The best graduation speeches last the test of time, offering wisdom and insight that is just as helpful to a 21-year-old as to someone at the peak of their career.
These speeches touch on dealing with failure, adapting to change, and the importance of self-discovery. Read on to see the powerful life lessons shared by highly influential people, including J.K. Rowling, Conan O’Brien, and Steve Jobs.
The author of the 'Harry Potter' series told Harvard's class of 2008 about the dark period she experienced before achieving success. 'An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears that my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew,' Rowling said.
But when she was at the bottom, she realised that her life went on, and she decided to press forward. 'You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable,' 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.
'You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned,' she said.
The legendary founder and CEO of Apple told Stanford University's class of 2005 that they needed to live each day as if it were their last. He'd been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a year earlier.
Jobs said this mindset will make you understand the importance of your work. 'And the only way to do great work is to love what you do,' he said. 'If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it.'
Settling means giving in to someone else's vision of your life. Jobs warned against this temptation: 'Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.'
In his hilarious 2011 address to Dartmouth College, the late night talk show host spoke about his brief run on 'The Tonight Show' before being replaced by Jay Leno. O'Brien described the fallout as the lowest point in his life, feeling very publicly humiliated and defeated. But once he got back on his feet and went on a comedy tour across the country, he realised something.
'For decades, in show business, the ultimate goal of every comedian was to host 'The Tonight Show,'' he said. 'It was the Holy Grail, and like many people I thought that achieving that goal would define me as successful. But that is not true. No specific job or career goal defines me, and it should not define you.
'Well I am here to tell you that whatever you think your dream is now, it will probably change. And that's ok,' he said.
In his 2011 speech to UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, the acclaimed science journalist spoke of those who truly succeed in life. 'I don't know exactly what's going on inside them, but they have this … hunger. It's almost like an ache,' Krulwich said.
To be one of these people, he explained, you can't just send out a couple resumes and then wait to see if someone calls back. 'Instead, think about getting together with friends that you admire, or envy. Think about entrepeneuring. Think about NOT waiting for a company to call you up. Think about not giving your heart to a bunch of adults you don't know. Think about horizontal loyalty. Think about turning to people you already know, who are your friends, or friends of their friends, and making something that makes sense to you together, that is as beautiful or as true as you can make it,' he said.
The media mogul told Stanford's class of 2008 that they can't sacrifice happiness for money. 'What I know now is that feelings are really your GPS system for life. When you're supposed to do something or not supposed to do something, your emotional guidance system lets you know,' she said.
She explained that doing what your heart tells you to do will make you more successful, because it will drive you to work harder and will save you from debilitating stress.
'If it doesn't feel right, don't do it. That's the lesson. And that lesson alone will save you, my friends, a lot of grief,' Winfrey said.
In 2005, the author told the graduating class of Kenyon College that they should be a little less arrogant and less certain about their beliefs.
'This is not a matter of virtue,' Wallace said. 'It's a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering
or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.'
Breaking free of the confines of your own head can allow you to truly experience life, even if it's just a trip to the grocery store or the DMV. '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,' he said.
The comedian and soon-to-be host of the 'Late Show' told Northwestern University's class of 2011 that they should never feel like they have it all figured out.
'(W)hatever your dream is right now, if you don't achieve it, you haven't failed, and you're not some loser. But just as importantly -- and this is the part I may not get right and you may not listen to -- if you do get your dream, you are not a winner,' Colbert said.
He spoke about his improv days, and how when actors are working together properly, they're all serving each other, playing off each other on a common idea. 'And life is an improvisation. 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,' he said.
The Facebook COO and author of 'Lean In' told Harvard Business School's class of 2012 in her Class Day speech that she almost missed her big break in life.
Sandberg had broken down her career options into a data-driven spreadsheet and told Google CEO Eric Schmidt that a job at his young company didn't meet her spreadsheet's criteria. 'He put his hand on my spreadsheet and he looked at me and said, 'Don't be an idiot.' Excellent career advice. And then he said, 'Get on a rocket ship,'' she said.
She explained that becoming anxious and over-analysing risky but potentially rewarding opportunities can hold you back from success. 'If you're offered a seat on a rocket ship, don't ask what seat. Just get on,' she said.
The famed author became one of the most sought after commencement speakers in the United States for many years, for his musings on morality and cooperation. In his 1999 address to Agnes Scott College, he said that graduates can make the world a better place by respecting humanity and living without hate.
He said that living this way leads to a happier, more peaceful, and more complete existence. '(I)n our personal lives, our inner lives, at least, we can learn to live without the sick excitement, without the kick of having scores to settle with this particular person, or that bunch of people, or that particular institution or race or nation. And we can then reasonably ask forgiveness for our trespasses, since we forgive those who trespass against us.'
The comedian told Tulane University's class of 2009 that her idea of success changed after she lost her sitcom, which essentially destroyed her career before she made a remarkable comeback.
'(I)t was so important for me to lose everything because I found out what the most important thing is -- to be true to yourself. Ultimately, that's what's gotten me to this place. I don't live in fear, I'm free; I have no secrets and I know I'll always be OK, because no matter what, I know who I am,' DeGeneres said.
She recommended that the graduates see success as the fulfillment of who they truly are. 'For many of you, today, success is being able to hold down 20 shots of tequila. For me, the most important thing in your life is to live your life with integrity and not to give into peer pressure to try to be something that you're not, to live your life as an honest and compassionate person, to contribute in some way.'
In his 2012 address to the University of the Arts, the award-winning fantasy writer advised graduating seniors to make plenty of mistakes, but to not stop pursuing their passion when they become successful.
It's easy to become used to a struggle, getting one message in a bottle back for every hundred you throw out, to use Gaiman's metaphor. 'The point where you stop saying 'yes' to everything, because now the bottles you threw in the ocean are all coming back, and you have to learn to say 'no'' can be a real threat to actually doing what you love, he said.
'(T)he biggest problem of success is that the world conspires to stop you doing the thing that you do, because you are successful. There was a day when I looked up and realised that I had become someone who professionally replied to email, and who wrote as a hobby. I started answering fewer emails, and was relieved to find I was writing much more,' he said.
In her 2006 address to Sarah Lawrence College, the writer told her audience that they should return to campus at some point in the future to reflect.
'Coming back is the thing that enables you to see how all the dots in your life are connected, how one decision leads you to another, how one twist of fate, good or bad, brings you to a door that later takes you to another door, which aided by several detours -- long hallways and unforeseen stairwells -- eventually puts you in the place you are now,' Patchett said.
When you revisit places, it gives you an opportunity to remind yourself of your passions and your motivations. You'll find yourself thinking, she said, 'This place hasn't changed so terribly much, and so by an extension of logic I must not have changed much, either.'
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