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8 Life Tips from Graduation Speeches

Will Ferrell's commencement speech

What is it about graduation speeches? No matter what stage of life you’re in, there’s no better pep talk. And this year’s crop is particularly great — by people like Will Ferrell, Octavia Spencer and Mark Zuckerberg. So, in the spirit of the season, here are eight wise quotes…


“There were many a night where in my L.A. apartment, I would sit down to a meal of spaghetti topped with mustard, with only $20 in my checking account… Yes, I was afraid. You’re never not afraid. I’m still afraid. I was afraid to write this speech. And now, I’m just realizing how many people are watching me right now, and it’s scary. Can you please look away while I deliver the rest of the speech? But my fear of failure never approached in magnitude my fear of what if. What if I never tried at all?” — Will Ferrell to University of Southern California

“Some of you began writing a paper one night, and maybe you woke up self-conscious about what you wrote, perhaps a little ill at ease. So you challenged yourself to write a completely different piece, a piece that was more you, more of what you needed to say. You found your voice. Let me tell you this. Keep chasing those moments where you discover something new about your voice. Don’t ever let that end. Keep your minds and hearts open to life’s endless and unforeseeable possibilities. And filing in those ‘you’ details, you also chose who would be a part of those vignettes and stories in this chapter of your lives.” — Octavia Spencer to Kent State

“Jane Austen threw out the plan for a well‑read regency‑era woman. Frank Lloyd Wright threw out the plan for a young architect of his time. Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Enrico Fermi, Lin‑Manuel Miranda, Martin Luther King, Marie Curie, Pablo Picasso, Toni Morrison, they all threw out the plan. The right answer was safe; the wrong answer, the one no one else came up with or followed or believed in, was transformational. Ah, you say to yourself sitting there, ‘I cannot expect to be Jane Austen or Frank Lloyd Wright,’ but what you can embrace is a life that feels like it belongs to you, not one made up of tiny fragments of the expectations of a society that, frankly, in most of its expectations, is not worthy of you. And that requires courage, not compliance; passion in lieu of simply plans.” — Anna Quindlen to Washington University

“Ideas don’t come out fully formed. They only become clear as you work on them. You just have to get started. If I had to understand everything about connecting people before I began, I never would have started Facebook. Movies and pop culture get this all wrong. The idea of a single eureka moment is a dangerous lie. It makes us feel inadequate since we haven’t had ours. It prevents people with seeds of good ideas from getting started. Oh, you know what else movies get wrong about innovation? No one writes math formulas on glass. That’s not a thing. It’s good to be idealistic. But be prepared to be misunderstood. Anyone working on a big vision will get called crazy, even if you end up right. Anyone working on a complex problem will get blamed for not fully understanding the challenge, even though it’s impossible to know everything upfront. Anyone taking initiative will get criticized for moving too fast, because there’s always someone who wants to slow you down. In our society, we often don’t do big things because we’re so afraid of making mistakes that we ignore all the things wrong today if we do nothing. The reality is, anything we do will have issues in the future. But that can’t keep us from starting.” — Mark Zuckerberg to Harvard

“We are not born with a certain amount of resilience. It is a muscle, and that means we can build it. We build resilience into ourselves. We build resilience into the people we love. And we build it together, as a community. That’s called ‘collective resilience.’ It’s an incredibly powerful force – and it’s one that our country and our world need a lot more of right about now. It is in our relationships with each other that we find our will to live, our capacity to love, and our ability to bring change into the world” — Sheryl Sandberg to Virginia Tech

Plus, three quotes from past years…

“The corollary to carpe diem is gratitude, gratitude for simply being alive, for having a day to seize. The taking of breath, the beating of the heart. Gratitude for the natural world around us — the massing clouds, the white ibis by the shore. In Barcelona a poetry competition is held every year. There are three prizes: The third prize is a rose made of silver, the second prize is a golden rose, and the first prize: a rose. A real rose. The flower itself. Think of that the next time the term ‘priorities’ comes up.” — Billy Collins to Colorado College, 2008

“As you grow, you’ll realize the definition of success changes. For many of you, today, success is being able to hold down 20 shots of tequila. For me, the most 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. So, to conclude my conclusion, follow your passion, stay true to yourself. Never follow anyone else’s path, unless you’re in the woods and you’re lost and you see a path and by all means you should follow that.” — Ellen Degeneres to Tulane, 2009

“Life is an improvisation. You have no idea what’s going to happen next and you are mostly just making things up as you go along.” — Stephen Colbert to Wake Forest University, 2011


Any advice you would add? Who spoke at your graduation?

P.S. On kindness, and 15 career tips from smart women.

  1. Kate says...

    Jo, the commencement speech that I loved the most this year was at University of Texas and its more than worth a listen. Many speeches talk about not being afraid (which I need to hear sometimes) but this speech focused on our duty to be kind and how simple kindness builds bridges.

