The Best Advice From 2017’s Commencement Speeches

“Try not to rely only on what you have learned in the classroom.”

The Best Advice From 2017’s Commencement Speeches

There’s no bigger pep talk than a college commencement speech. Someone who has achieved an admirable level of success takes the stage to give advice to those just starting their journey. This year, several speakers took the opportunity to get political, but there were also nonpartisan gems of wisdom that those of us without a brand-new diploma can appreciate.


Here are six commencement speeches with the takeaway you can use to become as inspired as a new graduate.

“You’re never not afraid.”–Will Ferrell

Will Ferrell admitted to students at the University of Southern California that he wasn’t confident when he was going after his dream of being an actor. “I would think to myself, ‘Oh well, I can always be a substitute schoolteacher,'” he said. “I was afraid.”

Ferrell later realized that fear is a natural part of growth. “You’re never not afraid. I’m still afraid. I was afraid to write this speech,” he joked.

Instead of being controlled by fears, do it anyway. “My fear of failure never approached in magnitude my fear of what if. What if I never tried at all?” he said.

It helps to try to enjoy the process without succumbing to the pressure of the result, he said. “Trust your gut; keep throwing darts at the dartboard,” said Farrell. “Don’t listen to the critics and you will figure it out.”


“Never give up is bad advice.”–Adam Grant

“Never give up your dreams” is common advice for graduates, but Adam Grant, Wharton School management professor and coauthor of Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, told students at Utah State University that sometimes quitting is a virtue.

“Grit doesn’t mean ‘keep doing the thing that’s failing,'” he said. “It means, ‘Define your dreams broadly enough that you can find new ways to pursue them when your first and second plans fail.'”

Grant had to give up on his dream of being an NBA player, but he didn’t give up his dream of becoming a halfway decent athlete. “Sometimes resilience comes from gritting your teeth and packing your bags,” he said. “Other times it comes from having the courage to admit your flaws.”

He offered one caveat: Don’t give up on your values, but be willing to give up on your plans. “Today, my advice for you is to take a page out of the Goldilocks story. Watch out for virtues that burn too hot, not just too cold. If you want to be resilient, find the right amount of generosity and authenticity and grit,” he said.

“Open your mind.”–Stephanie Ruhle

It’s easy to get attached to big ideas and labels, like “Republican,” “Democrat,” “feminist,” or “engineer,” Stephanie Ruhle, anchor of MSNBC Live, told graduating students from Lehigh University. “We use these labels to find our tribes, get comfortable, and stick with them, and it is suffocating,” she said.


That’s because today’s world often promotes sameness. “We live surrounded by people who sound like us, vote like us, spend like us,” Ruhle said. “We get only the news we want to. And then scream into the social media echo chamber that is designed to serve us up information we already like.”

Instead, be willing to open your mind. “Just because something doesn’t confirm your existing beliefs does not mean it’s a hoax,” Ruhle said. “The smartest and most successful people I know are the people who are constantly evolving, always learning. It does not end with school. Seek out different perspectives. Maybe even change your mind.”

“Don’t get caught up in the trap of comparison.”–Octavia Spencer

It’s natural to compare yourself to others, but it’s also dangerous, actress Octavia Spencer told the graduating class at Kent State University.

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

Spencer said if she had read a list of 25 actresses who had made it by the age of 25, she would have stayed in bed. “Because I guarantee you that none of them looked like me–none of them,” she said.


You need to lead your own journey, not emulate someone else’s. “No one came here the same way, and you won’t all achieve success the same way,” said Spencer.

“Treat people like people.”–Dame Helen Mirren

As graduates head off to entry-level jobs, they’re likely to be the low person on the totem pole, but how you treat others as you rise in your career is important, said Dame Helen Mirren. The actress told the graduating class of Tulane University that one of her favorite life lessons was learned from another actress as they shared a ride in a car.

“She got her cigarettes out and before she lit up, she offered the driver one,” she said. “So simple, but, you know, thoughtful. To her, he wasn’t a ‘driver person,’ but a ‘person person’ who might want a smoke.”

Every single person, whether they have dominion over your life or not, deserves equal respect and generosity, Mirren said.

“Always trust yourself.”–Howard Schultz

Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz encouraged students at Arizona State University to trust their instincts. He gave them three questions that can serve as their guide.

  1. How will you respect your parents and honor your family?
  2. How will you share your success and serve others with dignity?
  3. And how will you lead with humility and demonstrate moral courage?

“You are leaving this campus as the best prepared generation in the history of our country,” he said. “You each possess entrepreneurial spirit, the passion, and the commitment to create the future you deserve. However, don’t stop there. Try not to rely only on what you have learned in the classroom. Instead, let your compassion, curiosity, empathy towards others, and commitment to service guide you. Give more than you receive, and I promise you, it will come back to you in ways you can’t possibly imagine,” he said.

“You can and you will make your mark on our country and our shared humanity. Dream big, and then dream bigger, a more innovative dream, a more inclusive dream.”