Lessons for Family Life from Four 2015 Commencement Speeches

It’s that time of the year, where politicians, entertainers and successful businesspeople take the stage at the nation’s universities to address the newest members of the workforce (at least hopefully!) attempting to impart upon them their best advice for conquering the world and making it mean something.

While browsing some of the more popular speeches of 2015, it struck me that many of the core messages of these speeches could also be great advice for family life. While the pearls of wisdom certainly apply to life more generally, I was intrigued by the ways it seemed to ring true where family is concerned. Here are four favorites.

Ed Helms spoke at the University of Virginia of the tendency for people to prejudge you, “People are always quick to define you, to pigeonhole you, to whittle you down to their preconceived notion…Never let others define you, define yourselves.” Especially where family is concerned, people tend to assume you are like your family. They may assume things about your personality, your ethnicity, your socio-economic status, just because they think they know a thing or two about your family. But take Ed Helms’ advice and remember that you don’t have to let them. Or you can let them, depending on how you see yourself in relation to your family. Maybe you like what people assume about you as a member of your family or maybe you feel very different from them, or perhaps in some ways your family defines you but in others you’ve found your own path. Whatever the answer is, remember that you get to define who you are and who you are in relation to your family.

At Tulane, Maya Rudolph suggested one of the central rules of improv as a rule for life, and that is the rule of “Say yes, and”. Don’t just end the scene by saying no. She explains, “you don’t negate the other person’s idea, but in fact you build on it.” With family, it can be tempting to think that it’s no big deal to say no because they’re always there – if not this time there’ll be another chance. You might say no to a spontaneous visit or screen a call or decide not to organize a group gift for grandma this year. But just imagine the possibilities if you would instead say “yes, and”. Not only accept the idea, but add to it, go the extra mile. When it comes to family, you may not be able to see the dividends of that extra mile in real time but saying “yes, and” can make all the difference in the strength and depth of those family relationships in the long run, especially at the tough times.

Matthew McChonaughey presented 13 of his life-truths to the graduating class of the University of Houston. One of those life-truths was “Turn the page.” He says, “turn the page, get off the ride. YOU are the author of the book of your life. Turn the page.” This is what he suggests you do when something goes wrong, or not as expected, or in a direction you don’t want it to. This is also true with family. Although it can seem that you’re stuck with them no matter what, that can lead to a defeatist attitude thinking that it doesn’t matter how you act because you’ll always be with them. But the idea of turning the page comes to reject that and say that you are the author of your book and even if your family isn’t going to win the Functional Family of the Year award (or worse), that doesn’t mean you can’t start a new chapter even if it’s simply starting over with a particular family member, or mentoring a younger family member, or trying to organize a Holiday event in a new way that your family has never tried. If something in your family isn’t going quite as you would’ve hoped, turn the page, find something or someone you can connect with and make the most of that.

Finally, Natalie Portman spoke at Harvard, her own alma mater, and said something profound about life, but especially about family. She said, “it’s not about quantity, it’s about taking pleasure in the perfection and beauty of the particular.” She went on saying that “the joy and work ethic and virtuosity we bring to the particular can impart a singular type of enjoyment to those we give to and to ourselves.” She herself tried hard in college to try to get inspired and good at a myriad of subjects, only to come back to her true passion of story-telling through film and dedicate herself to that which brought her the most joy and meaning of all.  Indeed this is one of the most profound messages about family. We tend to think that the most family-oriented people are those with the biggest clans, the ones with the most traditions, rituals, special events. But like Portman says – it’s not about quantity, it’s not about being the most – it’s about the beauty of the particular. Your family might not be the biggest or have the most fill-in-the-blank, but your family is yours.  This mindset is key for figuring out how to celebrate your family, how it enhances your life, and what your unique contribution to it can be.  Just remember that this is your unique, particular family, the one you can appreciate and give to in your way, and investing in that can produce some of the most meaninful experiences in life.

So while you may or may not be a graduating senior, these nuggets of wisdom can be a nice early summer reminder of how to celebrate and invest in our families today and moving forward.

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