As an essential academic tradition in many colleges and universities, graduation speeches are a unique and intriguing insight for students into what awaits them after university and in the real world. Usually delivered by an esteemed thinker, achiever or celebrity, some impart poignancy while others draw laughs, but all – at some point – share nuggets of wisdom that can prove invaluable.
While most of these sentiments are aimed at graduates, they’re not exclusive, either; in fact, they’re applicable to anybody who requires a motivational nudge from time to time.
So, regardless of where you’re at on your journey, don’t forget what you learned on graduation day. Here are some of the best and most inspirational graduation quotes of the last 20 years.
1. Anna Quindlen
Don’t ever confuse… your life and your work. The second is only part of the first.
Delivered at: Villanova University, 2000
Fresh-faced and keen to make an immediate impact in their chosen career, many graduates embrace the world of work with a vigour and enthusiasm that is undoubtedly impressive. But as the years go on, those late nights in the office and that constant drive for promotion can begin to take its toll.
As Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Anna Quindlen alludes to, life is not solely about your job.
Of course, some people are defined by their work, and to an extent that is fine; but don’t forget that there is a whole world away from your cubicle. Whether it’s spending more time with family, embarking on an Eat, Pray, Love-style odyssey or simply taking the time to appreciate the finer things in life, don’t let your 9-to-5 consume you.
2. Oprah Winfrey
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Sometimes you find out what you are supposed to be doing by doing the things you are not supposed to do.
Delivered at: Howard University, 2007
A common theme among seniors is an ambiguity about what comes next; for every graduate who has their immediate route all planned out, there are many more with no real clue.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though, as Oprah Winfrey – herself a case study in self-success – proves. Not knowing what you want to do with your life can actually be liberating, as it provides you with the opportunity to try your hand at different things and discover where your place in the world should be. As the writer Douglas Adams once put it: ‘I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be’.
3. Arianna Huffington
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Don’t buy society’s definition of success… It’s only truly working for those who make pharmaceuticals for stress, diabetes, heart disease, sleeplessness and high blood pressure.
Delivered at: Smith College, 2013
From an early age, we are programmed to define success as getting a good job, buying a nice house and driving a nice car. At no point, though, have we ever considered what we give in exchange for these supposed milestones of achievement. As media mogul Arianna Huffington observes, we sacrifice our physical health and wellbeing just to show the world that we’ve made it.
The truth is everybody’s definition of success is different, and you are not a failure if you live in a bad neighbourhood and take the bus to work every day. What is important is that you follow your own passions and do something that makes you happy, a method that provides a far greater – and healthier – way to measure whether or not you’re ‘winning’ at life.
4. Stephen Colbert
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If we’d all stuck with our first dream, the world would be overrun with cowboys and princesses.
Delivered at: Northwestern University, 2011
One of the more meaningful messages that are usually conveyed by guest speakers is that it is natural for goals and aspirations to change over time. For instance, the dreams of your 21-year-old self might never be realised – but this doesn’t mean that you failed. Instead, you may have gained new priorities or discovered something that gives you a greater sense of satisfaction.
The point – as illustrated by renowned satirist Stephen Colbert – is that it is foolish to deem yourself a failure because you didn’t make a billion dollars by the time you were 30. Keep everything in perspective and remember that your needs and wants develop over time – and that they will likely change again in another 10 years.
5. JK Rowling
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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.
Delivered at: Harvard University, 2008
Failure is an interesting theme in that every single successful person within their respective field will likely have experienced it at some point. For example, Michael Jordan once claimed that failure was the driving force behind his success, while Albert Einstein’s teacher infamously told his father that his son would ‘never amount to anything’.
But as these (and other) lessons show, you shouldn’t be afraid to take risks and fail. Rowling herself was advised against pursuing a writing career by her own parents, who were convinced she would never attain a mortgage or a pension through her craft. As the richest author in the world, her words are a clear reminder of why you should always strive to prove people wrong.
6. Hank Azaria
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Life is like the Star Wars movies. Some of it is great. Some of it sucks. But you have no choice but to sit through all of it.
Delivered at: Tufts University, 2016
Another unwelcome but necessary life truth is the concept that, eventually, the idealism of youth will fade. Some things will go the way you want them to, but others won’t; you may have to compromise and settle for that 9-to-5 when your younger self would have scoffed at the suggestion.
That doesn’t mean you should disengage, though. As The Simpsons voice actor and all-round funny man Hank Azaria asserts, life will throw up the good and the bad, and you have no choice but to simply roll with the punches. This isn’t always the piece of advice that wide-eyed graduates want to receive, but for many, it’s certainly the most important.
7. Tina Fey
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‘Follow your fear' does not mean that you should get in the car with a weirdo in a small parking lot. But it does mean that when something comes up and you feel a lot of fear, you should definitely do it.
Delivered at: Fieldston High School, 2008
Although delivered at a high school graduation ceremony, these words are particularly adept to anyone who has ever chosen a life of comfort. It’s simply an undeniable truth that the only way to grow, to challenge yourself and to learn about yourself is to do things that give you that uncomfortable feeling in the pit of your stomach.
As respected comedienne Tina Fey affirms, this could be moving to a new city, studying on a different continent or simply getting up to speak in front of an audience. Yet, whatever your personal demon may be, one thing is for sure: you will never feel better about yourself, or stronger as a human being, than when you come out intact on the other side.
8. Natalie Portman
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You can never be the best. The only thing you can be the best at is developing your own self.
Delivered at: Harvard University, 2015
A 2003 Harvard graduate herself, Natalie Portman attributes her success – both in life and on the silver screen – to the lack of self-doubt that comes from being young. But that’s only half the battle; while ‘diving into (your) own obliviousness’, as she terms it, may be a starting point for self-belief and confidence, it’s the realisation that you’re only really competing against yourself that provides a lasting peace of mind.
In the long run, this means that it’s pointless to judge yourself against others. Focus instead on what you can get better at and what you can improve on, and let others compare themselves to impossible standards. Always strive to develop yourself, and the rewards will come naturally.
9. Toni Morrison
What is now known is not all what you are capable of knowing.
Delivered at: Wellesley College, 2004
Delivered by a Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winning author, this is a line that everybody – regardless of age, location, circumstance or means – should pay heed to; after all, there’s no such thing as a person that truly knows everything.
Even with a degree under your belt and your formal education coming to an end, the truth is that your learning is only just beginning, so never settle for what you know, and always strive to try and understand things better. As Confucius once said: ‘Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance’ – and in an age where access to information and communication is more readily available than ever, there’s no excuse to remain within these boundaries.
Many of these sayings are simple in their message yet can be often forgotten or even ignored. By leaning on the wisdom and experience of others, though, it’s possible to leave grad school with some idea and purpose of how to live your life.
So, take chances, be kind to others and follow all the other cliché conventions of the graduation day commencement speech, and who knows? You could one day be returning to your school or college and repeating the very same lines that were once spoken to you. Hopefully, they are as good as the ones that made this list.
What was the best advice you received at your graduation? Let us know in the comments section below!