What do J.K. Rowling, Winston Churchill, Jon Stewart, Steve Jobs, Oprah and Bono have in common?
They've all given notable commencement speeches, filled with really useful advice that is likely wasted on the young graduates sitting in the audience who may be more interested in tossing off their caps and gowns and celebrating than paying attention to the famous person at the podium. We thought the time was right to take a closer look at some of the more famous commencement speeches delivered over the years and to recap the wit, wisdom and wisecracks shared.
• Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young. No, that’s not a headline from The Onion. It’s the title of a piece written by Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich, who never gave a graduation address but published a hypothetical one in her newspaper in 1997. She encourages everyone to floss, sing, stretch, respect their elders, read the directions even if they don't follow them and do one scary thing every day. She’s also a big proponent of sunscreen: “If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it. The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience.”
Schmich ends her speech with these apt words of caution:
Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it. Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it's worth.
But trust me on the sunscreen.
• J.K. Rowling: “I was set free.” Speaking at Harvard University in June 2008, best-selling author of the Harry Potter series J.K. Rowling talked about how, in the years after her graduation with a degree in classics, she found herself divorced, jobless with a young daughter to support, and poor — “by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.” Here’s what she learned:
I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life…You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. 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.
Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.
• Jon Stewart on flexibility. In May 2004, comedian and talk show host Jon Stewart addressed graduates at his alma mater, the College of William & Mary, and talked about how in life, unlike college, there is no core curriculum. Life “is an elective. The paths are infinite and the results uncertain.” For that reason, Stewart’s advice is, basically, to go with the flow.
College is something you complete. Life is something you experience. So don’t worry about your grade, or the results or success. Success is defined in myriad ways, and you will find it, and people will no longer be grading you, but it will come from your own internal sense of decency which I imagine, after going through the program here, is quite strong…although I’m sure downloading illegal files…but, nah, that’s a different story.
Love what you do. Get good at it. Competence is a rare commodity in this day and age. And let the chips fall where they may.
• Bono on the big idea. At the University of Pennsylvania in May 2004, Bono asked graduates what their big idea is. “What are you willing to spend your moral capital, your intellectual capital, your cash, your sweat equity in pursuing?” For him, the big idea is addressing poverty in Africa.
The fact is that this generation — yours, my generation — that can look at the poverty, we're the first generation that can look at poverty and disease, look across the ocean to Africa and say with a straight face, we can be the first to end this sort of stupid extreme poverty, where in the world of plenty, a child can die for lack of food in it's belly. We can be the first generation. It might take a while, but we can be that generation that says no to stupid poverty. It's a fact, the economists confirm it. It's an expensive fact, but, cheaper than say the Marshall Plan that saved Europe from communism and fascism. And cheaper, I would argue, than fighting wave after wave of terrorism's new recruits…So why aren't we pumping our fists in the air and cheering about it? Well, probably because when we admit we can do something about it, we've got to do something about it. For the first time in history we have the know-how, we have the cash, we have the lifesaving drugs, but do we have the will?
…The world is more malleable than you think and it's waiting for you to hammer it into shape.
• Steve Jobs on death. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, a college dropout, addressed Stanford University’s class of June 2005 a year after being diagnosed with a rare form of pancreatic cancer. Jobs used his time at the podium to talk about how his diagnosis reminded him not to waste time. Quoting from The Whole Earth Catalog, he encouraged graduates to “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.”
Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
• Winston Churchill on courage. As prime minster of England during World War II, Churchill, a brilliant orator, gave many inspirational speeches. In October 1941, he addressed Harrow School and delivered one of his most famous ones on the necessity of fighting on after Britain and Northern Ireland had been pummeled for months in what became known as the Blitz.
Never give in. 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.
• Oprah Winfrey on integrity. Talk show host and producer Oprah Winfrey spoke at Howard University in 2007 about how, early in her career, TV executives told her she was “too much. I was too big, and I was too black. They told me that I was too engaged, that I was too emotional, I was too — too much for the news and so they put me on a talk show one day just to run out my contract.” It ended up being the start of her rise to fame.
From the very beginning of my career in Baltimore, and I walked in the room and all of the men in the room said to me you need to change your name, because nobody is going to remember your name. You need to change your name and I said what do you want me to change it to? They said we think Susie is a good name. Susie is a friendly name. Susie is a name that people will remember. People can relate to Susie. I said, I think I'm going to keep my name if people remember it or not. It is my name. You have to be willing to stand up for what you believe in...My integrity is not for sale and neither is yours.
I stand here a symbol of what is possible when you believe in the dream of your own life. — CG and KW
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