Alumni Offer Graduation Tips on Laughter, Love, and Life after Stanford GSB

Personal lessons that emphasize a different kind of bottom line.

June 23, 2021

A photo-collage of students at the 2021 graduation ceremony. Credit: Graphic by Cory Hall, photos by Best Grad Photo Inc.

A survey elicits “insights, voices, and (hopefully) revolutionary advice.” | Graphic by Cory Hall, photos by Best Grad Photo Inc.

Faced with a little over a week to prepare a keynote address for this year’s Stanford Graduate School of Business commencement, Professor Jennifer Aaker thought like an academic: She ran a study.

In an online survey sent out to a group of alumni, Aaker asked three simple questions. First: What did they remember about the last graduation they attended? While 88% of the alumni respondents said they could recall the day’s weather, only 18% remembered anything the commencement speaker said. “Nothing lowers the pressure of a commencement speech like empirical data,” Aaker says.

“Nothing lowers the pressure of a commencement speech like empirical data.”

Even though she’d be competing with a beautiful June afternoon, Aaker still wanted to know what kinds of graduation advice would be most meaningful to her audience. In her second question, she asked for “insights, voices, and (hopefully) revolutionary advice” to share with the newest class of MBAs as they head out into the world. Surprisingly — considering these are business school alumni — only 2% mentioned business advice.

The rest shared personal lessons, many anchored on what constitutes a well-lived life — a different kind of bottom line. Nearly 35% offered a variation on the theme of living boldly and authentically. A quarter homed in on striving for success — without taking yourself too seriously. And 29% emphasized the importance of relationships and love.

As Aaker put it in her address, “The reality is that the love you feel now is the thing you will remember. (Besides the weather, of course.)”

Aaker concluded the study with a final question: “Mary Schmich once famously said, ‘If I could offer you one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it.’ What is your one tip to rival Mary Schmich’s?” Here are some selected sunblock-inspired pieces of advice from the alumni:

  • Bidets.
  • Plastics.
  • Ditch plastic.
  • Cryptocurrencies.
  • Avoid gravity; it will only hold you down.
  • If you think it is wrong, it probably is.
  • Talk less, listen more.
  • Laugh at yourself.
  • Say “please” and “thank you.”
  • Always bring a water bottle.
  • Take all the vacation you can.
  • Learn how to make good spaghetti.
  • Take risks. They are more fun. And even if they fail, they get you farther.
  • “If you think adventure is dangerous, try routine. It’s lethal.” — Paulo Coelho
  • Whining will not help. Unless you drop the “h.”
  • Don’t be cheap about toilet paper. Splurge.
  • Never underestimate the power of love.
  • Sunscreen, really.

Read or watch Professor Aaker’s full speech to see what lessons she gleaned from her survey.

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