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19 Inspirational College Graduation Speeches

Advice and life lessons—from Stephen Colbert, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Chadwick Boseman, and more—to inspire you long after you’ve tossed your cap in the air.

Graduation is one of the few official ceremonies that mark the transition between life stages, in this case from college to the future stretching before you. But as any student of the world knows, we never stop learning from those who can teach us … as long as we’re listening with an open heart.

Here, some wisdom to guide you as you turn the corner.

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1. Reach for the stars!

Education is no equalizer—
Rather, it is the sleep that precedes the American Dream.
So wake up—wake up! Lift your voices
Until you’ve patched every hole in a child’s broken sky.
Wake up every child so they know of their celestial potential.
I’ve been a Black hole in the classroom for far too long;
Absorbing everything, without allowing my light to escape.
But those days are done. I belong among the stars.
And so do you. And so do they.
Together, we can inspire galaxies of greatness
For generations to come.
No, the sky is not the limit. It is only the beginning.
Lift off.

Donovan Livingston, educator, spoken word poet, from his commencement speech “Lift Off,” at Harvard University, 2016

2. Trust your gut

To those of you graduates sitting out there who have a pretty good idea of what you’d like to do with your life, congratulations. For many of you who maybe don’t have it all figured out, it’s OK. That’s the same chair that I sat in. Enjoy the process of your search without succumbing to the pressure of the result. Trust your gut, keep throwing darts at the dartboard, don’t listen to the critics, and you will figure it out.

Will Ferrell, comedian and actor, in his commencement speech at University of Southern California, 2017

3. Be the change

Get ready for my generation to tell you everything that can’t be done … we should know … we’re the ones who didn’t do them.

Stephen Colbert, comedian and talk show host, in his commencement speech at Wake Forest University, 2015

4. Failure is a great teacher

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.

The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.

J.K. Rowling, novelist and author of the Harry Potter series, in her commencement speech “The Fringe Benefits of Failure,” at Harvard University, 2008

5. Just do it

The world might say you are not allowed to yet. I waited a long time out in the world before I gave myself permission to fail. Please, don’t even bother asking, don’t bother telling the world you are ready. Show it. Do it.

Peter Dinklage, actor, Game of Thrones, in his commencement speech at Bennington College, 2012

6. “Never give up” is really bad advice

“Never give up” is actually really bad advice. Sometimes quitting is a virtue. And if you want to cultivate the virtue of grit, that doesn’t mean doing the thing that’s failing over and over again. It means, “Define your dreams broadly enough that you can find new ways to pursue them when your first and second plans fail.”

… Sometimes resilience comes from gritting your teeth and packing your bags. Other times it comes from having the courage to admit your flaws and accept your failures…. Don’t give up on your values, but be willing to give up on your plans.

Dr. Adam Grant, psychologist and coauthor of Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, in his commencement speech at Utah State University, 2017

7. Little things matter

Every morning we were required to make our bed to perfection. It seemed a little ridiculous at the time, particularly in light of the fact that we were aspiring to be real warriors, tough battle-hardened SEALs. But the wisdom of this simple act has been proven to me many times over.

If you make your bed every morning, you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that the little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you will never be able to do the big things right.

Admiral William H. McRaven, now-retired U.S. Navy Admiral, in his commencement speech at the University of Texas, Austin, 2014

8. Make time for loved ones

As important as your obligations as a doctor, a lawyer, or a business leader will be, you are a human being first, and those human connections—with spouses, with children, with friends—are the most important investment you will ever make.

At the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, not winning one more verdict, or not closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a child, a friend, or a parent.

Barbara Bush, then First Lady, in her commencement speech at Wellesley College, 1990

9. Don’t compare yourself to others

Ignore the silly 30-under-30 list that the Internet throws at you before you’ve even had your morning cup of coffee. Those will be the bane of your existence post-graduation, trust me. Trust me. Comparing yourself to others’ success only slows you down from finding your own.

Octavia Spencer, actress, in her commencement speech at Kent State University, 2017

10. Follow your own path (unless … )

Follow your passion, stay true to yourself, never follow someone else’s path. Unless you’re in the woods and you’re lost and you see a path, then by all means you should follow that.

Ellen DeGeneres, talk show host, in her commencement speech at Tulane University, 2009

11. Tell your story

My dear, terrified graduates, you are about to enter the most uncertain and thrilling period of your lives. The stories you are about to live are the ones you will be telling your children, and grandchildren, and therapists. They are the temp gate and internships before you find your passion. They are the cities you live in, before the opportunity of a lifetime pops up halfway across the world….

There will be blind alleys and one-night wonders and soul-crushing jobs and wake-up calls and crises of confidence and moments of transcendence when you are walking down the street and someone will thank you for telling your story because it resonated with their own.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, playwright and author of Hamilton: An American Musical, in his commencement speech at the University of Pennsylvania, 2016

12. It’s your life

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.

Steve Jobs, Apple cofounder, in his commencement speech at Stanford University, 2005

13. Choose freedom over fear

On this day, graduates … I celebrate you as you remember the power of grace and pride. And I challenge you to choose freedom over fear.

Janelle Monae, singer, actress, producer, in her commencement speech at Dillard University, 2017

14. Work smart

Work hard, but work smart. Always. Every day. Nothing is handed to you and nothing is easy. You’re not owed anything.… No job or task is too small or beneath you. If you want to get ahead, volunteer to do the things no one else wants to do, and do it better. Be a sponge. Be open and learn.

Bobbi Brown, professional makeup artist and founder of Bobbi Brown Cosmetics, in her commencement speech at Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), 2014

15. There is no script

So far you guys have gotten where you are by meeting and exceeding expectations…. From here on out, you have to switch gears…. There is no script. When you’re doing what you love to do, you become resilient, because that’s the habit you create for yourself. You create a habit of taking chances on yourself and making bold choices in service to doing what you love. If, on the other hand, you do what you think is expected of you or what you’re supposed to do, and things go poorly or chaos ensues—as it surely will—you will look to external sources for what to do next, because that will be the habit you’ve created for yourself. You will be standing there frozen on the stage of your own life. If you are just filling a role, you will be blindsided.

Dick Costolo, former CEO of Twitter, in his commencement speech at the University of Michigan, 2013

16. Be kind

Being callous or being mean can sometimes seem like a way to project confidence. But what it really does is convey to people who know better the exact opposite.… When the indecent becomes commonplace is not the time for good people like you to follow suit. Because you know what? Mean is easy. Mean is lazy. Mean is self-satisfied and slothful. You know what takes effort? Being kind. Being patient. Being respectful.

Jake Tapper, CNN Anchor and chief Washington correspondent, in his commencement speech at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 2018

17. Find purpose

When you are deciding on next jobs, next steps, careers, further education, you would rather find purpose than a job or a career. Purpose crosses disciplines. Purpose is an essential element of you.

Chadwick Boseman, actor, in his commencement speech at Howard University, 2018

18. Don’t run from fear

Don’t be afraid of fear. Because it sharpens you, it challenges you, it makes you stronger; and when you run away from fear, you also run away from the opportunity to be your best possible self.

Ed Helms, actor and former correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, in his commencement speech at Knox College, 2013

19. Call your parents

Call your mom and dad once in a while. A time will come when you will want your own grown-up, busy, hyper-successful children to call you. Also, remember who paid your tuition.

Ben Bernanke, former Federal Reserve chairman, in his commencement speech “The Ten Suggestions,” at Princeton University, 2013

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