Commencement speeches contain great nuggets of wisdom for graduates about to take the next step. These ones in particular could be invaluable for your career.
While commencement speeches may not be as common in Europe, they are the linchpin of the graduation ceremony in the US.
After spending years in the warm womb of third-level education, students are finally faced with taking their first steps into the working world. It is a time of both excitement and anxiety.
The commencement speech is the last farewell from university. As such, ideally it should be peppered with valuable gems of life advice.
For this reason, some of the most renowned public figures have been approached by universities to address their soon-to-be graduates.
We’ve decided to round up some of the most incisive and insightful commencement speeches ever given. Here are some of the top tips from these speeches for your life and career.
Choose to broaden your perspective
Writer David Foster Wallace wanted to avoid clichés in his 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College. To do this, he elected to focus on the parts of adult life “that nobody talks about in commencement speeches”.
He said: “The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not have a clue what ‘day in, day out’ really means.” By this, Wallace is referring to the tedium of a nine-to-five working life and the “routine, boredom and petty frustrations” therein.
It probably doesn’t sound especially inspiring or uplifting, yet Wallace’s thesis about what it truly means to ‘learn how to think’ is one that everyone, regardless of career, should consider.
Wallace explains that adult life is filled with exasperating moments, such as long lines at the grocery store and punishing traffic. Everyone has a concept of these already, but it’s only post-college that they become the backbone of existence.
In times like these, Wallace says, it can be easy to naturally default to self-centredness. It is easy to assume that your anguish and dread in these moments is the only important and “capital-T True” thing. Yet you don’t have to.
You can make the strenuous choice to step outside your own blinkered perspective and see that you aren’t “the centre of the universe”. This, Wallace concludes, is the true meaning of what it is to be educated, free and able to really think.
Learn the meaning of failure
Failure is a topic tackled often in commencement speeches. For television host Oprah Winfrey, however, the topic felt very real when she was delivering her address at Harvard University in 2013.
Just a year previous, Winfrey explained, was “the worst time in [her] professional life”. After years of success on her acclaimed talk show, Winfrey attempted to strike out on her own by founding the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN). It was roundly condemned as a failure, and she recalled a particularly acrid USA Today headline: ‘Oprah – not quite standing on her OWN.’
Then, Harvard president Drew Faust called her to ask her to give the commencement speech. Winfrey wondered how she could possibly speak to Harvard graduates given her circumstances. It was this thought that motivated her to “turn the network around” and she proudly declared on the stage in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that she had done just that.
“There is no such thing as failure,” Winfrey concluded. “Failure is just life trying to push us in a different direction.”
It’s hard to think of someone such as Oprah Winfrey experiencing a failure. Seeing her admit to experiencing it, even after years of consistent success, is a good reminder that failure is inevitable no matter what level you’re at.
Don’t hold yourself back
Comedian Mindy Kaling returned to her alma mater, Dartmouth, in 2018 to address students in the exact same position she was 17 years previous.
She begins with a few purely practical tips (buy a toilet plunger, remove ‘proficient at Word’ from your résumé, you never need more than one pancake). She points out, rightly, that hearing good advice “isn’t an effective way to change your life”.
Of course, Kaling couldn’t go very long without mentioning Donald Trump’s presidency. Though she doesn’t exactly give a glowing review, she does say this: “[It is] a testament to how far you can get by just by believing you are the smartest, most successful person in the world.”
‘Believe in yourself’ is a treacly adage often given at commencement speeches, but Kaling’s take on it rings sincere. It’s not an airy cliché, but practical advice on how to achieve your goals. “You have to have insane confidence in yourself.”
Ultimately, Kaling explains, the main reason she was able to achieve the level of success she has is because of this self-belief. When she sat in the stalls of a Dartmouth commencement ceremony 17 years ago, she asked: ‘Why not me?’ That question has carried her throughout the years, and can carry you, too.
Your dreams may change and they don’t define you
Talk-show host Stephen Colbert found it a little strange to be standing in front of graduates of Northwestern University, given that he himself failed to graduate. In his speech, Colbert sought to turn a typical commencement speech platitude – ‘follow your dreams’ – on its head. “What if your dreams are stupid?” he asked.
The message of his talk is that life changes, and your priorities and ambitions will change with it. Changing direction isn’t a sign of giving up or failing at your first choice. If anything, it’s a necessary step in our development. “If we’d all stuck with our first dream, the world would be overrun with cowboys and princesses.”
So, to sum up Colbert’s point, if you don’t achieve your dream, you aren’t a loser. Equally, if you do achieve your dream, it doesn’t make you a winner.
Post-graduation (or non-graduation, perhaps), Colbert recalls moving down to Chicago to do improv comedy. He explained that one of the most important rules of improvisation is that you aren’t the most important person in the room. You are there to take the lead from others, and they to take the lead from you. “You cannot win improv.”
Life, like this type of comedy, is an improvisation. “And, like improv, you cannot win your life.”
Instead of aiming to win or achieve, Colbert suggests aiming to serve the people and the causes you love at all times.
Things have a way of working out
Lisa Kudrow is best known as an iconic TV actress. You may not be aware, however, that she didn’t study drama when she went to Vassar College. Far from it – she was a biology major.
She loved biology and was on track to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a headache specialist. Yet soon after graduation, she found herself suddenly and inexplicably drawn to acting. “I just listened to that inner voice,” Kudrow said, and that voice told her to become an actress, so she did.
She experienced the peaks and troughs typical of an acting career. Some auditions worked out and some didn’t. She got passed over for opportunities and it always hurt deeply. Then, she got cast in a TV show that everyone knew from the outset was going to be a hit. A metropolitan comedy that would earn a hallowed place in TV’s hall of fame. She got fired from this show after a mere two days.
Kudrow’s flash-in-the-pan stint on TV comedy Frasier did not come to fruition. It was a devastating setback. People asked her how she could possibly motivate herself to get up in the morning.
Yet get up she did. She continued to go to auditions. Then, she was cast in ’90s sitcom Friends and her stardom was assured.
When Kudrow got fired, it probably didn’t feel like the best thing that ever happened to her, but she characterises it as such in her commencement speech.
Things have a way of working out, and hindsight will redefine even the grimmest of moments. It’s a good lesson to consider when obstacles and setbacks come your way both professionally and personally.