I have a thing for graduation speeches. When done right, they’re moving, poignant, and funny. My all-time favorite isn’t a speech, but part of a column written by Mary Schmich for the Chicago Tribune in 1997. It was later turned into a song by Baz Luhrman called “Everyone is Free to Wear Sunscreen.” If you were in junior high/high school in the late ’90s, I bet you remember it. If not, listen here. I secretly hope to have the chance to speak at a graduation ceremony one day… and inspire people the way these speeches have inspired me.
Jill Abramson, the previous executive editor of The New York Times, gave a commencement speech this past May at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, one week after being fired from her position. She has quite a legacy attached to her name, as the only woman to lead the Times news room.
The commencement speech at Wake Forest was her first time speaking publicly after her dismissal. (Reportedly there were building tensions between Abramson and top executives at the Times, especially after she found out she was being paid less than the executive editor before her.) She is brave to get up in front of all these people, with, as she calls it, a “small media circus” following her every move, to speak on bouncing back from tough times. Abramson’s advice and observations, especially about being very much in the same spot as the Wake Forest graduates — unsure about her future — are moving and eloquent. She talks about resilience on many levels: in the face of a loved one’s death, after losing a job, and when facing discrimination.
The speech is 11 minutes long (I promise it’s worth it — listen for the emotion in her voice as she speaks the last line). In case you can’t watch the whole thing, here are three highlights:
“Very early last Thursday, my sister called me and she said, ‘I know dad would be as proud of you today as he was the day you became executive editor of The New York Times. I had been fired the previous day, so I knew what she was trying to say. It meant more to our father to see us deal with a setback and try to bounce back than to watch how we handled our successes. ‘Show what you are made of,’ he would say.”
“And some of you – and now I’m talking to anyone who has been dumped, not gotten the job you really wanted or received those horrible rejection letters from grad school — you know the disappointment of losing or not getting something you badly want. When that happens, show what you are made of.”
“It was the honor of my life to lead the newsroom. A couple of students I was talking to last night after I arrived, they know that I have some tattoos. One of them asked me, 'Are you gonna get that Times ‘T’ that you have tattooed on your back removed?’ … Not a chance.”
If you listen to nothing else, start at the 9:55 mark… probably my favorite part.
Hope you get a boost of strength from hearing her talk. And Happy Thanksgiving!
P.S. More on Abramson: Her first magazine interview after being fired, with Cosmopolitan, nonetheless! (plus, see the badass picture of her that went viral), and her new venture that’s making waves in the investigative journalism world.