A graduation ceremony can be a long, boring affair, especially if you’re cursed with sitting through a bad speech. For some lucky graduates, however, their commencement speakers brought their A-game and delivered insightful and inspiring speeches full of life lessons we’d all do well to heed. Whether you need some motivation of your own, or are looking for some words of wisdom for a graduate-to-be in your life, you’ve come to the right place. We’ve rounded up 50 amazing life tips from great graduation speeches, each more inspiring than the last. And if you want even more inspiration, check out these 100 Life-Changing Quotes to Inspire Your Day.
“If you’re an aspiring business person or entrepreneur…
…go to where the real estate is cheap and the community is strong.” — Anne-Marie Slaughter, Washington University, 2018
Lawyer and foreign policy expert Slaughter advised those seeking entrepreneurial opportunities to pave new paths for themselves and join burgeoning communities, rather than simply following the path other industry successes chose.
“If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.”
— Admiral William McRaven, University of Texas, 2014
Admiral McRaven, who went on to write an entire book based on this piece of advice, says that setting the tone for big tasks starts with the accomplishment of small ones, like making your bed. And if you really want to get your day off to a good start, This Is the Best Way to Make Your Bed Safer.
“Eat a good breakfast. It really pays off….
…Pay your bills on time. Recycle. Make your bed. Aim high. Say thank you to people and actually really mean it. Ask for help when you need it, and put your phone away at the dinner table.” — Oprah Winfrey, USC Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism, 2018
“Put the alarm clock in the bathroom, and keep the door open.”
— John Walsh, Wheaton College, 2000
The author and art historian gave students at Wheaton College this tip, which forces a person to get out of bed in the morning to shut off their alarm, whether they’re eager to wake up or not. And if you can’t imagine a morning without mashing the snooze button, check out the 70 Tips for Your Best Sleep Ever.
“Rotate your tires. Don’t drink so much….
…There aren’t going to be enough liver transplants to go around.” — Richard Russo, Colby College, 2004
“When someone who cares about you hugs you, hug them back….
…If someone doesn’t want to play with you, it’s okay. Not everybody is going to love us.” —Sandra Bullock, Warren Easton Charter High School, 2014
“Play a sport, do yoga, pump iron, run… whatever…
…but take care of your body. You’re going to need it. Most of you mob are going to live to nearly a hundred, and even the poorest of you will achieve a level of wealth that most humans throughout history could not have dreamed of. And this long, luxurious life ahead of you is going to make you depressed! But don’t despair! There is an inverse correlation between depression and exercise. Do it. Run, my beautiful intellectuals, run. And don’t smoke.” — Tim Minchin, University of Western Australia, 2013. And if you’re looking for a way to get fit, you should know The 30 Biggest Exercise Myths.
“It’s great that you are a Wharton MBA. But please, don’t act like it…
…Don’t let it get in the way of seeing people as people and all they have to offer you, regardless of their title or position.” — Hamdi Ulukaya, Wharton School of Business, 2018
Chobani CEO Hamdi Ulukaya gave Wharton students this simple tip for lifelong success: don’t let your great education get in the way of you being a great person; your contributions to the world are greater than just what your diploma says on it.
“The daily activity that contributes most to happiness is having dinner with friends…
…The daily activity that detracts most from happiness is commuting. Eat more. Commute less.” — David Brooks, Sewanee: The University of the South, 2013
“When things are going sweetly and peacefully….
…please pause a moment, and then say out loud, ‘If this isn’t nice, what is?'” — Kurt Vonnegut, Agnes Scott College, 1999
The prolific author gave this piece of advice—a modern update on the over-used “stop and smell the roses”—encouraging them to appreciate the small moments of happiness in life.
“You don’t have a job? Get one…
…Any job. Don’t sit at home waiting for the magical opportunity. Who are you? Prince William? No. Get a job. Go to work. Do something until you can do something else.” — Shonda Rhimes, Dartmouth College, 2014
“Listen, say yes, live in the moment…
…make sure you play with people who have your back, make big choices early and often.” — Amy Poehler, Harvard University Class Day, 2011
“Enjoy your body…
…Use it every way you can. Don’t be afraid of it or of what other people think of it. It’s the greatest instrument you’ll ever own.” — Mary Schmich, “Wear Sunscreen,” Chicago Tribune, 1997
“You should always try to find the toughest audience you can.”
— Jay Leno, Emerson College, 2014
The late-night host cautioned his audience at Emerson’s graduation from getting too comfortable in life, telling them to continue seeking challenges—or tough audiences, in comedian-speak.
“When you need help — and we all do — ask for it….
