As new graduates prepare to enter the “real world,” colleges and universities gather them into auditoriums to absorb wisdom from great leaders.
Most of that wisdom is forgettable. A lot of it is clichéd. (Dream big! Follow your passion!) But some of it resonates — even years later, even if you’re not graduating, even if you haven’t graduated in years.
We’ve collected some of the best advice from some of the best speeches in recent (and not-so-recent) memory, worth reading and listening to for any grad — or anyone looking for a little guidance.
Barack Obama: Your life will be full of setbacks — how you handle them will make all the difference
During his 2016 commencement speech at Rutgers University, US President Barack Obama told new graduates that they should expect to occasionally deal with foolish people, bad bosses, and not getting exactly what they want.
“So you have to stick with it. You have to be persistent,” he said.
He explained that success, however small, is still success, and he warned graduates not to lose hope in the face of naysayers and roadblocks.
“Certainly don’t let resistance make you cynical,” Obama warns. “Cynicism is so easy, and cynics don’t accomplish much.”
Sheryl Sandberg: If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat. Just get on.
Addressing the Harvard Business School class of 2012, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg began with a story from her own career: the time she almost turned down the offer to join Google because it was too low-level. She explained to then-CEO Eric Schmidt that the job didn’t meet her criteria.
And that’s when he gave her advice she passed onto the newly minted MBAs: “Get on a rocket ship.”
“When companies are growing quickly and they are having a lot of impact, careers take care of themselves,” she recalls him saying. “And when companies aren’t growing quickly or their missions don’t matter as much, that’s when stagnation and politics come in.” So take note: “If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat. Just get on.”
Salman Khan: Live your life like it’s your second chance
The Khan Academy founder urged his fellow mega-achieving MIT grads to not lose sight of what really matters.
“Imagine yourself in 50 years,” he advised the class of 2012. Reflecting back on your life, “you’ll think of all the great moments with your family and friends,” he said. Then you’ll look back on your regrets. You’ll wish you laughed more, loved more, danced more, appreciated more, he said. You’ll wish “that you better used the gifts you were given to empower others and make the world better.”
Then he posed a thought experiment: what if a genie could take you back? What would you do differently?
Now, do that. “You really do have the chance to do it all over again,” he said — starting right now. As of today, “you can be the source of positivity that you wished you had been the first time around.”
Neil Gaiman: Do the stuff that only you can do
Acclaimed British author and artist Neil Gaiman’s advice to the 2012 graduates of the University of the Arts is holds true whether you’re a painter or a poet or a nurse practitioner.
“The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you,” he advised. “Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can.”
“The moment that you feel that, just possibly, you’re walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself,” he warned — “that’s the moment you may be starting to get it right.”
David Foster Wallace: The way you perceive and react to the world is a choice
David Foster Wallace’s legendary 2005 Kenyon College address (it has since turned into a short film) pushed past tired platitudes to find startling poignancy.
“Twenty 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,” he said. “It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.”
That’s critical, Wallace said. “If you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”
Shonda Rhimes: Stop dreaming and start doing
The world’s most powerful showrunner told grads during her 2014 speech at Dartmouth College to stop dreaming and start doing.
The world has plenty of dreamers, she said. “And while they are busy dreaming, the really happy people, the really successful people, the really interesting, engaged, powerful people, are busy doing.” She pushed grads to be those people.
“Ditch the dream and be a doer, not a dreamer,” Rhimes advised — whether or not you know what your “passion” might be. “The truth is, it doesn’t matter. You don’t have to know. You just have to keep moving forward. You just have to keep doing something, seizing the next opportunity, staying open to trying something new. It doesn’t have to fit your vision of the perfect job or the perfect life. Perfect is boring and dreams are not real,” she said.
Jeff Bezos: Everything you are comes from your choices
Addressing the Princeton class of 2012, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos emphasized the difference between gifts and choices. “Cleverness is a gift; kindness is a choice,” he said. “Gifts are easy — they’re given after all. Choices can be hard.”
But while gifts are important, in the end, it’s choices that will shape your life. “I will hazard a prediction,” Bezos said. “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.”
Disclosure: Jeff Bezos is an investor in Business Insider through his personal investment company Bezos Expeditions.
Jennifer Lee: Ban self-doubt
If “Frozen” director Jennifer Lee had one piece of advice for the University of New Hampshire class of 2014, it was this: abandon self-doubt.
