A great commencement or class-day speech sticks with you forever. You remember it when you accept for your first job, and when you quit it.
Too many, unfortunately, offer the same warmed-over clichés, like “dream big,” “work hard,” or “follow your passion.”
But there are some lessons that are truly worth remembering, or so well-said that they stick in the memory longer than just about anything else.
We’ve collected some of the greatest speeches and pieces of advice, worth reading and listening to for any grad, or anyone looking for guidance.
Links to the full speeches and transcripts are provided, when available.
From his 2012 commencement speech to the University of the Arts:
'I hope you'll make mistakes. If you're making mistakes, it means you're out there doing something. And the mistakes in themselves can be useful. I once misspelled Caroline, in a letter, transposing the A and the O, and I thought, 'Coraline looks like a real name ...'
'And remember that whatever discipline you are in, whether you are a musician or a photographer, a fine artist or a cartoonist, a writer, a dancer, a designer, whatever you do you have one thing that's unique. You have the ability to make art.
'And for me, and for so many of the people I have known, that's been a lifesaver. The ultimate lifesaver. It gets you through good times and it gets you through the other ones.
'Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do.
'Make good art.
'I'm serious. Husband runs off with a politician? Make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by mutated boa constrictor? Make good art. IRS on your trail? Make good art. Cat exploded? Make good art. Somebody on the Internet thinks what you do is stupid or evil or it's all been done before? Make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, and eventually time will take the sting away, but that doesn't matter. Do what only you do best. Make good art.
'Make it on the good days too.
'... while you are at it, make your art. Do the stuff that only you can do.'
Find the full speech here.
From her 2012 speech at Harvard Business School's class day:
'As the world becomes more connected and less hierarchical, traditional career paths are shifting as well. In 2001, after working in the government, I moved out to Silicon Valley to try finding a job. My timing wasn't really that good.
'The bubble had crashed, small companies were closing, big companies were laying people off. One woman CEO looked at me and said, we wouldn't even think about hiring someone like you. After a while I had a few offers and I had to make a decision, so what did I do?
'I am MBA trained, so I made a spreadsheet. I listed my jobs in the columns and my criteria in the rows, and compared the companies and the missions and the roles. One of the jobs on that sheet was to become Google's first business unit general manager, which sounds good now, but at the time no one thought consumer internet companies could ever make money.
'I was not sure there was actually a job there at all. Google had no business units, so what was there to generally manage. And the job was several levels lower than jobs I was being offered at other companies. So I sat down with Eric Schmidt, who had just become the CEO, and I showed him the spread sheet and I said, this job meets none of my 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. When companies are growing quickly and they are having a lot of impact, careers take care of themselves. And when companies aren't growing quickly or their missions don't matter as much, that's when stagnation and politics come in. If you're offered a seat on a rocket ship, don't ask what seat. Just get on.'
Watch the full speech here.
From his 2005 Commencement speech to Kenyon, since turned into a short film:
'As I'm sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (it may be happening right now). 20 years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.
'Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about quote 'the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.' This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head. They shoot the terrible master.And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.
'And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.'
From Bezos' 2010 commencement speech at Princeton:
'Tomorrow, in a very real sense, your life -- the life you author from scratch on your own -- begins.
'How will you use your gifts? What choices will you make?
'Will inertia be your guide, or will you follow your passions?
'Will you follow dogma, or will you be original?
'Will you choose a life of ease, or a life of service and adventure?
'Will you wilt under criticism, or will you follow your convictions?
'Will you bluff it out when you're wrong, or will you apologise?
'Will you guard your heart against rejection, or will you act when you fall in love?
'Will you play it safe, or will you be a little bit swashbuckling?
'When it's tough, will you give up, or will you be relentless?
'Will you be a cynic, or will you be a builder?
'Will you be clever at the expense of others, or will you be kind?
'I will hazard a prediction. When you are 80 years old, and in a quiet moment of reflection narrating for only yourself the most personal version of your life story, the telling that will be most compact and meaningful will be the series of choices you have made. In the end, we are our choices. Build yourself a great story. Thank you and good luck!'
Watch the full speech here.
Disclosure: Jeff Bezos is an investor in Business Insider through his personal investment company Bezos Expeditions.
CONAN O'BRIAN: Success is a lot like a bright white tuxedo. You feel terrific when you get it, but then you're desperately afraid of getting it dirty, of spoiling it.
