One of the most famous pieces of advice for graduates came from Chicago Tribune writer Mary Schmich, in a column titled: "Advice, Like Youth, Probably Just Wasted on the Young." (aka, "The Wear Sunscreen Speech.")
"Wear sunscreen. If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it," Schmich said. "Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth. Oh, never mind. You will not understand the power and beauty of your youth until they've faded. But trust me, in 20 years, you'll look back at photos of yourself and recall in a way you can't grasp now how much possibility lay before you and how fabulous you really looked. You are not as fat as you imagine."
From business titans like Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos to celebrities like Stephen Colbert and J.K. Rowling, there has been some great advice delivered at commencement speeches. So, before we kick our young out of the academic nest, squawking and flapping into the real world, here are 7 of the smartest graduation speeches of all time:
Bill Gates, founder, former CEO of Microsoft, at Harvard (2007)
Bill Gates shows just how level the playing field can be: After dropping out of Harvard, he went on to found Microsoft and become one of the wealthiest men in the world.
"I've been waiting more than 30 years to say this: "Dad, I always told you I'd come back and get my degree. I want to thank Harvard for this honor. I'll be changing my job next year and it will be nice to finally have a college degree on my resume! …
"We can make market forces work better for the poor if we can develop a more creative capitalism – if we can stretch the reach of market forces so that more people can make a profit, or at least make a living, serving people who are suffering from the worst inequities. ...
"You have more than we had; you must start sooner, and carry on longer."
Stephen Colbert, "The Colbert Report" at Northwestern (2011)
Stephen Colbert has given several commencement speeches. At his alma mater, Northwestern, in 2011, he started off by thanking the university president, the board … "and thank you, parents! Of course, if you don't thank them now, you'll have plenty of time to thank them tomorrow when you move back in with them."
"We didn't have cell phones. If you made plans to meet someone in a snow storm, and they didn't show up, you just had to assume they were devoured by wolves and go on with your life."
His best advice was about following your dreams.
"You have been told to follow your dreams. But — what if it's a stupid dream? For instance, Stephen Colbert of 25 years ago lived at 2015 North Ridge — with two men and three women — in what I now know was a brothel. He dreamed of living alone — well, alone with his beard — in a large, barren loft apartment — lots of blond wood — wearing a kimono, with a futon on the floor, and a Samovar of tea constantly bubbling in the background, doing Shakespeare in the street for the homeless.Today, I am a beardless, suburban dad who lives in a house, wears no-iron khakis, and makes Anthony Wiener jokes for a living. And I love it. Because thankfully dreams can change. If we'd all stuck with our first dream, the world would be overrun with cowboys and princesses."
"So whatever your dream is right now, if you don't achieve it, you haven't failed, and you're not some loser. But just as importantly — and this is the part I may not get right and you may not listen to — if you do get your dream, you are not a winner."
Bono, Rock Star, U2, at University of Pennsylvania (2004)
Bono has given several commencement speeches at different universities and never fails to delight, from talking about "wearing a mirror-ball suit" the last time he was in this particular arena to admitting to he once slept with an economics professor. Oh, he also has some good advice!
"I saw something in the paper last week about Kermit the Frog giving a commencement address somewhere. One of the students was complaining, 'I worked my ass off for four years to be addressed by a sock?' You have worked your ass off for this. For four years you've been buying, trading, and selling, everything you've got in this marketplace of ideas. The intellectual hustle. Your pockets are full, even if your parents' are empty, and now you've got to figure out what to spend it on. …
"So, my question I suppose is: What's the big idea? What's your big idea? What are you willing to spend your moral capital, your intellectual capital, your cash, your sweat equity in pursuing outside of the walls of the University of Pennsylvania?
"[M]y point is that the world is more malleable than you think and it's waiting for you to hammer it into shape."
President Obama at Barnard College (2012)
The president noted that this class came in as freshmen in 2008.
