Ten of the Most Memorable Commencement Speeches

welcome to the real world.

welcome to the real world.

‘Tis the season for graduations! Tassels and gowns, diplomas and practical jokers, and, of course, commencement speeches.

As a member of my school’s Wind Symphony all four years of high school, we were responsible for the music at the commencement ceremonies. Forced to attend four years of pomp, I was subjected to our superintendent giving the exact same speech two years in a row, and, for a third time the year I graduated. All I remember is something about “polishing your stars.” Not very original, definitely not the most encouraging or helpful, and in one ear and out the other by the third and final time I had heard it. I was more interested in whether anyone was going to bounce super balls off of the principal like they had the year before. I skipped both of my university commencements, so I’m not sure if those were any better in the speech department.

Maybe you’re one of the luckier graduates of something or other who sat captivated by a celebrity or respected peer or professor’s words. Or, if you’re like me, you’ve latched onto bits and pieces of sage wisdom from commencement speakers throughout the years and tucked those away in your memory. Whatever your experience or not, here are quotes from ten commencement speakers who did one hell of a job inspiring, motivating, humoring, or otherwise advising graduates (and all humans, really):

Billy CollinsColorado College, 2008

“When your time is over, you will be remembered for what you did, not for what you never got around to doing. No eulogist at your funeral will say ‘Too bad she never signed up for that yoga class.’ Or ‘A pity he never followed up on those Italian lessons.’ So don’t waste even more time worrying about the things on your ‘To Do’ list.”

Adam Savage – Sarah Lawrence College, 2012

“I’m sorry to tell you that you will hurt people that you love, and you will help people you detest. This is called being human, and it happens to everyone, whether you like it or not. Nobody escapes.”

Tim Minchin – The University of Western Australia, 2013

“Don’t seek happiness. Happiness is like an orgasm. If you think about it too much it goes away. Keep busy and aim to make someone else happy and you might find you get some as a side effect. We didn’t evolve to be constantly content. Contented Homo erectus got eaten before passing on their genes.”

Barbara Kingsolver – Duke, 2008

“If somebody says ‘Your money or your life,’ you could say, ‘Life.’ And mean it. You’ll see things collapse in your time, the big houses, the empires of glass. The new green things that sprout up through the wreck — those will be yours.”

Jerry Zucker – University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2003

His was so good, he gets two!

“Think of the world as a big glass of water with some salt in it. You have a choice. You can try to pick out all the salt or you can keep pouring in more water so eventually it gets less bitter. As you begin your new journey, you can try to remove everything that you find distasteful in the world, or you can just pour in more love. It’s the only thing that the more you give away, the more you have.

So take all that warm, fuzzy stuff you’ve been hiding and spread it around a little. And then judge yourself not by your accomplishments, but by the happiness of the people around you. If you do that, you can do anything, you can go anywhere, you can fail at anything, and wherever you are, you will find a “there” there, because you’ll bring it with you.”

“The next time you go into a restaurant, please don’t look at the waitress and say, ‘Can I get some ketchup?’ You’re supposed to say, ‘May I please have some ketchup?’ Sorry — that doesn’t count. Just a personal pet peeve of mine.

Anna Quindlen – Mount Holyoke, 1999

“Most commencement speeches suggest you take up something or other: the challenge of the future, a vision of the twenty-first century. Instead I’d like you to give up. Give up the backpack. Give up the nonsensical and punishing quest for perfection that dogs too many of us through too much of our lives. It is a quest that causes us to doubt and denigrate ourselves, our true selves, our quirks and foibles and great leaps into the unknown, and that is bad enough.But this is worse: that someday, sometime, you will be somewhere, maybe on a day like today–a berm overlooking a pond in Vermont, the lip of the Grand Canyon at sunset. Maybe something bad will have happened: you will have lost someone you loved, or failed at something you wanted to succeed at very much.
 And sitting there, you will fall into the center of yourself.

You will look for that core to sustain you. If you have been perfect all your life, and have managed to meet all the expectations of your family, your friends, your community, your society, chances are excellent that there will be a black hole where your core ought to be. Don’t take that chance. Begin to say no to the Greek chorus that thinks it knows the parameters of a happy life when all it knows is the homogenization of human experience. Listen to that small voice from inside you, that tells you to go another way. George Eliot wrote, “It is never too late to be what you might have been.” It is never too early, either. And it will make all the difference in the world. Take it from someone who has left the backpack full of bricks far behind. Every day feels light as a feather.”

Aaron Sorkin – Syrcause University, 2012

“Rehearsal’s over. You’re going out there now, you’re going to do this thing. How you live matters. You’re going to fall down, but the world doesn’t care how many times you fall down, as long as it’s one fewer than the number of times you get back up.”

Ellen DegeneresTulane University, 2009

“…life is like a one big Mardi Gras. But instead of showing your boobs show people your brain and if they like what they see you’ll have more beads than you’ll know what do with.”

Steve Jobs – Stanford University, 2005

“When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: ‘If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.’ It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

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.”

Stephen Colbert – Knox College, 2006

“I have two last pieces of advice. First, being pre-approved for a credit card does not mean you have to apply for it. And lastly, the best career advice I can give you is to get your own TV show. It pays well, the hours are good, and you are famous. And eventually some very nice people will give you a doctorate in fine arts for doing jack squat.”

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