Two recently-held commencement speeches have come to my attention. They both just happen to have occurred at schools I’d once considered attending. The speakers are people I am familiar with, to varying degrees. With regards to the amount of respect I have for each of them, they couldn’t be more different.
Diana Nyad gave the commencement speech at Middlebury College. Milliseconds go by before she starts with the I, a sure sign of a narcissistic speech. But I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. She may be alluding to something that came up earlier in the commencement when she said she wanted a selfie with the graduating class. Within a minute (0:48-ish) she mentions her Florida swim, and within the first two minutes she thanks the school for inviting her and thanks her team of 44 for, you guessed it, her Florida swim.
Her speech is a lot of I‘s and me‘s, but does have a good message when she relates the 17-year old swimmer at the 1968 Olympic trials (2:47-ish) talking to her about giving it her all so that she can say she couldn’t have swum her heat a fingernail faster. I thought that part was very good, a good motivational moment. She related it to herself. She could have related it to the graduating class (that’ll come later, I’m sure).
But, what’s this? What did I just hear at 7:01-ish? “…moving on to the trials or not.” What? I thought she said she was at the 1968 trails?! So of course, this means I have to do some research. And some rewinding (remember when that word meant something?). OK, yes, at the 2:45-ish mark, she mentions swimming at the 1968 trials (“…it came to be the Olympic Trials for Mexico City…”). She also mentions her event, the 100 back. But I cannot find her on this list (pdf) of the heats and finals for the 1968 Olympic swimming trials. I’m no expert at Olympic history or USA Swimming, perhaps they had a pre-trials? I don’t think so though. DN mentions that the top 3 from her race will go on to the Olympics (3:25), and that she congratulated the three girls who would be going at the end of the race (8:03). Was she under a different name? I couldn’t find any other Diana‘s on the list.
At 3:58 she says something that struck me. To give her the benefit of the doubt, maybe she was channeling her teenage self, for which I will excuse her. How many among us were not selfish when we were young? Anyway, she is mentioning her dreams and all the work she put in to fulfill them. She mentioned how her parents sacrificed for her (nice), and then she says, “my brothers and sisters, their dreams were so small compared to mine.” Was she just comparing size? Or was she putting a value judgement on their dreams? Harkens back to the comments she made about what she thought of her followers (Nyadians?) helping other marathon swimmers.
Compare and contrast Nyad’s speech with the one given by Admiral McRaven at the University of Texas. (Caveat: I have met the admiral. I was a nameless Captain sitting in the briefing room with him in Iraq, he the deputy commander. I liked him.) Yes, there are some I‘s in his speech, as in “my team and I.” But it was far from narcissistic. He mentions his graduation from UT 37 years prior at the 0:30 mark. At 3:00, after all the thanking of everyone in attendance, he starts giving advice, based on his experience during his six months of SEAL training. When he uses the pronoun I from that moment forward, he uses it with my team and. His advice is useful and humorous. It’s something I’d like my kids to listen to. His stories are fun and way more believable than anything the Middlebury speaker told us.
Edit: I just saw this “speech” by Denzel Washington. He should have been Middlebury’s speaker!