Five Deeply Inspirational Commencement Speeches
Abdul Qowi Bastian
Oscar-winning actor Robert De Niro told Bates College graduates last Sunday, despite his own lack of formal education, he made out OK.
De Niro left high school to pursue careers in acting. Last Sunday, he received an honorary doctorate of fine arts degree from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, United States.
During the 15-minute address, De Niro offered the graduates some advice, “If you’re an actor, always be true to your character. If you’re not an actor, have a character and always be true to yourself.”
On May 17, bestselling author Neil Gaiman told the 2012 graduating class of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia all the things he wish he knew at their age, and gave them several advices to make it in arts.
Like De Niro, Gaiman himself never enrolled in university and turned out alright — if not better that young Gaiman ever imagined. Today, he earned his place in the literary world as one of the most prolific contemporary writers.
Below is a summarized version of his 19-minute commencement speech:
1. Embrace the fact that you’re young. Accept that you don’t know what you’re doing. And don’t listen to anyone who says there are rules and limits.
2. If you know your calling, go there. Stay on track. Keep moving towards it, even if the process takes time and requires sacrifice.
3. Learn to accept failure. Know that things will go wrong. Then, when things go right. You’ll probably feel like a fraud. It’s normal.
4. Make mistakes, glorious and fantastic ones. It means that you’re out there doing and trying things.
5. When life gets hard, as it inevitably will, make good art. Just make good art.
6. Make your own art, meaning the art that reflects your individuality and personal vision.
7. Now a practical tip. You get freelance work if your work is good, if you’re easy to get along with, and if you’re on deadline. Actually you don’t need all three. Just two.
8. Enjoy the ride, don’t fret the whole way.
9. Be wise and accomplish things in your career. If you have problems getting started, pretend you’re someone who is wise, who can get things done. It will help you along.
10. Leave the world more interesting than it was before.
On a related note, I can’t remember who delivered commencement speech at my graduation ceremony and what wisdom was imparted. I guess “This American Life” host, Ira Glass, was right when he addressed the 2012 graduating class at Goucher College, “Commencement speakers give doomed advice which is then promptly ignored.”
To set it right, here are five timeless compelling commencement speeches of years past.
1. Steve Jobs at Stanford (2005)
This could be my most favorite commencement speech. I first saw this video in my Leadership class in 2008. At Stanford’s 114th’s commencement address, the late Steve Jobs spoke eloquently about connecting the dots, education, love and loss. After he passed away recently, Jobs’ speech became popular for his admirers. The closing line, “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” resonate to many aspiring graduates.
“Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later. Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. 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.”
2. David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College (2005)
When author David Foster Wallace committed suicide in 2008, many of his readers mourned, looked back to this speech, and tried to understand the writer a little better. The speech was then adapted into a short book, “This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life”, in 2009.
“It is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about “the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.
This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.
And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.”
3. John F. Kennedy at American University (1963)
Kennedy addressed this in June 1963, just five months before he was shot and killed. This historic speech, delivered at the height of the Cold War, is now remembered as one of Kennedy’s finest speeches.
“So let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests and the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.”
4. J.K. Rowling at Harvard (2008)
“Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling stressed the significance of imagination with wisdom and humility.
“I cannot criticize my parents for hoping that I would never experience poverty. They had been poor themselves, and I have since been poor. And I quite agree with them that it is not an ennobling experience. Poverty entails fear, and stress, and sometimes depression. It means a thousand petty humiliations and hardships. Climbing out of poverty by your own efforts, that is something on which to pride yourself. But poverty itself is romanticized only by fools.”
5. Barack Obama at Wesleyan (2008)
In his address to graduates at Wesleyan University, Obama offered insights to those who’d want to become servants of the people. Politicians, among others, need to keep this mind.
“Should you take the path of service, should you choose to take up one of these causes as your own, know that you’ll experience the occasional frustrations and the occasional failures. Even your successes will be marked by imperfections and unintended consequences. I guarantee you, there will be times when friends or family urge you to pursue more sensible endeavors with more tangible rewards. And there will be times where you will be tempted to take their advice.
But I hope you’ll remember, during those times of doubt and frustration, that there is nothing naïve about your impulse to change the world. Because all it takes is one act of service — one blow against injustice — to send forth what Robert Kennedy called that tiny ripple of hope. That’s what changes the world. That one act.”
At times, these speeches can come off cliches, but these are true words from the people who have paved their way into success.
Share your favorite commencement addresses in the comment section below.
Via Brain Pickings