Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

The 9 Best Pieces of Advice From College Commencement Speeches

By Selena Maranjian – Jun 8, 2017 at 7:22AM

You’re reading a free article with opinions that may differ from The Motley Fool’s Premium Investing Services. Become a Motley Fool member today to get instant access to our top analyst recommendations, in-depth research, investing resources, and more. Learn More

You don't have to learn all of life's lessons on your own. If you're willing to listen, many leaders and admirable people have shared their wisdom with us all through commencement addresses.

"A word of encouragement from a teacher to a child can change a life. A word of encouragement from a spouse can save a marriage. A word of encouragement from a leader can inspire a person to reach her potential."
--Author and speaker John C. Maxwell 

Every May, as hundreds of thousands of students graduate from college, many get to hear from notable commencement speakers. Most commencement speeches are mean to inspire and instruct, and it's a rare and remarkable speech that succeeds at both. It's a shame that most of us only get to hear a few such speeches in our lives, so here's a collection of wise graduation-day words from a range of speakers.

several college grads from the back, in caps and gowns

Image source: Getty Images.

Your problem is how you are going to spend this one odd and precious life you have been issued. Whether you're going to spend it trying to look good and creating the illusion that you have power over people and circumstances, or whether you are going to taste it, enjoy it and find out the truth about who you are.
--Writer and activist Anne Lamott, Berkeley, 2003

Anne Lamott offers a valuable reminder that we get just one life, and thus it's best not to waste time. You have a finite number of hours and minutes left, so aim to spend them doing worthwhile things and being with people who matter to you. 

hourglass with green sand falling through

Image source: Getty Images.

Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do. Make good art. I'm serious. Husband runs off with a politician? Make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by a mutated boa constrictor? Make good art. IRS on your trail? Make good art. Cat exploded? Make good art. Somebody on the internet thinks what you do is stupid or evil or it's all been done before? Make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, and eventually time will take the sting away, but that doesn't matter. Do what only you do best. Make good art. Make it on the good days too.
--Writer Neil Gaiman, University of the Arts, 2012

Neil Gaiman focused on art because he was addressing graduates of an arts college in Philadelphia, but his advice can apply to everyone. When times are tough, we'd do well to keep doing what we do well and what we need to do, whatever it is.

With that, we receive some guidance on what to do in good times and bad:

The most important words that have helped me in life when things have gone right or when things have gone wrong are "accept responsibility."
--Tennis legend Billie Jean King, University of Massachusetts, 2000

People tend to notice when we try to shift blame elsewhere. Taking responsibility can earn more respect than it loses us. 

I wanted to be a war correspondent, so I decided to just start going to wars. As you can imagine, my mom was thrilled about the plan. I had a friend make a fake press pass for me on a Mac, and I borrowed a home video camera ... and I snuck into Burma and hooked up with some students fighting the Burmese government ... then I moved on to Somalia in the early days of the famine and fighting there. I figured if I went places that were dangerous, I wouldn't have as much competition, and because I was willing to sleep on the roofs of buildings, and live on just a few dollars a day, I was able to charge very little for my stories. As ridiculous as it sounds, my plan worked, and after two years on my own shooting stories in war zones, I was hired by ABC news as a correspondent. 

--CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, Tulane, 2010

Anderson Cooper's story points out how attainable some seemingly unattainable goals may be, though we may need to be creative or aggressive in how we pursue them. It's also an example of not just dismissing a dream, as many do. Whatever you want to do, no matter your age now, you may be able to achieve it. 

You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. 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. Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.
--Writer J. K. Rowling, Harvard, 2008 

Rowling's now-famous speech was a good reminder that her immense success has come from plenty of failure. As she put it, rock bottom turned out to be a good foundation on which to build. 

Image of Steve Jobs formed with colored bits

Image source: Pixabay.

Because I had dropped out and didn't have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and sans serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. ... I found it fascinating. None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But 10 years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it's likely that no personal computer would have them. ... So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something -- your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.
--Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, Stanford, 2005

Steve Jobs' story reminds us that you never know which things you learn will turn out to be useful. Thus, learn and explore with abandon.

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. It's a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I'd say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than try to be kinder.
--Writer George Saunders, Syracuse, 2013

George Saunders' words bring to mind some advice from superinvestor Warren Buffett, who has suggested thinking of people you admire, figuring out why you admire them, and then behaving in similar fashion. 

The first time I spoke out about what it was like to be a woman in the workforce was less than five years ago. That means that for 18 years, from where you sit to where I stand, my silence implied that everything was OK. You can do better than I did, and I mean that so sincerely.
-- Writer and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Harvard, 2014

Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, reminds us that we shouldn't be complacent, especially when we sense that things are not as they should be. It's worth spending a little time asking ourselves what we're being silent about.

Summon your compassion, your curiosity, your empathy toward others and your commitment to service. Give more than you receive, and I promise you, it will come back to you in ways you can't possibly imagine. 
--Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz, Arizona State University, 2017

Howard Schultz suggests that we can gain by giving and by being kind. It might sound paradoxical, but generosity toward others can pay dividends -- like when those we have helped turn around and help us or others. 

Even if you don't attend any graduations this year, consider spending a little time reading some commencement addresses. Many of them are surprisingly enlightening, interesting, and even inspiring.

Selena Maranjian owns shares of Facebook and Starbucks. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Facebook and Starbucks. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Premium Investing Services

Invest better with The Motley Fool. Get stock recommendations, portfolio guidance, and more from The Motley Fool's premium services.