“People talk about the dangers of rose-colored glasses, but let me tell you, the lenses of self-doubt are far worse,” she warned. “It makes you defensive instead of open, reactive instead of active. Self-doubt is consuming and cruel. And my hope today is that we can all collectively agree to ban it.”
“Think to the moments of your life when you forgot to doubt yourself. When you were so inspired that you were just living and creating and working,” Lee said. “Pay attention to those moments because they’re trying to reach you through those lenses of doubt and trying to show you your potential.”
Michael Lewis: Never forget how lucky you are
Standing before the Princeton class of 2012, best-selling author Michael Lewis advised grads never to lose sight of their own luck.
“People really don’t like to hear success explained away as luck — especially successful people,” he said. “As they age, and succeed, people feel their success was somehow inevitable. They don’t want to acknowledge the role played by accident in their lives.” But it does play a role — and it’s essential to remember that.
“All of you have been faced with the extra cookie,” he continued. “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.”
Stephen Spielberg: Create a world that lasts forever
“This world is full of monsters,” director Steven Spielberg told Harvard graduates during its 2016 commencement, and it’s the next generation’s job to vanquish them.
“My job is to create a world that lasts two hours. Your job is to create a world that lasts forever,” he said.
These monsters manifest themselves as racism, homophobia, and ethnic, class, political, and religious hatred, he said, noting that there is no difference between them: “It is all one big hate.”
Spielberg said that hate is born of an “us versus them” mentality, and thinking instead about people as “we” requires replacing fear with curiosity.
“‘Us’ and ‘them’ will find the ‘we’ by connecting with each other, and by believing that we’re members of the same tribe, and by feeling empathy for every soul,” he said.
Conan O’Brien: Success is a lot like a bright white tuxedo
In his 2000 commencement speech at Harvard, fellow alum, and comedian Conan O’Brien, chose to focus on his failures — not his success.
“As graduates of Harvard,” he warned, “your biggest liability is your need to succeed, your need to always find yourself on the sweet side of the bell curve.” But that pressure is dangerous. “Success is a lot like a bright white tuxedo,” he mused. “You feel terrific when you get it, but then you’re desperately afraid of getting it dirty, of spoiling it.”
But he encouraged the grads to embrace those failures and get those tuxedos dirty. “Every failure was freeing, and today I’m as nostalgic for the bad as I am for the good,” he said. “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. ”
Oprah Winfrey: If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it
Oprah Winfrey gave the Stanford class of 2008 a lesson in trusting your inner GPS.
“When you’re doing the work you’re meant to do, it feels right and every day is a bonus, regardless of what you’re getting paid,” she advised. “How do you know that? It feels so.”
“The trick is to learn to check your ego at the door and start checking your gut instead,” she said. “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. Even doubt means don’t. This is what I’ve learned. There are many times when you don’t know what to do. When you don’t know what to do, get still, get very still, until you do know what to do.”
Robert Krulwich: Don’t just send out résumés and wait for things to happen
While journalist Robert Krulwich’s 2011 address at University of California at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism was written for journalists, the “Radiolab” host’s wisdom holds true across fields: Don’t wait.
Some people, he said, send out résumés and quietly wait their turn. “But there are some people, who don’t wait. I don’t know exactly what going on inside them; but they have this … hunger. It’s almost like an ache,” he said. “Something inside you says I can’t wait to be asked I just have to jump in and do it.”
Be that person, he urged. “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.”
Steve Jobs: You can’t connect the dots looking forward
In what may be the most famous commencement speech in recent memory, Apple founder Steve Jobs reminded the Stanford class of 2005 that our trajectories — the decisions that change the course of our lives — only become clear in retrospect. In the meantime, all you can do is chase what you love.
As a Reed College dropout, Jobs started taking calligraphy classes — something he never would have never done if he’d been an enrolled student. But he followed his curiosity, and that turned out to be pivotal for the future of technology: “If I had never dropped out,” Jobs said, “I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do.”
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward,” he said. “You can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”
Bono: The world is more malleable than you think
Standing before the University of Pennsylvania class of 2004, singer Bono assured graduates that changing the world isn’t only desirable — it’s possible.
“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,” he said. “But it’s not. The future is not fixed, it’s fluid.”
“The world is more malleable than you think,” he continued. “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.”
Stephen Colbert: Say yes
Stephen Colbert’s advice to the 2006 graduates of Knox College? A classic improv lesson: say yes.
“You are about to start the greatest improvisation of all,” he told the grads. “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?” Colbert continued. “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.”