…Requesting help is a sign of strength, not weakness.” — Sheryl Sandberg, City Colleges of Chicago, 2014
The Lean In author made it clear that being successful doesn’t mean pretending you always know what you’re doing. Asking for help when you need it can help you get where you’re going faster, says the Facebook COO.
“Take care of yourself: Eat your vegetables….
…Get some exercise, floss. Use your turn signal. I know that has nothing to do with taking care of yourself, it’s just a pet peeve of mine.” — J.K. Simmons, University of Montana, 2016
“And when things get tough, this is what you should do: make good art.”
—Neil Gaiman, University of the Arts, 2012
Sandman author told graduates of Philadelphia’s University of the Arts that making art you care about is the ideal antidote to whatever life throws in your path, whether that’s an outstanding tax bill or getting your “leg crushed and then eaten by a mutated boa constrictor.”
“Read. Reading is active….
…TV, movies and video are passive. Reading engages your imagination. Video substitutes for your imagination. Reading takes you into life, while television distracts you from life.” — Doug Marlette, Durham Academy, 2005
“Don’t waste one minute…
…Don’t, with your Bachelor’s from a fine college, work only in pizza for five years. Don’t busk for change on the streets of downtown Los Angeles playing a musical instrument poorly. Don’t send your first tax return to the IRS with scrawling letters: ‘Sorry! Smiley face. Don’t get it.'” — Maria Bamford, University of Minnesota, 2017
“Get a life in which you are not alone…
…Find people you love, and who love you. And remember that love is not leisure, it is work.” — Anna Quindlen, Villanova, 2004
“Don’t give advice….
…It will come back and bite you in the a–. Don’t take anyone’s advice. So, my advice to you is to be true to yourself and everything will be fine.” — Ellen Degeneres, Tulane University, 2009
“Challenge all of your assumptions regularly….
…Apologize every now and then. Admit to mistakes. Forgive, and ask for forgiveness. Listen more.” — Senator Jeff Flake, Harvard Law School, 2018
“Above all else, do not lie…
…Or don’t lie too often.”— Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Harvard University, 2018
The Americanah author admits that, in any circumstance—but particularly the current political climate—being truthful and being able to consider yourself a person who’s stayed true to their values, is paramount. Calling past lies and omissions her “biggest regrets,” the author added, “There is nothing more beautiful than to wake up every day holding in your hand the full measure of your integrity.”
“Life, as you will learn, graduates…
…is about showing up day after day, week after week. People notice when you show up, when you put your head down, when you work hard. You won’t always succeed. You won’t always be the best. But nothing in life comes easy. So show up, be on time and be ready to work.” — Wolf Blitzer, High Point University, 2017
“Despite difficulties, always keep optimism…
‘I can overcome these difficulties.’ That mental attitude itself will bring inner strength and self-confidence.” — Dalai Lama, Tulane University, 2013
“For the most important decisions in your life, trust your intuition….
…And then work with everything you have to prove it right.” — Tim Cook, Auburn University, 2010
“Don’t let complexities stop you….
…Be activists. Take on big inequities. It will be one of the great experiences of your lives.” — Bill Gates, Harvard University, 2007
The important things in life, hard though they may be, are still worth doing, according to Bill Gates, who told Harvard grads in 2007 to keep fighting for their beliefs, no matter how difficult it seems.
“So dream big, but work hard…
…and believe me when I tell you this: there are no shortcuts.” — Sharyn Alfonsi, University of Mississippi, 2013
The 60 Minutes correspondent admitted that, despite not always being the smartest person in a room or having a degree from an Ivy League school, her tenacity helped her get ahead—and encouraged others to not let their perceived shortcomings stand between them and success.
“Fear is going to be a player in your life…
…but you get to decide how much.” — Jim Carrey, Maharishi University of Management, 2014
In his speech to the graduating class at Maharishi University of Management in 2014, Carrey cautioned against mistaking fear for practicality, and to continue reaching for their goals, no matter how impractical they may seem in the moment.
“Always be people of honesty and integrity….
…These are the most important things you can own in life, and no one can take them away from you, not ever.” — Rev. Joseph L. Levesque, Niagara University, 2007
“You will need to be open and flexible in order to embrace change….
…The winds of change will blow you off course if you are not anchored by a core set of values.” — Sergio Marchionne, University of Toledo, 2011
The Chrysler Group CEO reminded students at the University of Toledo that, regardless of what obstacles cross their path, to remain true to their beliefs. “Values are not negotiable,” he said.
“Always have a purpose in life that is beyond power and money.”
— Colin Powell, Northeastern University, 2012
“Being smart is not enough to achieve results.”
