylk

      They’re not though. Inasmuch as they can be construed as statements about “what a rational person should do” or “what should be done in order to increase one’s chances of being successful,” they are declarative. What they’re really saying is something like: 1) In order to be successful in life, never treat someone telling you that you can’t do x as evidence that you can’t do x; and 2) If you want to be successful, never treat your failure in doing x as evidence that you may be incompetent with respect to doing x.

      As such, they’re blatant falsehoods because most of the time they will not generate success but a gross mismatch between ambitions and outcomes.

  • Charlie

    Mine didn’t actually contain too many lies, certainly the only one listed above was number 5. The speaker did, however, compare our school to prison and us students to criminals, rather unfavorably. That was a biggie.

  • Robert Koslover

    Hmm. Well, congratulations to your son upon his graduation from High School! So… will he soon be attending your university? 🙂

  • Robin,

    Are you completely anti-poetry and anti-rhetoric? Is it essential for you that even a motivational speech be nothing more than cold hard facts filled with precision? It appears to me that only a complete idiot could interpret those statements literally. Most people would interpret the statements close to what I have below, I think.

    1. If you don’t back yourself usually, no one else will. To do maximum justice to your potential, it is essential that you believe strongly in yourself, and take other people’s lower opinion of you with a grain of salt. Many people who have attained great heights owe a good deal of their success to their pig headed belief in their abilities, despite people around them thinking otherwise. People around you will often estimate your potential with a ridiculously high confidence that is not at all justified by the data they have. It is possibly a mechanism for them to feel better about themselves.

    2. Try hard to never let setbacks discourage you in an “emotional” sense. You may at some point objectively evaluate that you have a better shot with other goals. Try hard to not allow setbacks to affect you too much emotionally and sap your motivation, since that can be a vicious cycle. Also note that most people who have attained great heights have likely faced many setbacks along the way. The only people who have faced few setbacks are those whose ambitions are ridiculously lower than their potential.

    3. I succeeded despite adversity A, B and C. Given that you guys probably don’t have to battle any of these, I don’t see why you guys can’t succeed as well.

    4. A good fraction of you will treasure memories of high school.

    5. I am just being nice and polite to the principal.

    • Your translations wouldn’t really take much longer to say. So why do people prefer say the literal lies instead of these reasonable truths? What is “poetically” more attractive about such lies? They aren’t exactly more lyrical.

      • kinbote

        people prefer to tell literal lies at commencement speeches because even though most listeners realize that they are being fed lies they still experience the short-term benefits of emotional uplift, inspiration, and group ”bonding”. the translations vijay offers do not connote anything that is likely to be associated in the minds of listeners with emotionally evocative memories, aspirations, or ideas. they are therefore unlikely to respond as positively as they do to the feel-good nonsense of literal lies.

        commencements arent about imparting wisdom and discussing what is definitely true about the past and future. they’re about creating a pleasant experience and memorable evening. literal lies serve those purposes admirably.

    • loqi

      I’m guessing the people most in need of such advice will be the least likely to make the translation to it.

  • That’s certainly a far cry from David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech at Kenyon College.

    He speaks beautifully about the truth of life post-graduation without condescension or platitude.

  • I think that many lies are told simply because the truth would be harder to write. (Most journalism falls into this category.) Suppose you were to try to say Krishnan’s true versions with some poetry and emotion. I could, but I’m an above-average writer. Furthermore, I’m an above-average writer who for many years has practiced the art of *not* going with the easier distortion, until I acquired some skill at the slightly more difficult art of being constrained to say only things that are actually true, and the various writing tricks for dealing with this extra constraint. It’s sort of like speaking in rhyme – it’d be easier if you did it all the time. But if you hadn’t practiced with those clauses, your speech would fill up with awkward pauses.

    Truth is work, people are lazy, for a great many lies you need suppose nothing more.

    • Seven hundred students and several thousand relatives dressed to the hilt filled a stadium for two hours. Tens of thousands of commencement speeches have been given every year for many decades, speeches that could be copied almost word for word and still function. If we were talking about some off the cuff remarks, I could understand a low effort explanation. But this seems far more systematic; apparently people want to hear things this way.