From his 2000 commencement speech to Harvard:
'I took a lot of criticism, some of it deserved, some of it excessive, and, to be honest with you, it hurt like you would not believe. But I'm telling you all this for a reason. I've had a lot of success. I've had a lot of failure. I've looked good. I've looked bad. I've been praised. And I've been criticised.
'But my mistakes have been necessary. I've dwelled on my failures today because, as graduates of Harvard, your biggest liability is your need to succeed, your need to always find yourself on the sweet side of the bell curve. Success is a lot like a bright white tuxedo. You feel terrific when you get it, but then you're desperately afraid of getting it dirty, of spoiling it.
'I left the cocoon of Harvard, I left the cocoon of Saturday Night Live, I left the cocoon of the Simpsons. And each time it was bruising and tumultuous. And yet every failure was freeing, and today I'm as nostalgic for the bad as I am for the good.
'So that's what I wish for all of you--the bad as well as the good. Fall down. Make a mess. Break something occasionally. Know that your mistakes are your own unique way of getting to where you need to be. And remember that the story is never over...I will go now to make bigger mistakes and to embarrass this fine institution even more.
'But let me leave you with one last thought. If you can laugh at yourself, loud and hard, every time you fall, people will think you're drunk. Thank you.'
'I now live in Berkeley, California. A few years ago, just a few blocks from my home, a pair of researchers in the Cal psychology department staged an experiment. They began by grabbing students, as lab rats. Then they broke the students into teams, segregated by sex. Three men, or three women, per team. Then they put these teams of three into a room, and arbitrarily assigned one of the three to act as leader. Then they gave them some complicated moral problem to solve: say what should be done about academic cheating, or how to regulate drinking on campus.
'Exactly 30 minutes into the problem-solving the researchers interrupted each group. They entered the room bearing a plate of cookies. Four cookies. The team consisted of three people, but there were these four cookies. Every team member obviously got one cookie, but that left a fourth cookie, just sitting there. It should have been awkward. But it wasn't. With incredible consistency the person arbitrarily appointed leader of the group grabbed the fourth cookie, and ate it. Not only ate it, but ate it with gusto: lips smacking, mouth open, drool at the corners of their mouths. In the end all that was left of the extra cookie were crumbs on the leader's shirt.
'This leader had performed no special task. He had no special virtue. He'd been chosen at random, 30 minutes earlier. His status was nothing but luck. But it still left him with the sense that the cookie should be his.
'This experiment helps to explain Wall Street bonuses and CEO pay, and I'm sure lots of other human behaviour. But it also is relevant to new graduates of Princeton University. In a general sort of way you have been appointed the leader of the group. Your appointment may not be entirely arbitrary. But you must sense its arbitrary aspect: you are the lucky few. Lucky in your parents, lucky in your country, lucky that a place like Princeton exists that can take in lucky people, introduce them to other lucky people, and increase their chances of becoming even luckier. Lucky that you live in the richest society the world has ever seen, in a time when no one actually expects you to sacrifice your interests to anything.
'All of you have been faced with the extra cookie. All of you will be faced with many more of them. In time you will find it easy to assume that you deserve the extra cookie. For all I know, you may. But you'll be happier, and the world will be better off, if you at least pretend that you don't.
'Never forget: In the nation's service. In the service of all nations.
Watch the full speech here.
CAROL BARTZ: The gloom and doom of today's job market is not going to shape your future. The economy's cyclical. Get used to it.
From her 2012 commencement address to UW Madison:
'Look past the gloom and doom headlines, and actually don't believe that the events of today are the ones that are going to shape your future. Because your work life is very, very long. You're the first generation that is preparing for a 50-year work life, and you know why. You have to support all of us.
'You know, that probably sounds like an eternity now, and you're probably saying let me first get a job and then I'll worry about working 50 years, but truly, for all kinds of reasons, health reasons, economic reasons, most of you will be working into your '70s and '80s, which actually isn't all that bad. Retirement now at 62 and 65 as we think of it will be a thing of the past. You know, think of instead of this as a burden as a series of opportunities. In fact, people used to go to a job and stay in that job forever.
