15 Life Lessons From Some Of The Greatest Commencement Speeches Ever Given

Some families have a favorite restaurant, television show or past time. My family, on the other hand, has a peculiar interest in commencement speeches. From the comical to the heartfelt, from the sweet to the cynical, from the befuddled to the bedazzled, there are very few good graduation day addresses that we haven’t shared with each other and our inner circles. Below is a list of some of the best messages we’ve come across…

1. Jane Lynch, remarks delivered on May 20th 2012 at Smith College

Let life surprise you. Don’t have a plan. Plans are for wusses. If my life went according to my plan, I would never ever have the life I have today. You are obviously good planners, or you wouldn’t be here. Stop it! Stop it now! Don’t deprive yourself of the exciting journey your life can be when you relinquish the need to have goals and a blueprint. I guess I am assuming you all are as terrified as I was of life, so you know that when you feel sick to your stomach, it’s a good thing! It signals “Opportunity For Big Growth Ahead!” “Somethin’s coming, somethin’ good.” Don’t ignore the nausea. Step up to it.

2. JK Rowling, remarks delivered on June 5th 2008 at Harvard University

If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped change. We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.

3. John Stewart, remarks delivered on May 20th 2004 at The College of William and Mary

But the unfortunate, yet truly exciting thing about your life, is that there is no core curriculum. The entire place is an elective. The paths are infinite and the results uncertain. And it can be maddening to those that go here, especially here, because your strength has always been achievement. So if there’s any real advice I can give you it’s this. College is something you complete. Life is something you experience. So don’t worry about your grade, or the results or success. Success is defined in myriad ways, and you will find it, and people will no longer be grading you, but it will come from your own internal sense of decency…Love what you do. Get good at it. Competence is a rare commodity in this day and age. And let the chips fall where they may.

4. Barbara Kingsolver, remarks delivered on May 11th 2008 at Duke University

As you leave here, remember what you loved most in this place. Not Orgo 2, I’m guessing, or the crazed squirrels or even the bulk cereal in the Freshman Marketplace. I mean the way you lived, in close and continuous contact. This is an ancient human social construct that once was common in this land. We called it a community. We lived among our villagers, depending on them for what we needed. If we had a problem, we did not discuss it over the phone with someone in Bubaneshwar. We went to a neighbor. We acquired food from farmers. We listened to music in groups, in churches or on front porches. We danced. We participated. Even when there was no money in it. Community is our native state. You play hardest for a hometown crowd. You become your best self. You know joy. This is not a guess, there is evidence. The scholars who study social well-being can put it on charts and graphs. In the last 30 years our material wealth has increased in this country, but our self-described happiness has steadily declined. Elsewhere, the people who consider themselves very happy are not in the very poorest nations, as you might guess, nor in the very richest. The winners are Mexico, Ireland, Puerto Rico, the kinds of places we identify with extended family, noisy villages, a lot of dancing. The happiest people are the ones with the most community.

5. Winston Churchill, remarks delivered on November 29th 1941 at the Harrow School

Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never-in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.

6. Maria Shriver, remarks delivered on May 11th 2012 at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School

But today, I have one wish for you. Before you go out and press that fast foward button, I’m hoping – I’m praying – that you’ll have the courage to first press the pause button. That’s right: the pause button. I hope if you learn anything from me today, you learn and remember — The Power of the Pause. Pausing allows you to take a beat — to take a breath in your life. As everybody else is rushing around like a lunatic out there, I dare you to do the opposite. I’m asking you to learn how to pause, because I believe the state of our communication is out of control. And you? I believe you have the incredible opportunity to fix it. You have the power, each and every one of you, to change the way we as a nation speak to one another. I truly believe you can change our national discourse for the better.

