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JUNE 23RD 2011 

Endings make the best beginnings

June seems a weird time to talk about beginnings. That yearly honour usually goes to January, with September as the runner-up, reflecting the primacy of the calendar and the solemnity with which we approach the subject of starting anew. To that we say poppycock. Or at least, poppycock-ish.

June is a wonderful time to talk about new beginnings. It’s the start of summer. And here in the frozen North, that means playtime.

June is also the time of graduation. Throughout our academic careers, it has symbolized turning the page and celebrating achievements. For those leaving full-time school behind to start a job, the focus lies more on what’s ahead than on what’s been achieved. Will this new beginning lead to happiness, fulfillment and success —whatever that looks like? These weighty questions result in introspection, which brings us to the rituals of graduation, especially the commencement address.

Tradition has it that graduating classes select a classmate to help launch the students into the real world with a valedictory address. Somewhere along the way, some school administration decided it would be a good idea to ask an accomplished veteran, perhaps an alumni or a recipient of an honorary degree, to impart some battle-hardened wisdom on the same subject. Then, the school’s marketing department, ever vigilant, asked “What if we could get a celebrity to give that speech? We’ll get media coverage, and all good things come from that.” And so was born the culture of the celebrity-delivered commencement address.

Nobody can question the bona fides of these speakers. Most have accomplished great things and they’ve accumulated the scars and lessons worth passing on. So let’s look at the prevailing wisdom in these speeches.

Most talk about having the courage and conviction to pursue a path of personal happiness, driven by passion.  The speakers use personal examples to drive that message home — that life is hard, filled with obstacles, but that it can be navigated with the help of the North Star that you find within yourself.  This broad theme comes from the zeitgeist of the moment in the Western world, a value set defined by some as “expressive individualism.”

You’re probably wondering how this is connected to Citizen Capitalism and the belief that we as individuals can help create a better world, one act at a time.

The concept of a better world isn’t about “me.” It’s about “us.” It is still about finding personal happiness and success, but it’s about looking for it in a different place.

Which brings us to the best thing we’ve read on the subject of commencement speeches. It’s a NYT OpEd by David Brooks, in which he discredits the advice given in most commencement speeches. Here’s our favourite quote:

“Most (successful graduates) don’t form a self, then lead a life. They are called by a problem and their self is constructed gradually by their calling….The purpose in life is not to find yourself, it is to lose yourself (in a higher calling).”

Let’s be clear, he’s not talking about taking up a career in the Peace Corps or as a missionary. His sentiment applies equally well to purely capitalistic pursuits. The common thread is finding a calling that helps spread benefit beyond the self, in the process building a better world, to achieve personal fulfillment.

It’s all perhaps best summed up by the advice we give people we know when they enter the working world. It also happens to the spirit that drives those of us involved with Citizen Capitalism:  Make a difference.

Happy June, and happy Summer.

watch: The HuffPo compilation of popular commencement addresses:

read: The NYT’s inspiring take on fresh starts:



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