When you’re starting something new, it can help to hear from someone who’s been there before. That’s the gist of commencement speeches. Speakers often share their personal journeys, the mistakes they made along the way, and the steps they took to succeed. They offer nuggets of wisdom that may help graduates as they embark on perhaps their most important milestone: starting their career.
But you don’t have to be graduating college to glean some takeaways from their tips. Here are five commencement speeches that have valuable messages for any stage of life.
“Acknowledge the wisdom around you.”–Hamdi Ulukaya
Hamdi Ulukaya, CEO of Chobani, congratulated the MBA graduates at Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and then told them this: “It’s great that you are a Wharton MBA. But please, don’t act like it.”
While earned, titles can turn into a burden: “Don’t let it get in the way of seeing people as people and all they have to offer you, regardless of their title or position . . . If you want to fly high, in business or in life, you’ve got to keep your feet on the ground, and stay rooted to see what matters most,” he said.
Ulukaya shared his personal journey into business, being the son of a farmer who spent time with shepherds and cared for animals. “To me, people who succeeded in business were in glass towers, looking down on people, making decisions that hurt families,” he said. “It took me a long time to realize that business doesn’t have to be a dirty field. That you can put all of your passion into doing good things. In fact, there is no other field like it. In business class, you learned about ROI – return on investment. You should also know about ROK – return on kindness. With ROK, you can immediately see results.”
If you believe in the people you work with, listen to them, learn from them, and give them a reason to believe in you, everything is possible, he said. “Acknowledging the wisdom and experience of a forklift operator or security guard with 30 years on the job doesn’t diminish your own experience. Acknowledging the sacrifice of others that enabled you to be in this position does not diminish the sacrifices you made on your own,” he says. “Be the kind of person, be the kind of leader that other people want to sacrifice for . . . Ask others for advice, no matter their jobs. And listen–really listen–to their answers.”
“Make failure your fuel.”–Abby Wambach
USA Soccer player Abby Wambach encouraged the graduating class at Barnard College to look at each other as part of a pack, and to create one collective heartbeat with rules for your team to live by. One of those is to turn failure into fuel.
“Here’s something the best athletes understand, but it seems like a hard concept for non-athletes to grasp. Non-athletes don’t know what to do with the gift of failure. So they hide it, pretend it never happened, reject it outright—and they end up wasting it,” she said. “Failure is not something to be ashamed of, it’s something to be powered by.”
Wambach shared her experience of visiting the National Team’s locker room when she was a youth player. She was struck to find a picture hanging of their longtime rival–the Norwegian national team–celebrating after having just beaten the USA in the 1995 World Cup.
“I learned that in order to become my very best—on the pitch and off—I’d need to spend my life letting the feelings and lessons of failure transform into my power,” she said. “Failure is fuel. Fuel is power . . . We must embrace failure as our fuel instead of accepting it as our destruction.”
“Adversity can give you the greatest opportunity.”–Kathrine Switzer
As the first woman to run the Boston Marathon, Kathrine Switzer addressed the graduating class at Syracuse University and encouraged them to pay attention to the “flash moments” that can change the course of your life. “. . . If you can recognize them, you can be ready for them and act on them for your own life, but more importantly, perhaps for community and even world change,” she said.
She shared her experience at the Boston Marathon in 1967. There were no women’s intercollegiate sports, and she ran unofficially with the men’s cross-country team. “I found them amazingly welcoming and supportive in these early years of the feminist movement,” she recalled.
That attitude didn’t translate to the marathon. When a race official attacked her mid-stride during the Marathon and tried to rip off her running bib simply because she was a woman, she said she was jolted into reality. “I was scared witless, and deeply humiliated, but knew I had to finish the marathon or no one would believe women had the capability and deserved inclusion. Making that tough decision changed everything–both public perception and my whole way of thinking,” she said.
“In the end, as ugly as the moment was at the time, it both radicalized and inspired me. I was lucky. I showed up, and I was given the opportunity,” she said. “Often it’s the adversity in your life that gives you the greatest ideas. Sometimes the worst things in your life become the best.”
You might not intend to change the world, but things often happen when you take responsibility for something along the way. Be open and ready if and when your time comes.
“Trust your inner voice.”–Ronan Farrow
We live in a culture that tells us to take the easy way out, Ronan Farrow, The New Yorker journalist who helped bring the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse allegations to light, told the graduating class at Loyola Marymount University. “That tries to tip the scales in favor of getting paid rather than protesting. That tells us to kill the story instead of poking the bear,” he said.
Our culture that tells us not to trust that voice that says to fight. “And the reason the culture sends us that message is that we look around and we see people taking the easy way out–doing the immoral thing, or the selfish thing–and being rewarded. And it’s easy to conclude that’s just the way the world works,” he said.
But no matter the career you choose, you will likely face a moment where you have absolutely no idea what to do. In that moment, be generous with yourself, and trust your inner voice, said Farrow. “More than ever we need people to be guided by their own senses of principle—and not the whims of a culture that prizes ambition, and sensationalism, and celebrity, and vulgarity, and doing whatever it takes to win,” he said. “Because if enough of you listen to that voice–if enough of you prove that this generation isn’t going to make the same mistakes as the one before–then doing the right thing won’t seem as rare, or as hard, or as special.”
“Persist. Be patient. Be well.”–Jesmyn Ward
Jesmyn Ward spoke to the graduates at Tulane University and shared her journey of becoming a writer after graduating from Stanford Univesity as an English major. While Ward found success as a two-time National Book Award winner, she noted that it wasn’t quick.
“I did what I had to do: I applied for holiday work at the local Tommy Hilfiger outlet. I was one of two college graduates who worked in the store,” she said. “Sometimes life was hard without reason, so I adapted to my changed circumstances, just as generations of my family members had done before me.”
Friends encouraged Ward to move to New York City, and she eventually got a job in publishing, continuing to pursue her dream of being a writer.
“Weather the setbacks until you meet the gatekeeper who will open a door for you,” she said. “Sometimes you are 20 when you stumble upon an open doorway. Sometimes you are 30. Sometimes you are 40 or 50 or 60. I remembered this when I felt like giving up. When I thought I thought I’d pack all my notebooks and stories into plastic bins and put them away, when I thought I would resign them to the recycling bin.”
Ward learned about persistence and success when she looked at her parents, uncles, and aunts, all the people in her small, rural, black community who persisted, “even with the promise of less on the horizon,” she said.
“If you are one of those lucky people who are exceptionally good at an endeavor you’re passionate about, if you possess tireless ambition and keen direction, congratulations! You will go far and do well,” she said. “Your successes will come early and rapidly. If you are not one of those lucky people: If you are bewildered and confused and clinging tenaciously to some course you love, be patient. Work hard.
“Hold your dream tightly to you and do everything you can to realize it, within reason. Take a step that will lead you toward the realization of your dream, and then take another, and another, and another.”