In 2008, Barack Obama was a “stand-in” for an ailing Ted Kennedy, the scheduled commencement speaker at Wesleyan University. The man who would be president in less than six months, encouraged the graduates that one person could make a difference. The next year, his first as the nation’s first black president, he addressed the graduating class of Arizona State University. “No matter how much you've done, or how successful you've been, there's always more to do, always more to learn, and always more to achieve,” he proclaimed. This year, Obama made his last commencement address as President, and again, he challenged his Rutgers University audience to “change the world."
Commencement addresses are variations on this theme. The speakers, the best and brightest from their various fields, share life lessons and encourage the graduates about to embark on their lives and their careers to fulfill the promise their college education has afforded them to maximize their potential.
You don’t have to be a college graduate to take inspiration from a private-ish audience with these luminaries. Hard-earned wisdom about determining one’s path through life, finding one’s passion and rebounding from adversity are always welcome. And if nothing else, you get to hear Hank Azaria do his Simpsons voices.
Peter Thiel, Hamilton College: “Thinking about the future is what I do for a living. And this is a commencement. It’s a new beginning. As a technology investor, I invest in new beginnings. I believe in what hasn’t yet been seen or been done.”
Lin-Manuel Miranda, University of Pennsylvania: “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 gigs 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. They are the times you say no to the good opportunities so you can say yes to the best opportunities. They are what Verdi survived to bring us La Traviata. They are the stories in which you figure out who you are."
Paul Feig: University of Southern California: ““You want to make something great, but be cool while you’re doing it so people will hire you again. Because if you screw up and you’re an a–hole, they won’t hire you again. But if you’re nice and you screw up, then they’re like, ‘Let’s give him another shot.’ It will buy you one free pass.”
J.K. Simmons, University of Montana: “Be here now. I mean wherever you are physically present, to also be mentally, emotionally, spiritually present. And by present I mean fully engaged, not staring at your damn smartphone all the time.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Bridgewater State University: "Don't be so focused in your plans that you are unwilling to consider the unexpected."
Michael Bloomberg, University of Michigan: “Keeping an open mind to new ideas is essential to your professional success.”
Hank Azaria: Tufts University: “Just please be honest with yourself about what you think and how you feel about all of that, what you like and dislike, what angers you or scares you or saddens you or inspires you or delights you. Those feelings are called your instincts, and you ignore them at your own peril.&rdquo
Oprah Winfrey, Johnson C. State University: "Every stumble is not a fall, and every fall does not mean failure. Know the next right move when the mistake happens. Because being human means you will make mistakes. And you will make mistakes, because failure is God's way of moving you in another direction."
Sheryl Sandberg, University of California, Berkeley: “It’s the hard days — the days that challenge you to your very core — that will determine who you are… You are not born with a fixed amount of resilience. Like a muscle, you can build it up, draw on it when you need it. In that process you will figure out who you really are—and you just might become the very best version of yourself.”
Larry Ellison, University of Southern California: (Regarding his divorce) “Once again, I was unable to live up to expectations of others, But this time, I was not disappointed in myself for failing to be the person they thought I should be. Their dreams and my dreams were different. I would never confuse the two of them again.”
Condoleeza Rice, High Point University: "It can be hard sometimes to believe that there’s a brighter future. But for all of our failings as human beings, for all of our current problems, more people today enjoy lives of opportunities than in all of human history. This progress has been the concerted effort not of cynics, but of visionaries and optimists and idealists who deal with the world as it is but who never stop working for the world as it should be.”
Sen. John Lewis, Washington University: “As graduates of this great university,,,you must leave here and go out and get in the way. When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you must have the courage to stand up, to speak up, and find a way to get in the way.
Donald Liebenson writes news and features for Millionaire Corner. He has been published in the Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Los Angeles Times, Fiscal Times, Entertainment Weekly, Huffington Post, and other outlets. He has also served as a marketing writer for Chicago-based Questar Entertainment and distributor Baker & Taylor.
A graduate of the University of Southern California, he is married with a college-age son. He also writes extensively about entertainment.