  2. Please make this a yearly feature. Will Ferrell’s quote is pure gold.

  3. Sarah says...

    President (then, Senator) Barack Obama spoke at my graduation. It was magnificent but the part I remember best was a story he told that I still think about to this day when I explain to students (teacher) why cleaning up after themselves is so important:

    “Back then I had a tendency, in my mother’s words, to act a bit casual about my future. I rebelled, angry in the way that many young men in general, and young black man in particular, are angry, thinking that responsibility and hard work were old-fashioned conventions that didn’t apply to me. I partied a little too much and studied just enough to get by.

    And once, after a particularly long night of partying, we had spilled a little too much beer, broke a few too many bottles, and trashed a little too much of the dorm. And the next day, the mess was so bad that when one of the cleaning ladies saw it, she began to tear up.

    And when a girlfriend of mine heard about this, she said to me, “That woman could’ve been my grandmother, Barack. She spent her days cleaning up after somebody else’s mess.”

    Which drove home for me the first lesson of growing up:

    The world doesn’t just revolve around you.

    There’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit. But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit – the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us – the child who’s hungry, the laid-off steelworker, the immigrant woman cleaning your dorm room.”

    Whole speech is here if you like:

    http://www.northwestern.edu/newscenter/stories/2006/06/barack.html

  4. Kristin says...

    The Lieutenant Governor of our state spoke at my graduation in 1988. He told us how useless our generation was, and that we wouldn’t amount to anything. We booed him until he had to stop talking. It was not fun.

  5. Lexi says...

    I think someone else mentioned it, but JK Rowling’s address to Harvard is just one of my favorite speeches of all time. I often go back and read it when I feel overcome with anxiety or sadness or fear. You can read it here:
    http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2008/06/text-of-j-k-rowling-speech/
    My favorite passage, bar none, ” Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s places. . . many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know. I might be tempted to envy people who can live that way, except that I do not think they have any fewer nightmares than I do. Choosing to live in narrow spaces leads to a form of mental agoraphobia, and that brings its own terrors. I think the willfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid. What is more, those who choose not to empathise enable real monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it, through our own apathy.”

    Also, Hillary Clinton this year! Made me smile to see her getting her moxie back and helping to inspire and lead the next generation.

    • Stephanie says...

      I agree with EVERYTHING you wrote. JK and Hillary… Thank god they’re still around, fighting every day, being excellent role models!

  6. I woke up this morning feeling drained of inspiration, hope, life. Heavy shit in this world, am I right? “Get up and stretch!” I told myself. “Get off of social media, ” I reminded myself. “Find the light, find the light, find the light,” I begged myself. And with my coffee in hand, I opened your blog to read these. I keep realizing that it’s the incremental shifts that help to move us along when life seems too f*cked up to be able to push through. These little boosts of light helped considerably. So thanks for that.
    *vows to take a day off from the news

  7. Madeline Joan Price says...

    Stephen Colbert spoke at Wake Forest in 2015, not 2011! I know that because it was my graduation and he was better than everyone would think he’d be!

    • EBeth says...

      I caught that, too! My son graduated from Wake that year and Colbert was great! It was a very long, hot day though…

  8. Bill Cosby spoke at my graduation.
    So…there’s that.

  9. Elizabeth says...

    Billy Collins’ story about the rose is so moving and beautiful. He says so much with such few words. Wow.

  10. Emilie says...

    Serum for the soul! Thanks for this post. Billy Collins words are resonating in my mind and heart – “There are three prizes: The third prize is a rose made of silver, the second prize is a golden rose, and the first prize: a rose. A real rose. The flower itself.” Such a simple but important notion when there is so much unimportant superfluousness that we focus on in our day-to-day lives.

    Grateful for Jo and the team everyday <3 Love from Calgary, Alberta.

  11. Ashley says...

    Love posts like these! Love you ladies!

  12. Kelly says...

    Looks like Joe Biden was doing the graduation circuit this year! He spoke at Cornell University, as well (http://time.com/4796761/joe-biden-cornell-university-graduation-speech/). He spoke a lot about inequity, acceptance, dignity, being engaged. Towards the end, he said: “So ladies and gentleman, graduating seniors, never doubt your capacity to make a difference. There’s no reason why you and your generation and the class of ‘17 can’t have a similar and more profound impact on this country than my generation did.” And his closing words were “Go out and wake us up.”

  13. Lauren E. says...

    Oh man, Ellen is the best. Seriously, no one compares.

    • Lucy says...

      My thoughts exactly. She’s simultaneously funny and sincere in a way that is so natural.

    • Jaclyn says...

      feel. the. same!

  14. What an amazing and inspiring collection! Thank you.

  15. Leigh says...

    Your blog is the best. I needed this today. Thank you from France!!!!!!!!

