Five Lessons from Stephen Colbert’s Commencement Address

stephen colbert commencementI love a good commencement address. The message of limitless possibilities mixed with sage advice and a tinge of inspiration break through even my cynical disposition. Add to this Stephen Colbert, and you know you’re going to walk away with a meaningful experience.

Last week, the soon-to-be Late Show host spoke to the 2015 graduating class of North Carolina’s Wake Forest University. Dr. Stephen Colbert (he was bestowed with an honorary doctorate, so the “Dr.” is legit), spoke about change and the unknown. Without reprinting his entire speech, which you can watch here, the following are a few of the highlights.

LESSON 1: Embrace Uncertainty

Too often we feel a heavy burden of expectation, the expectation to know our future.

It is my responsibility as a commencement speaker to prepare you for what awaits you in the future. Here is it – ‘No one has any idea what’s going to happen.’ Not even Elon Musk. That’s why he’s building all those rockets. He wants a Plan B on another world… This uncertainty is not new to your generation. The future is always uncertain.

While there is nothing wrong with planning, you can spend your whole life trying to be one step ahead. Relieve some of your self-induced pressure by taking comfort in knowing that nobody knows what is going to happen.

LESSON 2: Don’t Let Past Experiences Limit Your Potential

When we become content, stagnation is a looming threat.

I just spent many years learning to do one thing really well. I got so comfortable with that place, that role, those responsibilities, that it came to define how I saw myself. But now that part of my life is over. It’s time to say goodbye to the person we’ve become, that we’ve worked so hard to perfect, and to make some crucial decisions in becoming who we’re going to be.

Good leaders master their workplace and relax. Great leaders don’t ever relax. Without further developing your skills, even the most cush role is a temporary stop in your path towards success.stephen colbert and david letterman

LESSON 3: Set Your Own Standards

Social media, our peers, and society as a whole often define our vision of success. This is a mistake.

It may seem counterintuitive now, but once you leave here, you may miss being graded on all your work. Because once you’re out of school, there are no objective criteria for achievement anymore. People my age will sometimes say to you, ‘Hey, that work you did, that thing you said, that cause you championed – it’s not good.’ Having your own standards will help you weather moments like that.

Your friends may have some helpful ideas, but you need to create your own benchmarks for success. It’s the only way to live an authentic, fulfilling life.

LESSON 4: Give Yourself a Break

My fellow high achievers understand the need to be constantly striving towards a challenging goal. And on those rare occasions when we fall short, we blame ourselves.

Of course any standards worth having will be a challenge to meet and most of the time you will fall short. But what’s nice about having your own set of standards is that from now on, you fill out your own report card. Do yourself a favor, be an easy grader. Grade yourself on a curve. Give yourself extra credit. You have the power. You are your own professor now.

Keep setting and working towards your goals, but if you can, stop beating yourself up when it doesn’t go as planned. Learn from it and move on.

LESSON 5: Be a Change Agent

Finally, don’t just accept the mediocrity around you. Choose to make a difference.

I hope you find the courage to decide for yourself what is right and what is wrong, and then please, expect as much of the world around you. Try to make the world good according to your standards.