President Barack Obama’s commencement address to the 2016 graduating class at Howard University provided insight, instruction, and an opportunity to both reflect and think big. But that’s not surprising—when the president delivers a commencement address, you expect it to check off all those typical “graduation speech” boxes. The fact that he does however, does not make it any less powerful and his message is likely to be one you’ll be thinking about over the next few weeks.
Stressing that although we’ve come a long way, there’s still much work to be done, President Obama seems certain that the best time to be in a position to instigate change is right now. There’s no other time you’d choose to be living this life.
Acknowledging that, yes, we still have a higher unemployment rate for minorities, and we can’t forget about the gender pay gap, President Obama says that these aren’t insurmountable challenges. “The truth,” he says, is that your generation is better positioned than any before you to meet those challenges, to flip the script.”
The opportunity to flip the script is a powerful message. This could be as simple as a woman knowing what the man being hired for the same position is making. This could be as ongoing as embracing diversity in the workplace or, thinking of how you can help the matter, regardless of whether you’re a hiring manager or an entry-level assistant. Think big and outside the box.
While President Obama doesn’t dismiss the idea of passion as being integral to work, a sentiment that’s rather ubiquitous these days, he does note that it’s not enough to have the passion to want change; rather, “you have to have a strategy. Not just awareness, but action. Not just hashtags, but votes.”
And you need not just develop good speaking skills (or, in its place, a large social media following); you also need to know how to listen. For change to really happen, “it requires listening to those with whom you disagree, and being prepared to compromise,” Obama explains.
While Obama may be somewhat focused on the political sphere of change, I think his message can easily lend itself to people everywhere, both to the graduating classes of 2016 and to individuals working now, Millennials and generations beyond. When he talks about engaging, and learning from the other side, he could be giving concrete advice for how to deal with a difficult co-worker or a future business partner who wants to do things one way while you want to do them another.
When he says that change is the fight that happens every day, that it’s the “effort of committed citizens who hitch their wagons to something bigger than themselves and fight for it every single day,” think about what that means when you find yourself deeply entrenched in your career.
What does your commitment say about you, how are you demonstrating it, and what does it mean for your career path? Now, think bigger than you, beyond your personal brand, beyond your hashtags: The big picture involves a community and that community is how we see real work accomplished.