The Graduation Speech: Excellent Advice for Everyone (Not Just Students)

Advice is everywhere. Anybody who can get online can get on a soapbox. And no one has the time to curate everything that’s being said about living well, productivity, morality, or any aspect of living a better life. There’s simply too much to grasp.

But we’ve done some homework and discovered that every year there’s a specific event, one moment, that is perfectly centered and unapologetically committed to offering great life advice: the graduation speech.

It’s one sure way to find the kind of thinking that is useful, smart, transformative, and sometimes even transcendent.

An unlikely collection of great ideas

Every year, an eclectic bunch of interesting people share words of wisdom with soon to be graduated men and women. Todd Rundgren. President Obama. Jeff Bezos. Bono. Stephen Colbert. Toni Morrison. Steve Jobs. Ellen DeGeneres. They’ve all been at the podium on graduation day, full of promises, the practical, and the comedic. Here are some highlights from the last 15 years.

Love what you do or stop doing it

The price of hating your life is too high.

It can’t be said often enough. Love what you do and you’ll never work a day in your life. Everybody has some kind of passion. And if you can find it, work at it. Literally. Wrap a wonderful work life around something you love. If you can’t do that, the backup plan is to figure out a way to love what you are doing. Just don’t fight it. The daily struggle will make you sick, depressed, and tired. Or all three.

“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.”

— Steve Jobs: Stanford, 2005

“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 to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged.”

— J. K. Rowling: Harvard University, 2008

“I implore you to not fear what you are drawn to, for rejecting that is to stymie the very patterns that make you, well, you. Imagine the torture of putting yourself through that. No matter how much money you make, you will not be happy spending your time imagining the path you wished you’d chosen.”

— Max Londberg: University of Oregon, 2013

Success and failure

Decide for yourself what these ideas mean to you.

No matter who you are or where you come from, right now, at this moment you probably have a clear image of what success and failure look like. Great. It’s inevitable. Goals are good. The trick is to let these ideas change and evolve because that’s inevitable too. Take what you wanted as a kid, or what your parents wanted or a teacher, throw it all in a blender and make it your own. If you don’t come up with your own recipe, you’re eating somebody else’s dinner and it’s already cold.

“If everybody followed their first dreams in life, the world would be ruled by cowboys and princesses.”

— Stephen Colbert: Northwestern University, 2011

“David Letterman wanted to be Johnny Carson, and was not, and as a result, my generation of comedians wanted to be David Letterman. And none of us are. My peers and I have all missed that mark in a thousand different ways. But the point is this: It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique. It’s not easy, but if you accept your misfortune and handle it right, your perceived failure can become a catalyst for profound reinvention.”

— Conan O’Brien: Dartmouth College, 2011

“If you don’t fail, you’re not even trying. My wife told me this great expression, ‘To get something you never had, you have to do something you never did.’”

— Denzel Washington: University of Pennsylvania, 2011

Open Up

Explore. Question habits. Listen up. Change.

If you’re restless and unsettled, that’s what you’ll think about. If you’re in a good, well-balanced place you might just settle into the comfort zone.

But in either case, it’s a good idea to avoid getting isolated or controlled by your own present situation, good or bad. Curiosity. Openness. Interaction. Change. Listening. Focus. Dedication. These are habits too, and they tend to lead to growth over stagnation. They’re simply life alternatives. Decisions you can make in your own self-interest.

“Because as my grandmother used to tell me, every time a fool speaks, they are just advertising their own ignorance. Let them talk. If you don’t, you just make them a victim, and then they can avoid accountability.”

— President Barack Obama: Howard University, 2016

“As you start your journey, the first thing you should do is throw away that store-bought map and begin to draw your own.”

— Michael Dell: University of Texas at Austin, 2003


The good stuff is worth looking for

First impressions can be risky. They are borne out of the prejudice that what you already know and like is all there is. It can serve to shut you down. Bust out of your comfort zone. Take a chance. Get over yourself. Explore.

No matter how long you live, with your eyes wide open, there will be worlds of wonder waiting to be discovered. So keep looking.

“One of the greatest gifts you can give yourself, right here, right now, in this single, solitary, monumental moment in your life, is to decide, without apology, to commit to the journey, and not to the outcome.”

— Joyce DiDonato: Juilliard School, 2014

“Just because something doesn’t confirm your existing beliefs does not mean it’s a hoax. The smartest and most successful people I know are the people who are constantly evolving, always learning. And some of them, believe it or not, are smart enough to occasionally change their minds.”

— Stephanie Ruhle: Lehigh University, 2017

“If you love only yourself, you will serve only yourself. And you will have only yourself. So no more winning. Instead, try to love others and serve others, and hopefully find those who love and serve you in return.”

— Stephen Colbert: Northwestern University, 2011

“So how do you know what is the right path to choose to get the result that you desire? And the honest answer is this: You won’t.”

Jon Stewart: College of William and Mary 2004

Forget about it

Sometimes a short memory is your very best friend.

When a professional baseball pitcher, making $500,000 a game, throws a fastball that turns into a grand slam to left field, the most important thing his training tells him is: forget about it. Throw the next pitch. You know how to do this. See what happens.

OK, it’s a sports analogy. But it really works. The best way to deal with mistakes and failures is to give yourself a day, an hour, a minute to think about it and move on.

“Fall forward. Reggie Jackson struck out 2,600 times in his career, the most in the history of baseball. But you don’t hear about the strikeouts. People remember the home runs. Fall forward. Thomas Edison conducted 1,000 failed experiments. Did you know that? I didn’t know that because the 1,001st was the light bulb. Fall forward. Every failed experiment is one step closer to success.”

— Denzel Washington: University of Pennsylvania, 2011

“I wish someone had said to me that it’s normal to feel lost for a little while.”

Ira Glass: Goucher College, 2012

“Rehearsal’s over. You’re going out there now, you’re going to do this thing. How you live matters. You’re going to fall down, but the world doesn’t care how many times you fall down, as long as it’s one fewer than the number of times you get back up.”

Aaron Sorkin: Syracuse University 2012

The classic advice column of all time

400 years old and still perfect

Not precisely a commencement address, this is the advice Polonius had for his son, Laertes, on his departure to university in Paris. Try and get over the 16th-century poetic language. It’s not that hard. The bottom line: If this had been written today, it would be on the back of every diploma handed out every year.

Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportioned thought his act.
Be thou familiar but by no means vulgar.
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel,
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch’d, unfledged comrade.
Beware of entrance to a quarrel, but being in,
Bear ’t that th’ opposèd may beware of thee.
Give every man thy ear but few thy voice.
Take each man’s censure but reserve thy judgment.
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not expressed in fancy—rich, not gaudy,

…Neither a borrower nor a lender be,
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

— William Shakespeare: Hamlet (Act I, Scene iii)

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