9 Major Life Lessons You Can Take From Commencement Speeches—No Matter How Old You Are
It never hurts to hear encouraging quotes and helpful advice from some of the most successful people of our time.
At this point, college graduation may be as fuzzy a memory as, well, college itself. No matter how distant your graduation date, though, there’s still plenty of inspiration to be gained from commencement speeches—especially when they’re delivered by the most influential people of our lifetime. Here are nine of our favorite commencement speech quotes of all time. (Because let’s face it, a pep talk is way more effective when it’s coming from the likes of Oprah and Steve Jobs.)
1. Don’t Let Anyone Tell You You Can’t Do Anything - Mindy Kaling, Dartmouth 2018
From dating tips for guys (“Act as if every woman you’re talking to is a reporter for an online publication that you are scared of”) to practical advice that benefits all of us (“You never need more than one pancake”), writer and actor Mindy Kaling’s speech at her alma mater packed a lot of wisdom into 17 minutes. But perhaps her most salient words what she closed with:
“I was sitting in the chair you are literally sitting in right now and I just whispered, 'Why not me?' And I kept whispering it for 17 years, and here I am, someone that this school deemed worthy enough to speak to you at your commencement. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something, but especially not yourself. Go conquer the world. Just remember this: Why not you? You made it this far.”
2. You Can’t Do It Alone - Amy Poehler, Harvard 2011
As you’d expect from Amy Poehler, the “SNL” alum gave Harvard’s class of 2011 plenty to laugh about (like her tongue-in-cheek declaration that, “If you remember anything I say today, remember this: Every single thing you see in movies is real.”), but among the jokes were some serious words of wisdom about surrounding yourself with great people: "As you navigate through the rest of your life, be open to collaboration. Other people and other people's ideas are often better than your own. Find a group of people who challenge and inspire you, spend a lot of time with them, and it will change your life.”
3. Some Failure in Life Is Inevitable - JK Rowling, Harvard 2008
J.K. Rowling stressed the benefits of failure to Harvard’s class of 2008 with the missteps that paved the way for her her success story (a little series called "Harry Potter," heard of it?) being the proof. She said, “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all—in which case, you fail by default.
4. You Don’t Have to Do Anything Sensational for People to Love You - Mr. Rogers, Dartmouth 2002
Everyone’s favorite cardigan-bedecked neighbor gave exactly the kind of advice those who grew up with Mr. Rogers would expect. Along with messages of self-love, helping others, and working together, he imparted these words:
“You don't ever have to do anything sensational for people to love you. When I say it’s you I like, I’m talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you can ever see, or hear, or touch. That deep part of you, that allows you to stand for those things, without which humankind cannot survive. Love that conquers hate. Peace that rises triumphant over war. And justice that proves more powerful than greed.”
5. Give Back What You Have Been Given - Oprah Winfrey, Howard University 2007
The thing we’d most like to hear Oprah shout from a podium is, “You get a car!” but anything else that comes out of this infinitely wise woman’s mouth isn’t a bad consolation prize. In her 2007 speech to Howard University graduates, she emphasized that in order to remain successful (even if you’re as accomplished as Oprah), it’s important to give back to the people who supported you.
“As you walk the path of privilege, you must not forget the less privileged you left behind. You cannot continue to succeed in the world or have a fulfilling life in the world unless you choose to use your life in service somehow to others and give back what you have been given. That's how you keep it. That's how you get it. That's how you grow it.”
6. There Is No Reason Not to Follow Your Heart - Steve Jobs, Stanford University 2005
Death rarely makes for good conversation, but Steve Jobs proved it can make for a rousing speech. Jobs drew inspiration from his 2003 pancreatic cancer diagnosis to implore Stanford grads to take risks.
“Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important,” he said. “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
7. You Never Feel a Hundred Percent OK - Shonda Rhimes, Dartmouth 2014
When Shonda Rhimes spoke at Dartmouth in 2014, she served major real talk about the myth of having it all.
“Whenever you see me somewhere succeeding in one area of my life, that almost certainly means I am failing in another area of my life,” she said. “That is the Faustian bargain one makes with the devil that comes with being a powerful working woman who is also a powerful mother. You never feel a hundred percent, OK; you never get your sea legs; you are always a little nauseous. Something is always lost.”
While the words seem a little discouraging on their face, there’s something reassuring about knowing that not even someone as powerful and accomplished as Rhimes has it all together, isn’t there?
8. Life Is an Improvisation - Stephen Colbert, Northwestern University 2011
Leave it to a comedian to draw a connection between life and improv.
“Life is an improvisation,” Stephen Colbert told Northwestern’s class of 2011. “You have no idea what’s going to happen next, and you are mostly just making things up as you go along. And like improv, you cannot win your life. Even when it might look like you’re winning.”
9. It’s Harder to Be Kind Than Clever - Jeff Bezos, Princeton University 2010
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ 2010 Princeton speech was all about choices.
“Cleverness is a gift; kindness is a choice. Gifts are easy—they’re given, after all. Choices can be hard. You can seduce yourself with your gifts if you’re not careful, and if you do, it’ll probably be to the detriment of your choices,” he told them.
“Will you be clever at the expense of others, or will you be kind?,” he asked them later. He concluded his remarks by urging: “In the end, we are our choices. Build yourself a great story.”