'That doesn't happen anymore. How boring is that? So think of it as a chance to find and discover new things. If you start a job or business this summer or fall or a year from now, you're going to realise how much runway you actually have. In the past, people talked about career ladders, and that's what work felt like. If you were lucky, and you were diligent, and you sucked up and all that stuff, you went up the ladder. Do you want to do that, no. First of all, ladders are very unstable. Do a career pyramid so you have a great base, you can change your mind, you can do a lot of different things.'
Find the whole speech here.
'I didn't see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.
'During the next five years, I started a company named NeXT, another company named Pixar, and fell in love with an amazing woman who would become my wife. Pixar went on to create the worlds first computer animated feature film, Toy Story, and is now the most successful animation studio in the world. In a remarkable turn of events, Apple bought NeXT, I returned to Apple, and the technology we developed at NeXT is at the heart of Apple's current renaissance. And Laurene and I have a wonderful family together.
'I'm pretty sure none of this would have happened if I hadn't been fired from Apple. It was awful tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it. Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don't lose faith. I'm convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You've got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. 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. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don't settle.'
Watch the whole speech here.
'This is the straight truth, the righteous truth. It's not a theory, it's a fact. The fact is that this generation--yours, my generation--that can look at the poverty, we're the first generation that can look at poverty and disease, look across the ocean to Africa and say with a straight face, we can be the first to end this sort of stupid extreme poverty, where in the world of plenty, a child can die for lack of food in it's belly. We can be the first generation. It might take a while, but we can be that generation that says no to stupid poverty. It's a fact, the economists confirm it. It's an expensive fact but, cheaper than say the Marshall Plan that saved Europe from communism and fascism. And cheaper I would argue than fighting wave after wave of terrorism's new recruits. That's the economics department over there, very good.
'... Sing the melody line you hear in your own head, remember, you don't owe anybody any explanations, you don't owe your parents any explanations, you don't owe your professors any explanations. You know I used to think the future was solid or fixed, something you inherited like an old building that you move into when the previous generation moves out or gets chased out.
'But it's not. The future is not fixed, it's fluid. You can build your own building, or hut or condo, whatever; this is the metaphor part of the speech by the way.
'But my point is that the world is more malleable than you think and it's waiting for you to hammer it into shape. Now if I were a folksinger I'd immediately launch into 'If I Had a Hammer' right now get you all singing and swaying. But as I say I come from punk rock, so I'd rather have the bloody hammer right here in my fist.
'That's what this degree of yours is, a blunt instrument. So go forth and build something with it. Remember what John Adams said about Ben Franklin, 'He does not hesitate at our boldest Measures but rather seems to think us too irresolute.'
'Well this is the time for bold measures. This is the country, and you are the generation.'
Watch the full speech here.
JK ROWLING: Failure is not fun. It can be awful. But living so cautiously that you never fail is worse.
From her 2008 commencement address at Harvard:
'I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. 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.
'Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution. I had no idea then how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.
'So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.'
Watch the full speech here.
From her 2009 commencement address to Tulane:
'When I was younger I thought success was something different. I thought when I grow up, I want to be famous. I want to be a star. I want to be in movies. When I grow up I want to see the world, drive nice cars, I want to have groupies. To quote the Pussycat Dolls. How many people thought it was 'boobies', by the way? It's not, it's 'groupies'.
'But my idea of success is different today. And as you grow, you'll realise the definition of success changes. 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. So to conclude my conclusion, follow your passion, stay true to yourself. Never follow anyone else's path, unless you're in the woods and you're lost and you see a path and by all means you should follow that. Don't give advice, it will come back and bite you in the arse. Don't take anyone's advice. So my advice to you is to be true to yourself and everything will be fine.'
Watch the full speech here.
From his 2006 commencement speech to Knox College:
'Well, you are about to start the greatest improvisation of all. With no script. No idea what's going to happen, often with people and places you have never seen before. And you are not in control. So say 'yes.' And if you're lucky, you'll find people who will say 'yes' back.
'Now will saying 'yes' get you in trouble at times? Will saying 'yes' lead you to doing some foolish things? Yes it will. But don't be afraid to be a fool. Remember, you cannot be both young and wise. Young people who pretend to be wise to the ways of the world are mostly just cynics. Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don't learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying 'yes' begins things. Saying 'yes' is how things grow. Saying 'yes' leads to knowledge. 'Yes' is for young people. So for as long as you have the strength to, say 'yes.''
Watch the full speech here.
