In 2008, Oprah was Stanford’s commencement speaker. People were very excited about that. I was less enthusiastic. I expected a disappointing, “Don’t you dare think about your own success. You must save starving orphans” kind of speech. But Oprah surprised us all. She basically reminded us that making money is good, as it is usually correlated with producing value for others. The message was simple: be productive and be happy. I loved it. But most of my friends were very disappointed.
Fast-forward 4 years and it’s Cory Booker speaking to the crowd of 30,000 in Stanford stadium. Booker seemed like a fine choice to me. Though I disagree with him about many things, I admire him quite a bit. I liked Street Fight. I enjoyed his “Finding Your Roots” interview with Henry Louis Gates Jr. Like most everyone else, I’ve been impressed with what’s been going on in Newark. But I thought that Booker’s speech on Sunday was a letdown. This time, I was the one who came away disappointed.
Motivational speeches are strange. At some level, their task is usually to persuade the listener to suspend rational self-interest and ignore (or, more euphemistically, transcend) reality. After all, people are innately reasonably good at acting in their own self-interest. We need fairly little external motivation to do what makes us happy. Motivational speeches tend to be more necessary to convince us to do things that we ordinarily wouldn’t do, such as charging an enemy bunker in wartime or performing some comparable civic sacrifice during peacetime.