      • I didn’t realize we were talking about such a competitive market. Why didn’t you pick a different graduation ceremony to go to instead?

  • #1 and #2 hardly seem to be phrased in a form that you could either call true or false

  • At my old high school (southern Manitoba, Mennonite community, 1984–the graduation year, not the novel; anyway) the commencement address was given by a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher who was related to one of my classmates. He basically saved his best Sunday-morning sermon for us, and then let it rip.

    So as far as lies-at-commencement go, the atheist I’ve become has heard them at a whole ‘nother level.

    The speaker did, however, compare our school to prison and us students to criminals, rather unfavorably.

    So did the social psychologist Philip Zimbardo, in a 1975 Psychology Today article, saying that, in many important ways, “it’s tough to tell a high school from a prison”:

    While we do not claim high schools are really prisons, the two environments resemble each other to a remarkable and distressing degree…. Any social institution—a school, hospital, factory, office—can fairly be labeled a prison if it seriously restricts a person’s freedom, imprisoning him in regulated and routinized modes of behavior or thought.

  • Morrison

    {“…why do you think such lies were told?”}

    ….American school commencements are essentially religious rituals, as are most of the formal ‘education’ processes leading up to them.

    You don’t expect truth & facts in church services — their purpose is emotional support and fuzzy optimism about the future.

    Silly medieval costumes (caps & gowns) are still standard attire in 21st Century graduation ceremonies — that ridiculous practice alone tells you all you need to know about the true nature of those ceremonies.

  • Bryan Caplan

    Here‘s my favorite graduation speech.

  • Doug S.

    Are they lies, or are they bullshit?

  • Timothy

    At my fee-paying private school, the standard line in these speeches was how fortunate we were to be attending Baptist Grammar School, (which was slightly true), how graduates of the School were a special breed who were recognised as such in University and beyond (which was total nonsense).

    One function, deliberate or otherwise, of openly telling obvious lies is to divide the audience into those who can recognize the untruth of the speech and those who cannot. Thus the most intelligent and intellectually honest students gain a sense of superiority over their dimwitted classmates, which may give those clever students the mental strength and arrogance to survive the bullying and taunting to which obviously clever high school students are frequently subject.

  • JB


    That’s my favorite commencement speech. It’s a pity that Paul Graham didn’t get a chance to deliver it.

  • Rob

    I was told yesterday at a vigil for Iran (in Australia) that “this is something we can really make a big difference to”. I had to hold back my laughter but nobody else seemed surprised by this claim.

  • Mark, Bryan, JB, all great examples of good speeches, which most speakers could probably get away with copying.

  • Reid

    Hm. 4 is obviously subjective and highly questionable. 5 truly is a despicable lie. I don’t know if you can call the first three “falsehoods” in that they are pieces of advice. And it’s bad advice if our goal is to “overcome bias” but perhaps useful advice if we are instead interested in adopting those biases which makes life most livable.

  • I wish when I graduated college, someone would have said to me “Hey Casey, you’re not going to get a job handed to you. You’re going to have to fight. Everything that you’ll get out of life is a reflection of everything you put into it. Don’t wait for people to help you out. Do it yourself. You’re going to lose most of your friends from college because that’s how the universe works. You will meet more people, people that will change you… only if you’re receptive. Get out of college and go LEARN how to love and how to live. Learn to be authentic and true to yourself. Figure out what makes you come alive, and then do it passionately for the rest of your life. Live with conviction.”

    That would have actually woken me up when the standard statements of “If I succeeded, you can too” and “You’re going to have setbacks…” just made me tune out.

  • Adam

    I think they’re told because the whole think has become largely a celebration of nothing. Is graduating high school really an accomplishment for most of the student body today?

  • Joseph Knecht

    One lie I haven’t seen mentioned but have heard at probably every graduation I’ve been to is the one about what a truly exceptional group of human beings the current graduating class is.

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