Advice from Commencement Speeches

In honor of Smith’s graduation this weekend, and the very large amount of free time on my hands, I’ve spent the last week watching various commencement addresses on Youtube. This might sound strange and in some ways it is. Many are filled with trite advice, pleasantries, and inside jokes about the school. However, many are filled with universal jokes about emerging adulthood, affirmations, inspiring stories of success, and people who are earnestly searching for wisdom to pass on.

My commencement speaker was Rachel Maddow and her speech was awesome. I expected her to spout clichés about following your dreams or the value of a liberal arts education. Instead Maddow told the story of Carrie Nation and the failure of the Temperance movement, with the underlying message that “personal triumphs are over rated” and that being a part of positive change is more important than winning, or reaching your own goals. I was delighted by the words then, but three years later they mean more to me now. 

Other things I’ve learned this week include:

  • Your greatest fears are created by your imagination. Don’t give in to them. (Winston Churchill, Harrow School 1941) 
  • You are already doing what you are going to do with your life. (John Green, Butler University 2013)
  • 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. (J K Rowling, Harvard University 2008)
  • Follow your passion, stay true to yourself, never follow someone else’s path, unless you’re in the woods and you’re lost, and you see a path. Then, by all means, you should follow that. (Ellen DeGeneres, Tulane 2009)
  •  The person who you’re with most in life is yourself and if you don’t like yourself you’re always with somebody you don’t like. (Mark Lewis, University of Texas Austin 2000)
  • “There are few things more liberating in this life than having your worst fear realized. … 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. (Conan O’Brien, Dartmouth College 2011)

If you take nothing else away from this post, I would watch David Foster Wallace’s This Is Water speech to the Kenyon class of 2005. I couldn’t pull just one quote or one lesson out of it, but it is something I think I will watch again and again.

What do you remember from your college graduation? Do you have a favorite commencement speech that I missed? Let me know because I would LOVE to watch it.

4 thoughts on “Advice from Commencement Speeches

  1. Michelle Obama was my undergrad commencement speaker back in 2010. My biggest memory of graduation is actually a regret though… I was being responsible and packing my stuff, but my friends got a few bottles of champagne and spent the night on the steps on the Lincoln Memorial reminiscing about the good times we’d had. If I could do it over, I’d have gone with them.

    This weekend would have been commencement for my master’s, but I decided to skip it. I still have one class left, and I take online classes, so I don’t really feel much of a connection to it.

  2. Sunscreen. (Not by Kurt Vonnegut)

    My commencement speaker was Mario Cuomo and it was not a memorable speech.

  3. Watch Jon Stewarts. He gives a great one, too. I watched a ton of commencement videos last year, too. It’s not weird. It’s motivating.

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