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The Benefits of Failure: 2 Inspiring Celebrity Graduation Speeches

Graduating from university can be quite frightening. For many young people it represents a huge change, all they’ve done for over a decade is study hard. For others it can even be the first time they’re entering the world of work – if they find a job that is. The graduation ceremony itself is renowned for being a little boring. But it certainly wasn’t for some groups of lucky graduates who were treated to a speech from a couple of familiar faces.

J. K. Rowling, Harvard, 2008

Many greats have taken to the stage at Harvard university to deliver a commencement speech to the graduating class. This includes Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates and even Ali G (?). But what makes this British author’s speech truly outstanding is the fact that she doesn’t sugar-coat the reality of what graduation means. J.K Rowling acknowledges this supremely in her two main themes ‘failure’ and ‘imagination’. Rowling dismisses the fairy-tale slant that the press has given her own life story, but explains that failure for her had a liberating effect in enabling her to enter an arena where she belonged. She urges the graduates not to live cautiously in fear of failure as that constitutes failure by default. Her next story is a real tear-jerker. Rowling quite nobly uses her speech as a platform to promote the work of Amnesty International and describe her own harrowing experiences while working for the charity. This leads to her encouraging the largely American body of students, to take responsibility for the position they hold within the world at large as nationals of a global superpower. Life is not a fairy-tale after all.

Conan O’Brien, Dartmouth, 2011

A large part of comedian and TV show host Conan O’Brien’s speech consists of him doing what he does best, making people laugh. He mocks the president of the college, the students, the state, the university and even mocks himself. His speech is comical and self-deprecating. He does a very good job of rousing the crowd to an excited buzz. His career advice is also on the money. He follows J K Rowling’s ideas on failure in much the same vain by stating that failure in turn is what defines us and makes us unique. What he adds though is the notion that our paths and dreams are ever-changing and that only when he tried new things and became more spontaneous, he had the most satisfying and fascinating year of his professional life. His simple yet brilliant closing line is, “Work hard, be kind and amazing things will happen.”

The advice of these very successful individuals is reassuring. It reminds us that life is a transitional experience that can change at any moment. This applies to our professional lives too. What you may now consider to be a failure could be an opportunity for change. You may not even consider it a failure in a later period of life when your aspirations have changed and the bar has been set a little differently.

Image available under a CC License from Daniel Ogren.

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