7. Toni Morrison, delivered on May 15th 2011 at Rutgers University

I know that happiness had been the real, if covert, goal of your labors here. I know that it informs your choice of companions, the profession you will enter, but I urge you, please don’t settle for happiness. It’s not good enough. Of course, you deserve it. But if that is all you have in mind – happiness – I want to suggest to you that personal success devoid of meaningfulness, free of a steady commitment to social justice, that’s more than a barren life, it’s a trivial one. Its looking good instead of doing good.

8. Bill Cosby, remarks delivered May 18th 2013 at Marquette University

Those of you who made a mistake, understand that life is not over, whatever your discipline is, whatever you have chosen to become, even if it is just to satisfy your benefactors. It is not over. You may continue on into something you feel comfortable doing other than hanging around the house. But it is important for you to understand that this, the Jesuits, they teach. They teach respect. They teach integrity. So that no matter what little you have, you always realize there’s something that you can give to someone.

It’s very important, very important to look at someone that you’re helping to see that they couldn’t have done it for themselves, but ‑‑ and then you will receive.

It is absolutely fantastic, because this is what life is about. Your honesty, your integrity.

9. Randy Pausch, remarks delivered on May 18th 2008 at Carnegie Mellon University

Your passion must come from the things that fill you from the inside.  Honors and awards are nice things but only to the extent that they regard the real respect from your peers.  To be thought well of by other people that you think even more highly of is a tremendous honor.

10. Meryl Streep, remarks delivered on May 18th 2010 at Columbia University

What I do know about success, fame, celebrity that would fill another speech. How it separates you from your friends, from reality, from proportion. Your own sweet anonymity, a treasure you don’t even know you have until it’s gone. How it makes things tough for your family and whether being famous matters one bit, in the end, in the whole flux of time. I know I was invited here because of that. How famous I am. I how many awards I’ve won and while I am overweeningly proud of the work that, believe me, I did not do on my own, I can assure that awards have very little bearing on my own personal happiness. My own sense of well-being and purpose in the world. That comes from studying the world feelingly, with empathy in my work. It comes from staying alert and alive and involved in the lives of the people that I love and the people in the wider world who need my help. No matter what you see me or hear me saying when I’m on your TV holding a statuette spewing, that’s acting.

11. David McCullough Jr., remarks delivered on June 1st 2012 at Wellesley High School

The fulfilling life, the distinctive life, the relevant life, is an achievement, not something that will fall into your lap because you’re a nice person or mommy ordered it from the caterer.  You’ll note the founding fathers took pains to secure your inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness–quite an active verb, “pursuit”–which leaves, I should think, little time for lying around watching parrots rollerskate on Youtube.  The first President Roosevelt, the old rough rider, advocated the strenuous life.  Mr. Thoreau wanted to drive life into a corner, to live deep and suck out all the marrow.  The poet Mary Oliver tells us to row, row into the swirl and roil.  Locally, someone… I forget who… from time to time encourages young scholars to carpe the heck out of the diem.  The point is the same: get busy, have at it.  Don’t wait for inspiration or passion to find you.  Get up, get out, explore, find it yourself, and grab hold with both hands.

12. Michael Lewis, remarks delivered on June 3rd 2012 at Princeton University

The “Moneyball” story has practical implications. If you use better data, you can find better values; there are always market inefficiencies to exploit, and so on. But it has a broader and less practical message: don’t be deceived by life’s outcomes. Life’s outcomes, while not entirely random, have a huge amount of luck baked into them. Above all, recognize that if you have had success, you have also had luck — and with luck comes obligation. You owe a debt, and not just to your Gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky.

13. Russel Baker, delivered on May 27th 1995 at Connecticut College

Instead I limit myself to a simple plea: When you get out there in the world try not to make it any worse than it already is.

14. David Foster Wallace, remarks delivered on May 25th 2005 at Kenyon College

But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down. Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it. This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.

15. Mary Schmich, June 1st 1997 for the Chicago Tribune, a speech she would have liked to give to a graduating class

Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it. Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth. TC mark

image – Youtube

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