What We Can Learn From Graduation Speakers

Graduation time ushers in an optimistic feeling. It’s a time of celebrating achievements, and more, it’s a time of opening up the world for tomorrow’s young adults.  No wonder it’s called “commencement.”

For those taking steps toward a business career or hoping to embark on an MBA program, you can draw upon that wisdom as you reflect upon your own experiences and goals.  What better way than to learn than from leaders who have been through good times and bad, and are willing to tell their stories.

The very best speeches are great because they show honesty and humility; they are not empty exhortations for how to live a perfect life.  These speeches offer great lessons for emerging leaders, and are especially inspiring for business school applicants.

Business schools are looking for authentic, genuine leaders, and the speakers – and their lessons – profiled below, inspire some soul-searching and self-reflection required to become a successful MBA candidate.

Let’s take a look at four memorable speeches and lessons learned.

1. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO – Speaking before Harvard Business School’s Class Day, 2012

Sheryl Sandberg, a 1995 graduate of Harvard Business School launched into a tale of success  first by explaining that when offered her first job at Google, she thought it did not
meet any of her career criteria.  But she was lucky to take some great advice from Google’s CEO, who told her, “If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat. Just get on.”

For those about to embark on something bigger, especially an MBA program, Sandberg is living proof that you have to take chances.  Look for ways to jump on opportunities — even if the next job doesn’t have all the trimmings you need, maybe you just need to go for it.

2. Condoleeza Rice, former Secretary of State –Speaking before Southern Methodist University, 2012

No one’s story is more inspiring than Condoleeza Rice, the granddaughter of a sharecropper who turned to “book learning” and sired a family of educators. As a former diplomat and policy maker, she admonished her audience to have passionate opinions, but look beyond the echo chamber. “When you’re absolutely sure that you’re right, talk with someone who disagrees.”

So if you’re working on the coolest new product that you think can’t fail, do some market research. Get a second, third, or fourth opinion – preferably someone who has no stake in your success.  Learn how to take feedback and work with it.

3. Conan O’Brien, TV host—Speaking at Dartmouth College, 2011

Conan used to be on top of the world, but then, went through what he calls “a profound and very public disappointment.”  Then he made his own version of success.  He tried new things. And it liberated him.  As he said in his commencement speech last year, “It’s not easy, but if you accept your misfortune and handle it right, your perceived failure can be a profound catalyst for reinvention.”

Not getting what you want teaches resilience and propels you forward. Many business schools, notably Harvard Business School, want students to reflect on times when things don’t work out. Own up to your failures; tell yourself the truth. Oh, and by the way, make sure you do make mistakes—otherwise you are simply not living.

4. Steve Jobs, Founder of Apple—Speaking at Stanford University, 2005

The late Steve Jobs discussed mortality openly at Stanford’s commencement six years before he succumbed to cancer.  ”Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life… Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And, most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”

A business career, with or without an MBA, is about big dreams and goals.  Importantly, it’s about your own dreams and goals, not anyone else’s.  Jobs didn’t listen to conventional wisdom.  And that’s why he is considered a visionary.

You deserve nothing less for yourself.

By Betsy Massar, Havard Business School graduate and founder of Master Admissions. Master Admissions acts as a campaign manager and champion, setting you up for success in applying to your top-choice business schools. Visit masteradmissions.com for a free consultation with Betsy Massar.

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