  16. Voni says...

    I skipped my Tulane commencement that exact year Ellen was the speaker. That quote *almost* makes me regret not going…but not quite!

    • Holly says...

      Just curious… why did you skip it?

  17. Kate Baumwol says...

    my new mantra especially since having kids… “this will pass” and it does

    • Holly says...

      “This too shall pass” is one of my favorite mantras! Recently I laughed when I came across a meme that modified it to say “This too shall pass. It may pass like a kidney stone, but it WILL pass.” :)

  18. Kelly says...

    Tom Minchin – possibly the best graduation speech ever. Such wisdom and humour. I love it. https://youtu.be/1RnHiL0pRtw

    • Kelly says...

      *Tim. Damn spell check!

    • Purnima says...

      I was just about to post the same link – so glad someone else beat me to it! Hands down, Tim Minchin’s was the best “life advice” speech that combined heart and humor beautifully. We could all do with these reminders.

    • Rachel says...

      I had forgotten about this! Thanks, Kelly!

  19. Sara says...

    I am such a sucker for graduation speeches! Love, love, love!

  20. Dana says...

    Thank you for this, Cup of Jo! And also for your recent piece about later-in- life career changes. This month I quit my career/steady, stable job of eight years to go back to school for something I think will be more fulfilling, and your posts have felt like a cosmic pat on the back. Saying goodbye to a nice salary and health insurance is scary, so seriously-thank you-for this encouragement to follow my dream (which I’m going to remind myself to read in a few months when I’m freaking out and missing paid-time-off).

    • Ana M. says...

      Good luck!! Trust yourself because everything will turn out as you planned!!

    • Dee says...

      Dana,
      Four years ago I decided to go back to school, not because I had to but because I wanted to. I still miss taking vacations and consistent paychecks. And I still do not know what I will do after I graduate. But I feel more comfortable and more confident because there is one less thing I am afraid of… the unknown.

  21. Jennifer says...

    “But back to Fear – that’s what we’ve been talking about…

    I know some of you parents out there are afraid that your graduate is going to cash-in their English degree for a one way ticket back to their childhood bedrooms – some fears are well founded.

    And for you graduates, I know people have been telling you that the decisions you’re making right now will affect the rest of your life, and I want you to know that that’s bullshit. Every decision you’ve ever made has already affected the rest of your life and that will continue throughout your life, til Gabriel blows his horn.

    Don’t let the fear of choosing the right path hinder the opportunities you create for yourself. Don’t let the empty page intimidate you.”

    – Documentary Film Director Keith Maitland’s 2017 English Department Convocation Speech, University of Texas at Austin.

    http://liberalarts.utexas.edu/english/news/article.php?id=11869

  22. Amy says...

    J.K. Rowling’s 2008 Harvard graduation speech is still my all time favorite.

    “The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.”

  23. Christi says...

    George Saunders, all time favorite:

    https://mobile.nytimes.com/blogs/6thfloor/2013/07/31/george-saunderss-advice-to-graduates/?referer=

    But here’s something I do regret:

    In seventh grade, this new kid joined our class. In the interest of confidentiality, her Convocation Speech name will be “ELLEN.” ELLEN was small, shy. She wore these blue cat’s-eye glasses that, at the time, only old ladies wore. When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it.

    So she came to our school and our neighborhood, and was mostly ignored, occasionally teased (“Your hair taste good?” — that sort of thing). I could see this hurt her. I still remember the way she’d look after such an insult: eyes cast down, a little gut-kicked, as if, having just been reminded of her place in things, she was trying, as much as possible, to disappear. After awhile she’d drift away, hair-strand still in her mouth. At home, I imagined, after school, her mother would say, you know: “How was your day, sweetie?” and she’d say, “Oh, fine.” And her mother would say, “Making any friends?” and she’d go, “Sure, lots.”

    Sometimes I’d see her hanging around alone in her front yard, as if afraid to leave it.

    And then — they moved. That was it. No tragedy, no big final hazing.

    One day she was there, next day she wasn’t.

    End of story.

    Now, why do I regret that? Why, forty-two years later, am I still thinking about it? Relative to most of the other kids, I was actually pretty nice to her. I never said an unkind word to her. In fact, I sometimes even (mildly) defended her.

    But still. It bothers me.

    So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:

    What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.

    Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded . . . sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.

    Or, to look at it from the other end of the telescope: Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth?

    Those who were kindest to you, I bet.

    • Cat says...

      This hits home for me. Thanks, Christi.

    • Nicole says...

      Such an amazing quote; thanks for sharing!

    • Rachel says...

      Fabulous

    • G says...

      Thank you. I find it moving.

