The Best Advice From 2017 Commencement Speeches
This post was written by our friends at forbes.com
Commencement speech season is in full swing, with everyone from Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg to Oprah Winfrey and Will Ferrell giving speeches this year. Most commencement speeches are dull and forgettable, just an extra 15-20 minutes filled with the usual hope and congratulations before graduates can take the stage, receive their diploma and celebrate with their families. But occasionally there is a commencement speech worth reading or watching that imparts new wisdom, a poignant anecdote or reframes worn in wisdom that cause us all to pause and reflect, and take stock of our lives and how we're living them.
This year's speeches contain some timely and sincere wisdom for the end of a politically tumultuous year for the country as a whole. Here are some highlights from commencement speeches this year:
Will Ferrell, USC
The comedian and movie star gave a hilarious commencement speech at his beloved alma mater, the University of California, detailing his own failures as he was starting out, and how he is constantly afraid.
"I was just trying to throw as many darts at the dart board, hoping that one would eventually stick. Now don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t extremely confident that I would succeed during this time period, and after moving back to LA there were many a night where in my LA apartment, I would sit down to a meal of spaghetti topped with mustard, with only $20 in my checking account and I would think to myself, ‘Oh well I can always be a substitute schoolteacher.’ And yes, I was afraid. You’re never not afraid. I’m still afraid. I was afraid to write this speech."
Sheryl Sandberg, Virginia Tech
Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, very intentionally chose to give a commencement speech at Virginia Tech. Her latest book, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy details how Sandberg built resilience in the face of her husband's unexpected death, and how she has moved forward. Virginia Tech suffered its own tragedy 10 years ago, when a mentally ill student shot 32 people on campus before taking his own life in April of 2007. Sandberg acknowledged the unique strength of a community like Virginia Tech, and how these communities don't just happen, they are built. She tied it back to the students' graduation day and how resilience will serve them for the rest of their life.
"The most important thing I learned is that we are not born with a certain amount of resilience. It is a muscle, and that means we can build it. We build resilience into ourselves. We build resilience into the people we love. And we build it together, as a community. That’s called “collective resilience.” It’s an incredibly powerful force — and it’s one that our country and our world need a lot more of right about now. It is in our relationships with each other that we find our will to live, our capacity to love, and our ability to bring change into this world."
Adam Grant, Utah State
Grant, the top-ranked professor at Wharton and Sandberg's co-author for Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead and Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy gave one of the most surprising
"When I decided to write my first book, my literary agent asked for a proposal. I got so excited about the ideas that I ended up writing the whole book. Over 102,000 words. I sent it over and my agent gently told me that they might interest fellow academics but that was about it. 'Never give up' might’ve meant going to another agent or trying my own hand with publishers. Resilience meant having the strength to take the feedback to heart and start over from scratch. Same goal (writing a book about generosity) but different strategy (writing something people might actually want to read). My agent told me to write like I teach. So I started over from scratch. I threw out over a hundred thousand words (there were a few hundred I just couldn’t let go). The book I wrote that time became Give and Take and it’s the reason I’m standing here on this stage. So don’t give up on your values, but be willing to give up on your plans."
Octavia Spencer, Kent State University
The academy award winning actress warned the graduates of Kent State against the perils of comparison, and how everyone needs to pave their own path, and no one path will be the same.
“Don’t let yourself get caught up in the trap of comparison,” she said. “Ignore the silly ‘30 under 30’ lists that the Internet throws at you before you even have your morning cup of coffee, those will be the bane of your existence post-graduation. Trust me. Comparing yourself to others’ success only slows you down from finding your own. Remember, no one came here the same way, and you won’t all achieve the success the same way.”
Michael Bloomberg, Villanova
The former Mayor of New York City and media titan made one of the most topical commencement speeches so far this graduation season at Villanova, delving into the meaning of patriotism, American history and values, and the current, messy media environment, where it is easier and more difficult than ever to be well informed. He preached that courage
"Today, patriotism doesn’t require us to endure starvation or extreme deprivation. But it does require us to have the courage to do not what is easy but what is hard. What does that mean? Well, it means having the courage to keep studying new subjects throughout your life, to listen to those on the other side of an argument with an open mind — instead of retreating into safe spaces. It means having the courage to re-examine your beliefs when data and science contradict them. It means having the courage to stand up to members of your own party when you believe they are wrong — or when their actions put our great American experiment at risk."
Oprah Winfrey, Skidmore College
The former talk show host and media mogul gave a couple of commencement speeches this year, where graduates from her school, the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy For Girls in South Africa, were graduating. Winfrey is a relentless pursuer of truth and self-improvement, interviewing experts in religion to dietitians, trying to help her audience find happiness and success. She advised the graduates of Skidmore College to follow their inner voice, and shift the paradigm of their passion to service.
"There is nothing more powerful than you using your personality to serve the calling of your soul. I have been so blesses to live inside the dream of God. I figured out early on, I had these dreams for myself, I used to tell my father, 'I'm going to live on a hill,' 'I'm going to have a million dollars,' I learned early on in my career that the dream I had for myself couldn't compare to the dream that life had for me. So I figured out how to lean in to life, and to allow the flow that was designed for me to follow, to allow that flow to be my guide, and every decision I have ever made has come from listening to the flow that represents the truth in me, that is also the truth in you. You already know the truth."
Last Updated July 24, 2018