— David Cote, University of New Hampshire, 2011
Former Honeywell CEO David Cote told graduates a truth that their parents may have neglected to arm them with: intelligence doesn’t outweigh other your other skills in the end. Instead, he suggested, a combination of risk-taking, people skills, drive, and hard work will outweigh intelligence alone in the end.
“Insist on heroes. And be one.”
— Ken Burns, Georgetown University, 2006
Filmmaker Ken Burns told the 2006 graduates at Georgetown that skepticism, cynicism, and hero worship will all get in the way of their overall happiness and success. Instead, he suggests, graduates would be better off living a principled life of which they can be proud.
“I waited a long time out in the world…
…before I gave myself permission to fail. Please don’t even bother asking. Don’t bother telling the world you are ready. Show it. Do it.” — Peter Dinklage, Bennington College, 2012
“Don’t be afraid to be impatient….
…The entrepreneurs whose ideas have driven the world’s economy are those who refused to wait.” — Ronan Farrow, Dominican University of California, 2012
“Mistakes in your 20s are not irreparable….
…They’re part of your education, and probably the most valuable part.” — David Broder, Kalamazoo College, 1975
“You may not be able to alter reality…
…but you can alter your attitude towards it, and this, paradoxically, alters reality. Try it and see.” — Margaret Atwood, University of Toronto, 1983
The Handmaid’s Tale author told University of Toronto graduates that simply changing your attitude toward a problem—for example, choosing to see it in a positive light rather than a negative one—can have a distinct impact on the outcome.
“Now is the time to take risks….
…Now is the time not to be safe.” — Jon Lovett, Pitzer College, 2013
The former Obama speechwriter told graduates of the 2013 class at Pitzer College that eventually, they would live to regret the times in their early 20s they’d chosen to do the safe thing, rather than the exciting one, the new one, or the one that seemed a little dangerous.
“Make failure your friend, but not a habit.”
— Benno Schmidt, Jr. University of Missouri, 2012
The former Yale University president admitted that he had been close to closing his Edison Schools—now EdisonLearning—in 1993, a non-profit education management company that was valued at $180 million just a decade later.
“It’s hard not to be afraid….
…Be less afraid.” — Susan Sontag, Vassar College, 2003
The writer and activist advised Vassar grads to confront their fears, embrace their feelings, and enjoy a good laugh whenever possible.
“It’s not what happens to you….
…It’s what you do with what happens to you.” — Chris Waddell, Middlebury College, 2011
The Paralympic athlete told Middlebury graduates that unforeseen circumstances—like the skiing accident that left him paralyzed—can be a catalyst for positive change in an individual’s life.
“The most important words that have helped me in life…
…when things have gone right or when things have gone wrong are ‘accept responsibility.’” — Billie Jean King, University of Massachusetts, 2000
“Generate an expertise in an area…
…other than the profession that you choose to make your living.” — Dr. Mehmet Oz, West Chester University of Pennsylvania, 2011
While Dr. Oz’s medical career made him a star, he cautioned students at West Chester University of Pennsylvania against resting on their professional laurels. Instead, exploring curiosities outside the professional realm would make them more well-rounded, happier individuals in the long run.
“Never let others define you…
…Define yourselves.” — Ed Helms, University of Virginia, 2015
“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
“When you are free from self-doubt, you fail better.”
— Jennifer Lee, University of New Hampshire, 2014
The Frozen director suggested a ban on self-doubt to UNH graduates, calling it, “consuming and cruel” and identifying it as “one of the most destructive forces” in any person’s life. Ignoring self-doubt, she said, helps a person lower his or her defenses, increasing their ability to accept criticism and make positive changes along the way.
“Remember, true opportunity never knocks….
…I have found that I have to go looking for opportunity. And if I don’t find it, I have to create it.” — Sumner Redstone, Northwestern University, 2002
Media mogul Sumner Redstone told Northwestern grads that opportunity “plays hard to get” and advised them against ignoring opportunities masquerading as mere temptations.
“Responsibility to yourself means…
…that you don’t fall for shallow and easy solutions. It means you refuse to sell your talents and aspirations short.” — Adrienne Rich, Douglass College, 1977
Late poet Adrienne Rich advised graduates of Douglass College’s 1977 graduating class to avoid taking the easy way out, whether in terms of economic security or relationships. Instead, she said, accepting discomfort and struggle and doing the hard work to change things would serve them better in the long run.
“People will say you can’t do good and do well….
…They’re wrong. That’s idiotic advice.” — Soledad O’Brien, University of Delaware, 2012
Being a good person and being a well-compensated one aren’t mutually exclusive, the veteran journalist told University of Delaware grads, advising them against selling themselves short financially as a means of maintaining their morality. And if you’re hoping to add a little more meaning to your life, check out The 50 Greatest Happiness Hacks.
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