From his 2004 commencement speech to The College of William and Mary:
'When I left William and Mary I was shell-shocked. Because when you're in college it's very clear what you have to do to succeed. And I imagine here everybody knows exactly the number of credits they needed to graduate, where they had to buckle down, which introductory psychology class would pad out the schedule. You knew what you had to do to get to this college and to graduate from it.
'But the unfortunate, yet truly exciting thing about your life, is 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.'
See the full speech here.
BARBARA KINGSOLVER: You can be as earnest and ridiculous as you need to be, if you don't attempt it in isolation.
From her 2008 commencement speech to Duke graduates:
'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 neighbour. 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.'
Watch the full speech here.
From his 1985 commencement speech to Connecticut College:
1. Bend down once in a while and smell a flower.
2. Don't go around in clothes that talk.
3. Listen once in a while.
4. Sleep in the nude.
5. Turn off the TV.
6. Don't take your gun to town.
7. Learn to fear the automobile.
8. Have some children.
9. Get married.
ANN PATCHETT: Come back to the place you graduated in a few years. It reminds you that uncertainty works out.
From her 2006 commencement speech to Sarah Lawrence College:
'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.
'Every choice lays down a trail of bread crumbs, so that when you look behind you there appears to be a very clear path that points straight to the place where you now stand. But when you look ahead there isn't a bread crumb in sight -- there are just a few shrubs, a bunch of trees, a handful of skittish woodland creatures. You glance from left to right and find no indication of which way you're supposed to go. And so you stand there, sniffing at the wind, looking for directional clues in the growth patterns of moss, and you think, What now?
'Sometimes not having any idea where we're going works out better than we could possibly have imagined.'
OPRAH WINFREY: The biggest difficulties in life come from not being present, from ignoring what life and others are trying to tell you.
From her 2008 commencement speech to Stanford University:
'Now I want to talk a little bit about failings, because nobody's journey is seamless or smooth. We all stumble. We all have setbacks. If things go wrong, you hit a dead end -- as you will -- it's just life's way of saying time to change course. So, ask every failure -- this is what I do with every failure, every crisis, every difficult time -- I say, what is this here to teach me? And as soon as you get the lesson, you get to move on. If you really get the lesson, you pass and you don't have to repeat the class. If you don't get the lesson, it shows up wearing another pair of pants -- or skirt -- to give you some remedial work.'
'And what I've found is that difficulties come when you don't pay attention to life's whisper, because life always whispers to you first. And if you ignore the whisper, sooner or later you'll get a scream. Whatever you resist persists. But, if you ask the right question -- not why is this happening, but what is this here to teach me? -- it puts you in the place and space to get the lesson you need.'
Watch the full speech here.
From 2004 commencement speech to University of Wisconsin - Madison:
'Take action. Every story you've ever connected with, every leader you've ever admired, every puny little thing that you've ever accomplished is the result of taking action. You have a choice. You can either be a passive victim of circumstance or you can be the active hero of your own life. Action is the antidote to apathy and cynicism and despair. You will inevitably make mistakes. Learn what you can and move on. At the end of your days, you will be judged by your gallop, not by your stumble.
'In short, my obnoxiously young friends, you don't just get democracy -- you have to make it happen. I urge you to extend that call to action to every aspect of your lives.
'Let me be clear -- I want you all to stay the hell out of show business. The last thing I need is a bunch of young people invading my job market.
'But I do want you to be an actor in your own life. Infuse your life with action. Don't wait for it to happen. Make it happen. Make your own future. Make your own hope. Make your own love. And whatever your beliefs, honour your creator, not by passively waiting for grace to come down from upon high, but by doing what you can to make grace happen -- yourself, right now, right down here on Earth.'
From his 1941 address to the Harrow School:
'You cannot tell from appearances how things will go. Sometimes imagination makes things out far worse than they are; yet without imagination not much can be done. Those people who are imaginative see many more dangers than perhaps exist; certainly many more than will happen; but then they must also pray to be given that extra courage to carry this far-reaching imagination.
'... 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.'
From his 2011 commencement speech to Columbia Business School:
'Professional integrity begins with personal integrity. You cannot get away with the idea 'our product has fewer defects than the competitor's' or 'our service is not as bad as others'.' Relativism is not an option; it is all about honesty and loyalty. These are absolutes. Trust me, they will make your lives simpler -- and they carry their own rewards.'
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