    • “Failures of kindness”.. Thank you Christi!
      Your answer reminds me of Maya Angelou’s quote: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”.
      Ana
      http://www.worldkids.es

    • Maia says...

      Christi, thank you for this. I think of two such events in my life, often when I didn’t do as much for someone whom I had the capacity to help – I wasn’t mean, but I didn’t do enough. Failures of kindness, as you call beautifully call them. This is a reminder to be kind. I grew up in a home that placed a great price on Integrity but somewhere in that lesson, the need to be choose kindness over honesty, got lost. I see this failure in my interactions with my husband, the most. He is a gentle soul. And often, in an attempt to have the last word (even though I am right) I end up choosing honesty over kindness. It is a slow process, but I see improvement. Thank you, again.

    • Ana M. says...

      Thank you for sharing… i do feel the same. To really look to those around you and be helpfull and kind everytime they need, that is a Great Challenge!!

    • Rue says...

      Seconded, I love this one. Mostly because I love George Saunders. It’s not a graduation speech, but this is my favorite life advice by him: http://www.gq.com/story/george-saunders-on-dubai

      It’s a very long read but totally worth it and hilarious. And the closing paragraph kills me every time: “Don’t be afraid to be confused. Try to remain permanently confused. Anything is possible. Stay open, forever, so open it hurts, and then open up some more, until the day you die, world without end, amen.”

    • Mandy says...

      Part of this speech was actually read at my wedding! Kindness is so important to our relationship and our beings–it felt very fitting.

      “And so, my heartfelt wish for you: as you get older, your self will diminish and you will grow in love. YOU will gradually be replaced by LOVE.

      Do all the other things, the ambitious things — travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers– but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality — your soul, if you will — is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place. Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.”

  24. Jacquie says...

    This post is just what I needed today. Thank you!

  25. Denise says...

    These are great. I’m far from graduating but the sentiment is good for everyone. Also, I need the inspiration. Lately, I even tear up a little at the new Jeep commercial on the tele “recalculating” because it inspires me to go ahead and make the changes I want to make in life.

  26. AliciaMontana says...

    My favorite from this year was Kumail Nanjiani, from Silicon Valley and the upcoming The Big Sick. He speaks wonderfully and hilariously about the his experience coming to the US from Pakistan at 18, which is timely. One of my favorite parts: “Have sex with an immigrant. We’re going through a tough time right now, and it would just be really grate for morale.”

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C5Y8prO5bvs

    • AliciaMontana says...

      I hate my typo in there, ugh.

    • Adrienne says...

      I watched that one live!! It was even better in person.

    • Laura says...

      ‘Wear Sunscreen’ is an essay written as a hypothetical commencement speech by columnist Mary Schmich, originally published in June 1997 in the Chicago Tribune! It’s great! :-)

  27. Stephanie says...

    I love this collection of wise words — my favorite is by David Foster Wallace to Kenyon College in 2005. His speech “This is Water” moved me so much I had the phrase tattooed on my arm!

    Here’s a snippet:
    Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of
    adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.

    At its core, the speech is about how to use our brains to see the world from the perspectives of others and treat them with grace, even if in our own little heads we don’t think they deserve it because she cut us off on the freeway or his kids are running amuck at the grocery store. It reminds me that this every day life we live — this is the water — it’s what makes up our lives.

    http://www.metastatic.org/text/This%20is%20Water.pdf

    • Kate says...

      Yes! I love this too!

      Weirdly, I commented on a CoJ article last week about ‘This is water’ – I think of it all the time!

      Very cool idea for a tattoo! Xx

  28. Yeah Virginia Tech!! I graduated from there this year, but as a graduate not an undergrad, so I didn’t get to hear that speech. Regardless – Let’s Go Hokies!!

  29. elizabeth r says...

    My cousin actually graduated with Will Ferrell as her speaker this year and heard that speech live! I was supposed to go; but another cousin got married the same day. Either way, great advice!

  30. I love it when the graduation speakers are so motivational. No matter the age group, everyone needs to be motivated and reminded about the right path to trod as we climb up the education ladder.

  31. Em says...

    Bill Clinton spoke at my college graduation and Mr. Rogers spoke at my sister’s! Both neat in their own ways.

    • Megan says...

      Mr. Rodgers spoke at my brother’s college graduation in 1999. He was wonderful!

  32. Anna Kleinfeld says...

    Even will Ferrell’s photo makes me laugh.

  33. Libby says...

    Joe Biden spoke at Harvard Class Day last week. So inspiring. Even better than Zuckerberg.

    “If the air we breathe is not clean and the water not pure there is nowhere, no matter how successful you are, for you to hide. There’s no wall high enough. There is no gated community that can insulate you from you own failure to engage.”

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mK0MltvFFdE

    • Maire says...

      God bless Joe Biden. <3

  34. Laura says...

    no i’m not crying, you’re crying