It’s not lost on me that this is a heavily subjective list. They say no two people ever read the same book because we always bring ourselves and everything that entails into every interaction we have. My hope in writing this is that you derive at the very least a measure of the value that I derived from my interaction with these speakers who have truly transformed my perspective and in turn my life. Enjoy these commencement addresses.
Stanford University Class of 2005 – Steve Jobs
It’s rare that a commencement address would bring tears to my eyes but this one does and I don’t know if it’s because Steve Job’s dead or because how incredibly personal it is. This is hands-down one of my favourite addresses of all time and it always features in the graduation speeches I give. Steve Jobs covers so much in just under 15 minutes. Choices and the underlying ever-present uncertainty. Failure. Love. Death. It’s all here.
Quote: 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, karma, destiny, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well-worn path and that will make all the difference.
Quote: Sometimes life’s going to hit you on the head with a brick, don’t lose faith.
Quote: If you live each day as though it were your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right…
Quote: Death is very likely the single best invention of life.
Quote: Your time is limited so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.
Quote: Stay hungry. Stay foolish.
Bennington College Class of 2012 – Peter Dinklage
This is a recent discovery for me. Once I found it, I downloaded it and listened to it every night for like two weeks. It has everything in there from fear and the accompanying paralysis to failure and gathering the courage to start over and pursue your dreams. It’s all delivered with so much humour that I fear if one is not careful they may just miss out on how brutal his post-graduation story is. Simply raw and brutally honest in a way I thoroughly related to.
Quote: Graduates, now when I sat where you are sitting right now, I had so many dreams of where I wanted to go, who I wanted to be and what I wanted to do… It might take a little time I thought but it would happen. When I sat there twenty-two years ago, what I didn’t want to think about is where I would be tomorrow; what I would have to start to do tomorrow.
Quote: The moments that define you have already happened and they will already happen again. And it passes so quickly so please bring each other along with you. Everyone you need is in this room. These are the shiny more important people.
Quote: It sucks after graduation. It really does. I mean I don’t know, at least it did for me. That’s the only thing I know.
Quote: Don’t wait until they tell you ‘you are ready.’
Quote: What did Beckett say? Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
Harvard University Class of 2008 – J.K. Rowling
Her address drips with humanity. Most addresses focus on the career aspect of life, J.K. Rowling’s speech heavily focuses on the overall human experience. She covers poverty, failure and using her experience working at Amnesty International, she touches on empathy, evil and human goodness. Her speech challenges us to be better people, aware of our privilege and ever willing to speak up and fight for those who can’t do it for themselves.
Quote: 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.
Quote: 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’ve failed by default.
Quote: Life is difficult and complicated and beyond anyone’s total control and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.
Quotes: What is more, those who choose not to empathize enable real monsters, for without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it through our own apathy.
Maharishi University of Management Class of 2014 – Jim Carey
He opens the address slamming Monsanto which pretty much sealed the deal for me. He could have ended it there and I’d have been beyond okay. This is a special address for many reasons including it features a special school. The Maharishi University of Management offers activities such as transcendental meditation twice a day which is unusual for a school. In this address, he chooses to focus on the person you truly are without all the physical bells and whistles and challenges his listeners to focus wholly on that. The exhortation to choose love over fear remains with me.
Quote: Beware the unloved because they will eventually hurt themselves or me.
Quote: Now fear is going to be a player in your life but you get to decide how much… So many of us choose our path out of fear disguised as practicality. What we really want seems impossibly out of reach and ridiculous to expect so we never dare to ask the universe for it.
Quote: I learnt many great lessons from my father, not the least was that you can fail at what you don’t want. So you might as well take a chance on doing what you love.
Quote: To find real peace you have to let the armour go. Your need for acceptance can make you invisible in this world. Don’t let anything stand in the way of the light that shines through this form. Risk being seen in all of your glory.
Quote: Ultimately, we are not the avatars we create… We are the light that shines through, all else is just smoke and mirrors, distracting but not truly compelling.
Kenyon University Class of 2005 – This is Water – David Foster Wallace
This is what saving the best for last looks like. DFW in all his glory, appealing to our humanity and keeping it super real about what it really means to be a conscious adult. The way he speaks about our choices on what we think is delivered in a way you’ve probably never experienced before – I know I hadn’t before him. It’s a heavy address that you’ll probably need to listen to more than once.
Quote: There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”… The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.
Quote: If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.
Quote: The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty little unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think.
Quote: The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death. It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us. All the time. That we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:
“This is water.”
“This is water.”
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