Most commencement speeches contain a combination of Dr. Seuss quotes, well-intended but cliché statements about overcoming obstacles, and at least three different versions of the line “You’re going to go on to do great things.” Which is helpful, of course, but where’s the clever repartee? I need some originality.
I assume Oh, The Places You’ll Go! was referenced at least twice during my schools final farewell address but I wouldn’t know; I wasn’t there. I made a clean Irish exit straight out of university, sidestepped our graduation ceremony, and hopped on a plane headed straight across the country. (I was done, and it was Hawaii or bust — no regrets!)
But did I miss a pivotal moment of my early 20’s? Sidestep a seed of wisdom that would change the trajectory of my life?
Now, six years later, I’m filling that void.
In honor of the graduation ceremony I skipped and more importantly, as a tribute to this year’s graduating class (congrats, grads!), here are three commencement speeches worth watching even if you’re not graduating. Because, despite what I said about commencement speeches being a collection of well-intended, overused clichés bumping into each other, there are a few that contain the kind of life-changing words that stand the test of time.
So grab your notepads, scholars, and prepare to be inspired. The pearls of wisdom found in these commencement addresses not only ring true for recent grads, but for more seasoned life-livers as well.
Steve Jobs, Stanford University, 2005 —
Up first on the docket is Steve Jobs’ infamous commencement address to Stanford University students in 2005. In it, he shares three stories about life, death, love, and loss. He lets us know that it is 100% okay to experience existential panic. That, despite the amalgam of anxious thoughts that may be swirling through our psyches, we must trust our hearts and know we are on the right path even if we can’t always see it. 13 years later, this wise piece of life advice still rings true. Although I highly recommend watching the full recording (it’s only 15 minutes long), here are a few of the highlights:
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”
“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
“I ask, ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”
J.K. Rowling, Harvard University, 2008 —
Up next is J.K. Rowling’s speech to Harvard University’s 2008 graduating class. In it, she focuses on the benefits of failure, the need for empathy, and the importance of imagination. The 20-minute pronouncement is loaded with inspiring insights and aspirational ideas about how to live your best life (before it was trending), plus (of course) a few Harry Potter jokes for good measure. Since it originally aired on Harvard’s website in 2008, it has become the university’s most-watched video of all time and was even transcribed into the book, Very Good Lives. Although nearly every line was quote-worthy, here are two favorites:
“Happiness lies in knowing that life is not a check-list of acquisition or achievement. Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life, though you will meet many people of my age and older who confuse the two. Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone’s total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.”
“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.”
Neil Gaiman, Philadelphia’s University Of The Arts, 2012 —
Although Gaiman never graduated from college (he never even enrolled), his 2012 deliverance to Philadelphia’s University of the Arts should be required viewing for all artists and aspiring artists. In it, he shares timeless advice on living the creative life. He touches on making mistakes, embracing failure, doing the work, enjoying the journey, saying “no” to projects that take you further from your own creative goals (no matter how lucrative), playing by your own rules, and most notably, making good art. Here are a couple quotes that will get you moving, eager to take on life’s next chapter:
“The moment that you feel, 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 — that’s the moment you may be starting to get it right.”
“Now go, and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make. Good. Art.”
Gold, right? Are you graduating this year or reliving commencement through speeches like me? Comment below.
Jessica Sweeney is a self-proclaimed literista, wellness aficionado, spirited nutritionist, and certified yoga instructor living her best life in Laguna Beach. Follow her on her website Urban Alchemy, admire her selfies on Instagram, and join her for Love Bomb Bootcamp, a mind, body, soul bootcamp for (self)lovers.