How to Become a Famous Commencement Speaker Without Really Trying

As we enter Memorial Day weekend, the season of celebrity commencement speeches is drawing to a close once again, and among the many loftier bits of rhetoric graduating seniors are bound to forget, our nation's elite speakers imparted some valuable life lessons.

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As we enter Memorial Day weekend, the season of celebrity commencement speeches is drawing to a close once again, and among the many loftier bits of rhetoric graduating seniors are bound to forget, our nation's elite speakers imparted some memorable personal lessons. Most people must achieve something notable before a college invites them to speak at Commencement, and so, often their speech briefly addresses their path to notoriety. But to defuse the humble brags, they inflect it with some humor and much self-deprecation. We'll call it the "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" section of the speech. Of course, it's unfair to say that any of these speakers preached about doing anything "without really trying." Most often they spoke of hard work, but the way they gloss through their life stories gives it this effect, and so we've poured through this season's crop of speakers and present to you their how-to guides on a variety of achievements.

How to Become Mayor Without Really Trying by Michael Bloomberg at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill 

Do something you know nothing about: "I was an engineering major who then went to business school in hopes of someday running a factory, which I knew nothing about. I got the MBA – and then I took an entry level job in the financial services industry, which I knew nothing about."

  • Get fired: "Fifteen years later, I got fired."
  • Get wealthy:  "... and I started a company in another industry I knew nothing about: information technology."
  • Do something about which you know nothing: "Twenty years after that, I ran for mayor even though I knew nothing about politics."

How to Land an Internship at the White House Without Really Trying by Brian Williams at George Washington University.

  • Get a bit lucky: "One of the young men we lived with in the [dorm] building named Rocco came home one day and said he had to vacate an internship at the White House, was anyone interested.
  • Work retail:  "I owned one blue blazer, again not to brag, but I had worked at Sears, and I bought it with my employee discount."
  • Be willing to drop out: "Well, the need to make money exceeded my ability to pay for my classes at Catholic University, and so I had to concentrate full time on working there but not studying there."

How to Get a Job in TV News Without Really Trying by Katie Couric at University of Virginia

  • Get a ride from your mom: "My mother gave me a ride in our cream colored Buick station wagon from our house in Arlington to the ABC Bureau in Washington D.C."
  • Use your spurious connections: "I called Davey Newman then the executive prodcuer of World News Tonight. Here's how it went: 'Hello Davey? You don't know me but your twin brothers, Steve and Eddie went to high school with my sister Kiki. And I live down the street from your cousin Julie. Could I come up and say hello?'"
  • Bask in your success: "Cut to me with my first job in television."

How to Be Cast in a Movie Without Really Trying by Jane Lynch at Smith College

  • Have a terrible job: "At one point, I’d had a lean financial year, and performing 'It's a Hard Knock Life' from Annie in my pantyhose had lost its charm."
  • Write a one woman show: "The thought of writing a show by myself and for myself began to bubble up to the surface of my consciousness, making me very sick to my stomach."
  • Perform said one woman show: "On my own nickel, I rented a theater for eight consecutive Wednesday nights, wrote monologues for characters I had accessed from the deepest recesses of my psyche, and I created a one-hour romp (which I performed literally stinking of fear, at moments terrified and others, elated)."
  • Meet Christopher Guest: "I was now one poised for, and deserving of, the next level. I met Christopher Guest shortly thereafter and was cast in Best in Show. I was 40 years old, and I was finally in the game. I could never have planned this."

How to Get Busy Without Really Trying by Barbara Walters at Yale University
  • Listen to your crazy grandma: "On her death bed she turned to her seven children and told them that she was a virgin."
  • Argue with grandma: "And they said well how is that possible. We are here, three sons and four daughters. You must have done something with grandpa."
  • Listen again: "And she said yes I did but I never participated."
  • Ignore her: "No matter what you do, don't be like my Grandma Lily. Participate! Be there full force, full heart, full steam ahead.

How to Get Fired by a Puppet Without Really Trying by Garry Marshall at Lafayette College 

  • Get a job with Shari Lewis: "The first job I really got was with Shari Lewis who had a puppet named Lamb Chop. Shari is a lovely lady, but the puppet was mean."
  • Write some mediocre jokes: "Shari would say: 'Good writing, Gary,' and the puppet would say: 'You should be banned from the Writers' Guild. This is a joke? This is terrible!'"
  • Feel the puppet's wrath: "Finally, the puppet fired us. So to be fired by a piece of cloth is not so exciting, you know as your career moves forward. But you gotta know that sometimes you're going to get whacked."

How to Become a Public Radio Personality Without Really Trying by Ira Glass at Goucher College

  • Don't go to journalism school: "I spent years wondering if I should just learn to become a journalist by going to journalism school... I simply would take NPR reporters and pay them 50 bucks to look at scripts I was working on, which was much cheaper than grad school."
  • Prepare for poverty: "My personal financial goal was 'your age times one thousand' which I did not achieve until I was into my thirties."
  • Don't listen to your parents: "Somehow my parents are the only Jews in America who do not listen to public radio... I had my own national radio show, I'd been on David Letterman, there'd been a New York Times Magazine article about me before they stopped suggestion medical school was still an option."


So yes, a scan through the year's addresses proves that when people talk about their success, they tend to emphasize serendipity rather than hard work -- which isn't to say they didn't put in plenty of hard work, too. People tend to remember inflection points more than they do the slow grind that got them there.  Still, serendipity in the form of "I just met someone who offered me a White House internship" isn't the best way to relax a bunch of hungover kids worried about how they'll find their way in the world. Then again, who said graduating is an occasion to relax? Oh right, Andy Samberg did.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.