"Just as you were starting out finding your way around this campus, an economic crisis struck that would claim more than 5 million jobs before the end of your freshman year … And while opportunities for women have grown exponentially over the last 30 years, as young people, in many ways you have it even tougher than we did. This recession has been more brutal, the job losses steeper."
"Every day you receive a steady stream of sensationalism and scandal and stories with a message that suggest change isn't possible; that you can't make a difference; that you won't be able to close that gap between life as it is and life as you want it to be … My job today is to tell you don't believe it. Because as tough as things have been, I am convinced you are tougher."
He had two pieces of advice for the class of all women: 1) "Don't just get involved. Fight for your seat at the table. Better yet, fight for a seat at the head of the table," and 2) "Never underestimate the power of your example. The very fact that you are graduating, let alone that more women now graduate from college than men, is only possible because earlier generations of women — your mothers, your grandmothers, your aunts — shattered the myth that you couldn't or shouldn't be where you are."
Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon at Princeton (2010)
Jeff Bezos starts off with a little snapshot into his childhood:
"As a kid, I spent my summers with my grandparents on their ranch in Texas. I helped fix windmills, vaccinate cattle, and do other chores. We also watched soap operas every afternoon, especially 'Days of our Lives.' My grandparents belonged to a Caravan Club, a group of Airstream trailer owners who travel together around the U.S. and Canada. Every few summers, we'd join the caravan."
He adored his grandparents but his grandmother smoked the whole trip and, Bezos said, he hated the smell.
"At that age, I'd take any excuse to make estimates and do minor arithmetic. I'd calculate our gas mileage or figure out useless statistics on things like grocery spending. I'd been hearing an ad campaign about smoking. I can't remember the details, but basically the ad said 'every puff of a cigarette takes some number of minutes off of your life.' I think it might have been two minutes per puff. At any rate, I decided to do the math for my grandmother. I estimated the number of cigarettes per days, estimated the number of puffs per cigarette and so on. When I was satisfied that I'd come up with a reasonable number, I poked my head into the front of the car, tapped my grandmother on the shoulder and proudly proclaimed, 'At two minutes per puff, you've taken nine years off your life!'"
He expected praise for his genius but instead, his grandmother burst into tears.
His grandfather said simply, "Jeff, one day you'll understand that it's harder to be kind than clever."
His message to graduates?
There's a "difference between gifts and choices. Cleverness is a gift, kindness is a choice."
J.K. Rowling, author of Harry Potter at Harvard (2008)
Harvard and Gryffindor — a natural pairing!
"The first thing I would like to say is 'thank you,'" Rowling said in her commencement speech. "Not only has Harvard given me an extraordinary honor, but the weeks of fear and nausea I have endured at the thought of giving this commencement address have made me lose weight. A win-win situation! Now all I have to do is take deep breaths, squint at the red banners and convince myself that I am at the world's largest Gryffindor reunion."
And despite how much she stressed about the speech, looking back on her own graduation, she doesn't recall a single word from the commencement speaker, British philosopher Baroness Mary Warnock. "This liberating discovery enables me to proceed without any fear that I might inadvertently influence you to abandon promising careers in business, the law or politics for the giddy delights of becoming a gay wizard.You see? If all you remember in years to come is the 'gay wizard' joke, I've come out ahead of Baroness Mary Warnock. Achievable goals: the first step to self improvement."
Her most important wisdom for graduates was about failure.
"You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable ... 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 ... The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive."
Her other message? The importance of imagination.
Steve Jobs, founder and former CEO of Apple at Stanford (2005)
Steve Jobs went there, addressing death in a 2005 speech to Stanford, which was after his 2004 cancer diagnosis. Gradspot.com gave it an award for the "Best Ironically Uplifting Comment About Death."
"Death is very likely the single best invention of life. It's life's change agent; it clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now, the new is you. But someday, not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it's quite true. Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice, heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary… Stay hungry, stay foolish."