J.K. Rowling: Failure can be awful. But living so cautiously that you never fail is worse
In her 2008 Harvard commencement speech, the “Harry Potter” author didn’t sugar-coat failure — but she did urge grads not to spend their lives avoiding it.
It’s an area in which she has some expertise: before publishing “Harry Potter,” she was jobless, newly divorced, and “as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless.” But while her struggle wasn’t fun, it was important. “Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential,” Rowling explained. “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.”
And what choice do any of us have, she pointed out. “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.”
Ellen DeGeneres: Your definition of success is going to change — a lot
Addressing the crowd at Tulane, Ellen DeGeneres focused on her evolving definition of success. “When I was younger, I thought success was something different,” she told the class of 2009. “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.”
“My idea of success is different today,” she said. “The 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.”
“Never follow anyone else’s path,” DeGeneres advised. “Unless you’re in the woods and you’re lost and you see a path — by all means you should follow that.”
Jon Stewart: No one is ever going to give you a core curriculum again — that’s the exciting part
Speaking at his alma mater, Jon Stewart encouraged the College of William and Mary class of 2004 to embrace uncertainty.
“How do you know what is the right path to choose to get the result that you desire?” he asked. “And the honest answer is this. You won’t. And accepting that greatly eases the anxiety of your life experience.”
“The unfortunate, yet truly exciting thing about your life, is there is no core curriculum,” he said. “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.”
Barbara Kingsolver: You can be as earnest and ridiculous as you need to be, if you don’t attempt it in isolation
In her 2008 commencement speech at Duke, writer Barbara Kingsolver stressed the importance of community. We’re taught that “growing up means leaving the herd, starting up the long escalator to isolation,” she said — but it that’s not necessarily true.
“As you leave here, remember what you loved most in this place,” she urged the grads. “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.”
“Community is our native state,” she said. “You can be as earnest and ridiculous as you need to be, if you don’t attempt it in isolation.”
Cornel West: There is a need for audacious hope
In his 1993 commencement speech at Wesleyan University, philosopher Cornel West stressed the absolute necessity not of optimism, but of what he calls “audacious hope.”
“Optimism is a notion that there’s sufficient evidence that would allow us to infer that if we keep doing what we’re doing, things will get better. I don’t believe that. I’m a prisoner of hope, that’s something else. Cutting against the grain, against the evidence,” West told the grads.
“Of course I come from a tradition, a black church tradition, in which we defined faith as stepping out on nothing and landing on something,” he said. “Hope against hope. And yet still trying to sustain the notion that we world-weary and tired peoples, all peoples in this society, can be energized and galvanized around causes and principles and ideals that are bigger than us, that can appeal to the better angels of our nature, so that we, in fact, can reach the conclusion that the world is incomplete — that history in unfinished, that the future is open-ended, that what we think and what we do does make a difference.”
Bradley Whitford: At the end of your days, you will be judged by your gallop, not by your stumble.
In his 2004 commencement speech at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, actor Bradley Whitford called for graduates to 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,” he told the grads. “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,” he continued. “Learn what you can and move on. At the end of your days, you will be judged by your gallop, not by your stumble.”
Ann Patchett: Come back to the place you graduated in a few years — it reminds you that uncertainty works out
Best-selling author Ann Patchett urged the Sarah Lawrence class of 2006 to someday return to their alma mater — not just to remember, but to reflect.
“Coming back is the thing that enables you to see how all the dots in your life are connected,” she argued, echoing Steve Jobs. “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,” Patchett said. “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.” Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. “Sometimes not having any idea where we’re going works out better than we could possibly have imagined.”
Winston Churchill: Your greatest fears are created by your imagination — don’t give in to them.
Against the backdrop of World War II, Winston Churchill coached the 1941 graduates of the Harrow School to have courage.
“You cannot tell from appearances how things will go,” he said. “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,” he urged. “Never give in. Never, never, never, never — in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”
José Andrés: Get a cocktail shaker
In his 2014 commencement speech at George Washington University, James Beard Award-winning chef José Andrés laid out the recipe for success.
“There will always be critics and naysayers telling you what you cannot do,” he said. “There will always be more people bring you down than lifting you up. It seems that way sometimes, but let me tell you: get a cocktail shaker, if you are over 21. At your heart, your soul, your brain, your instinct, and shake it hard. Serve it straight-up, but let me give you a secret ingredient: add a dash of criticism on top because those naysayers play an important role, too. They motivate you to rise above, to challenge yourself, to prove them wrong.”