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May 12, 2018

Photo credit: dwhartwig via VisualHunt / CC BY

There are few moments in life akin to graduating University. After 15 + years of learning, struggling through tests and teachers, the joys of puberty, and many memories along the way, students are pushed (probably with a fair bit of debt) into the unknown of the “real world.” However, if they’re lucky they will receive some great, encouraging words from those who have been in their shoes before. From writers to entrepreneurs to politicians.

Now, with the benefits of modern technology, one does not need to spend $100,000+ on an education to enjoy said advice. Because of this, we put together some of our favorites.  

Presented in no order in particular, here are 20 of the best commencement speeches ever given (and also available on YouTube):

Neil Gaiman – University of the Arts, 2012

Summarized in one passage:

When you start out on a career in the arts you have no idea what you are doing. This is great. People who know what they are doing know the rules and know what is possible and impossible. You do not. And you should not. The rules on what is possible and impossible in the arts were made by people who had not tested the bounds of the possible by going beyond them. And you can. If you don’t know it’s impossible it’s easier to do. And because nobody’s done it before, they haven’t made up rules to stop anyone doing that again, yet.

Steve Jobs – Stanford University, 2005

Summarized in one passage:

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.

David Foster Wallace – Kenyon College, 2005

Summarized in one passage:

The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worshippower, you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.

Aaron Sorkin – Syracuse University, 2012

Summarized in one passage:

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 numbers of times you get back up.

Barack Obama – Howard University, 2016

Summarized in one passage:

But to bring about structural change, lasting change, awareness is not enough. It requires changes in law, changes in custom. If you care about mass incarceration, let me ask you: How are you pressuring members of Congress to pass the criminal justice reform bill now pending before them? (Applause.) If you care about better policing, do you know who your district attorney is? Do you know who your state’s attorney general is? Do you know the difference? Do you know who appoints the police chief and who writes the police training manual? Find out who they are, what their responsibilities are. Mobilize the community, present them with a plan, work with them to bring about change, hold them accountable if they do not deliver. Passion is vital, but you’ve got to have a strategy.

Admiral William H. McRaven – University of Texas at Austin, 2014

Summarized in one passage:

If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.

Eric Schmidt – UC Berkeley, 2012

Summarized in One Passage:

What is different, though, is the chance each generation has to take that history and write it larger—­­or, for those of you engineers, to program it better. And, on that score, your generation’s opportunities are greater than any generation’s in modern history. You’re connecting to each other in ways those who came before you could never dream of. And you’re using those connections to strengthen the invisible ties that hold humanity together and to deepen our understanding of the world around us. You are emblems of the sense of possibility that will define our new age. You can write the code for all of us.

JK Rowling – Harvard, 2012


Summarized in one passage:

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 to me.  Had I really succeeded at anything else I might have never found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free because my greatest fear had been realized and I was still alive and I still had a daughter whom I adored and I had an old typewriter and a big idea.

And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

Conan O’Brien – Dartmouth University, 2011

Summarized in one passage:

There are few things more liberating in this life than having your worst fear realized. I went to college with many people who prided themselves on knowing exactly who they were and exactly where they were going. At Harvard, five different guys in my class told me that they would one day be President of the United States. Four of them were later killed in motel shoot-outs. The other one briefly hosted Blues Clues, before dying senselessly in yet another motel shoot-out. Your path at 22 will not necessarily be your path at 32 or 42. One’s dream is constantly evolving, rising and falling, changing course. This happens in every job, but because I have worked in comedy for twenty-five years, I can probably speak best about my own profession.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson – UMass Amherst, 2015


Summarized in one passage:

I think on some level role models are overrated … I’ll tell you why. Growing up in the Bronx, had I required as a prerequisite that another black man from the Bronx had become an astrophysicist, I’d still be in the Bronx. If you require a role model who looks just like you to be something you want to be, and you can’t find one, is that a reason to not be what you want to be? No! So my argument is simple. You can assemble your role model- get the people that do what you like, but you don’t have to be them. Be the piece of them that you want to be, and if it’s someone who was moral, do that,  someone athletic, you do that. So you don’t have to be the whole person. That protects you from when your person messes up in some fundamental way, there isn’t this fear that now you have to mess up too because that’s what your role model did. So I encourage people to assemble their role models a la carte. That is a far more potent way to establish what it is you may become in this world.

Stephen Colbert – Knox University, 2011

Summarized in one passage:

Now will saying “yes” get you in trouble at times? Will saying “yes” lead you 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.”

Elon Musk – Caltech, 2012

Summarized in one passage:

If you’re going to create a company, you need to create a working prototype. Everything works great on PowerPoint. You can make anything work on PowerPoint. If you have a demonstration model, even in primitive form, that’s much more effective in convincing people.

Charlie Day – Merrimack College, 2014

Summarized in one passage:

Well, I’ve always had a half-baked philosophy that having plan B can muddy up your plan A.

Bill Gates – Harvard University, 2007

Summarized in one passage:

If you believe that every life has equal value, it’s revolting to learn that some lives are seen as worth saving and others are not. We said to ourselves: “This can’t be true. But if it is true, it deserves to be the priority of our giving.” So we began our work in the same way anyone here would begin it. We asked: “How could the world let these children die?” The answer is simple, and harsh. The market did not reward saving the lives of these children, and governments did not subsidize it. So the children died because their mothers and their fathers had no power in the market and no voice in the system. But you and I have both.

Sheryl Sandberg – Berkeley, 2016

Summarized in one passage:

Everyone who has made it through Cal has already experienced some disappointment. You wanted an A but you got a B. OK, let’s be honest—you got an A- but you’re still mad. You applied for an internship at Facebook, but you only got one from Google. She was the love of your life… but then she swiped left. Game of Thrones the show has diverged way too much from the books—and you bothered to read all four thousand three hundred and fifty-two pages. You will almost certainly face more and deeper adversity. There’s loss of opportunity: the job that doesn’t work out, the illness or accident that changes everything in an instant. There’s loss of dignity: the sharp sting of prejudice when it happens. There’s loss of love: the broken relationships that can’t be fixed. And sometimes there’s loss of life itself.


Stephen Colbert – The Late Show, 2016

Summarized in one passage:

Don’t wait for things to happen, make them happen. If you want a certain job, go out there and kidnap the person who’s job you want and assume their identity. 

Hank Azaria – Tufts University, 2016

Summarized in one passage:

I didn’t realize it, but when I was your guys’ age, I had a belief that who I was and how I thought and how I felt was inherently uninteresting and flawed and not practical. Well, maybe they were and maybe they still are. But it wasn’t until I embraced the person that I really was that my work as an actor got really interesting. I’m not suggesting that you ignore the laws of … The rules of society or the laws of common sense or the actual law or textbooks or manuals or your teachers or your advisors or the Internet or all the other sources that are happy to tell you the right and wrong way to go about doing almost everything. Just please be honest with yourself about what you think and how you feel about all of that, what you like and dislike, what angers you or scares you or saddens you or inspires you or delights you. Those feelings are called your instincts, and you ignore them at your own peril.

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