14 Commencement Speech Quotes to Inspire Your Graduate

by Laurie Ulster
Originally Published: 
Michelle Obama speaking in front of a golden wall in a sleeveless color block top in blue, red and y...

It’s been a big week for commencement speeches. Michelle Obama, Stephen Colbert, and Matthew McConaughey were all in the news this week as they received honorary degrees and delivered speeches to another group of hopefuls. The gravity of the moment often takes over during these moments, so someone like Kanye West, not known for his humility, will drop some wisdom out there, and say something like, “‘I’m sorry’ is something that you can use a lot. It gives you opportunity to give your opinion, apologize for it, and give your opinion again.”

Here are some quotes from a random collection of famous people, pulled from NPR’s astonishingly diverse collection of commencement speeches from over the last few decades. Here’s hoping that they will inspire your graduate as he or she steps out of the academic world and into the so-called real one.

J.K. Rowling, Harvard University, 2008

“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.”

Jane Lynch, Smith College, 2012

“If I could do so much of my early life over, I would have taken more moments like this to breathe. I would have spent more time focusing on what was right in front of me, instead of recoiling from what is because it didn’t look or feel exactly as I imagined it. I wouldn’t have been forever trying to look around the corner to see ‘What’s next, what’s next?!'”

Amy Poehler, Harvard University, 2011

“I cannot stress enough that the answer to a lot of your life’s questions is often in someone else’s face. Try putting your iPhones down every once in a while and look at people’s faces. People’s faces will tell you amazing things. Like if they are angry or nauseous, or asleep.”

Bill Gates, Harvard University, 2007

“I hope you will judge yourselves not on your professional accomplishments alone, but also on how well you have addressed the world’s deepest inequities … on how well you treated people a world away who have nothing in common with you but their humanity.”

Callie Khouri, Sweet Briar College, 1994

“Don’t worry about what people will think of you, because first of all, they’re not thinking about you. In all likelihood, they’re worried about what you’re thinking about them.”

Lewis Black, University of California, San Diego, 2013

“Just because you get old, it doesn’t mean you have to let go of your youthful inquisitiveness. Just because you get old, it doesn’t mean you have to let go of the beliefs you have now. You have them for a reason. It’s generally called idealism, and there is nothing wrong with being idealistic.”

Oprah Winfrey, Howard University, 2007

“Sometimes you find out what you are supposed to be doing by doing the things you are not supposed to do. So don’t expect the perfect job that defines your life’s work to come along next week. If that happens, take the blessing and run with it. But, if not, be grateful to be on the path where you eventually want to live.”

Alan Alda, Connecticut College, 1980

“Life is absurd and meaningless and full of nothingness. Possibly this doesn’t strike you as helpful and cheerful, but I think it is, because it’s honest and because it goads you on.”

Ray Bradbury, Caltech, 2000

Now, right after graduation today, make a list of the people who don’t believe in you. And you have a few, don’t you? I had plenty of people who told me not to do what I was going to do. You make a list this afternoon, of the people who don’t believe in you, and you call them tonight, and tell them to go to hell!

Ruth Westheimer, Trinity College, 2014

“My favorite animal is the turtle. The reason is that in order for the turtle to move, it has to stick its neck out. There are going to be times in your life when you’re going to have to stick your neck out. There will be challenges and instead of hiding in a shell, you have to go out and meet them. I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the Jewish word ‘chutzpah,’ but it’s a word you should familiarize yourself with.”

Dolly Parton, University of Tennessee, 2009

“Remember your parents today. Because at this moment, as you well know, they are as proud of you as they will probably ever be. And they love you as much as they probably ever will. They’re all emotional. Look at them. All teary-eyed. Seems to me like a good time for you to ask them for a loan.”

Fred Rogers, Dartmouth College, 2002

“Our world hangs like a magnificent jewel in the vastness of space. Every one of us is a part of that jewel. A facet of that jewel. And in the perspective of infinity, our differences are infinitesimal. We are intimately related. May we never even pretend that we are not.”

Steve Jobs, Stanford University, 2005

“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.”

Michelle Obama, Tuskegee University, 2015

Maybe it feels like you’re supposed to go to law school—but what you really want to do is to teach little kids. Maybe your parents are expecting you to come back home after you graduate—but you’re feeling a pull to travel the world. I want you to listen to those thoughts. I want you to act with both your mind, but also your heart. And no matter what path you choose, I want you to make sure it’s you choosing it, and not someone else.

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