Education and Skills

“Your time is limited, don’t waste it living someone else’s life” – 6 inspiring graduation speeches

U.S. President Barack Obama acknowledges the applause as he is escorted by Rutgers President Robert Barchi at High Point Solutions Stadium during Rutgers University's 250th commencement exercises, in New Brunswick, New Jersey, May 15, 2016.

These are some of the most inspiring graduation speeches of the last 20 years. Image: REUTERS/Mike Theiler

Keith Breene
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Students graduating from Rutgers University this month had their commencement speech delivered by President Barack Obama.

The president is generally regarded as well-suited to this American coming-of-age tradition, having delivered several such speeches during his eight years in office.

Designed to be inspiring and uplifting, some commencement speeches are more memorable than others. A few leave their mark on an entire generation.

Here are six that have stood out over the past few years.

Sheryl Sandberg

Sheryl Sandberg’s commencement speech was a moving story of grief and resilience in the aftermath of the sudden death of her husband Dave Goldberg last year.

The Facebook COO told Berkeley’s class of 2016 about her own sorrow, in the hope that others might learn from it.

“You are not born with a fixed amount of resilience. Like a muscle, you can build it up, draw on it when you need it. In that process you will figure out who you really are – and you just might become the very best version of yourself.

Dave’s death changed me in very profound ways. I learned about the depths of sadness and the brutality of loss. But I also learned that when life sucks you under, you can kick against the bottom, break the surface, and breathe again. I learned that in the face of the void – or in the face of any challenge – you can choose joy and meaning.

Last month, 11 days before the anniversary of Dave’s death, I broke down crying to a friend of mine. We were sitting – of all places – on a bathroom floor. I said: “Eleven days. One year ago, he had 11 days left. And we had no idea.” We looked at each other through tears, and asked how we would live if we knew we had 11 days left.

As you graduate, can you ask yourselves to live as if you had 11 days left? I don’t mean blow everything off and party all the time – although tonight is an exception. I mean live with the understanding of how precious every single day would be. How precious every day actually is.

When tragedy or disappointment strike, know that you have the ability to get through absolutely anything.”


Steve Jobs

“Today I want to tell you three stories from my life. That’s it. No big deal. Just three stories.”

That was the simple, understated start to one of the most watched commencement speeches in history, delivered by Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, at Stanford University in 2005.

The third of those stories concerned his experiences around death.

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

About a year ago I was diagnosed with cancer. I had a scan at 7:30 in the morning, and it clearly showed a tumour on my pancreas. I didn’t even know what a pancreas was. The doctors told me this was almost certainly a type of cancer that is incurable, and that I should expect to live no longer than three to six months.

This was the closest I’ve been to facing death, and I hope it’s the closest I get for a few more decades. Having lived through it, I can now say this to you with a bit more certainty than when death was a useful but purely intellectual concept: No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.

Right now the new is you, but some day, not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is 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. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”


Ira Glass

Ira Glass, host of This American Life, which airs on public radio in the US as well as being a hugely popular podcast, gave the commencement speech at Goucher College in Baltimore in 2012.

In his speech, the presenter explained how he was against commencement speeches.

“I believe that it is a doomed form. Commencement speakers give stock advice which is then promptly ignored. The central mission of a commencement speech is in itself ridiculous, to inspire at a moment which needs no inspiration. Look at yourselves at this moment, something incredible is happening right now.”

After revealing that he lost his virginity at Goucher, he left the students with a final thought.

“You will be stupid. You will worry your parents as I worried mine. You will question your own choices. You will question your relationships, your jobs, your friends, where you live, what you studied in college – that you went to college at all – and the thing I want to say is: That is totally OK. That is totally normal. If that happens, you're doing it right.”


J K Rowling

When the author spoke at Harvard in 2008, she decided to focus on failure, something she had plenty of experience of before she found international success.

“So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”


Arnold Schwarzenegger

One of the themes of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s speech to Emory University’s Class of 2010 was the need to break rules and ignore the doubters.

The actor and politician told of the incredulity he encountered as he tried to break into Hollywood.

“You can imagine what the agents said. Everyone had the same line: that it can't be done, the rules are different here. They said, 'Look at your body. You have this huge monstrous body, overly developed. That doesn't fit into the movies. You don't understand.'

And the agents also complained about my accent. They said, 'No one ever became a star with an accent like that, especially not with a German accent.'

And 'I can imagine with your name, Arnold Schwartzenschnitzel, or whatever the name, is, on a billboard. Yeah, that's going to draw a lot of tickets and sell a lot of tickets. Yeah, right.' So this is the kind of negative attitude they had.

But I didn't listen to all this. Those were their rules, not my rules. I was convinced I could do it if I worked as hard as I did in bodybuilding, five hours a day. And I started getting to work, I started taking acting classes. I took English classes, took speech classes, dialogue classes. I even took accent removal classes.

And finally I broke through. I broke through and I started getting the first parts in TV; Streets of San Francisco, Lucille Ball hired me, I made Pumping Iron, Stay Hungry. And then I got the big break in Conan the Barbarian.

And there the director said, 'If we didn't have Schwarzenegger, we would have to build one.' Now, think about that. And then, when I did Terminator, 'I'll be back,' became one of the most famous lines in movie history, all because of my crazy accent.”


Ellen DeGeneres

Comedienne Ellen DeGeneres told Tulane University in 2009 that being yourself mattered above all else.

She spoke about coming out as a lesbian in 1997, a move that led to her losing her own sitcom and other offers of work drying up for several years.

“Really, when I look back on it, I wouldn’t change a thing. I mean, it was so important for me to lose everything because I found out what the most important thing is: to be true to yourself. Ultimately, that’s what’s gotten me to this place. I don’t live in fear, I’m free; I have no secrets and I know I’ll always be OK, because no matter what, I know who I am.

When I was younger, I thought success was something different. I thought when I grow up, I want to be famous. I want to be a star. I want to be in movies. When I grow up I want to see the world, drive nice cars, I want to have groupies.

But my idea of success is different today. And as you grow, you’ll realize the definition of success changes. For many of you, today, success is being able to hold down 20 shots of tequila. For me, the most important thing in your life is to live your life with integrity and not to give into peer pressure to try to be something that you’re not, to live your life as an honest and compassionate person, to contribute in some way.

Follow your passion, stay true to yourself. Never follow anyone else’s path, unless you’re in the woods and you’re lost and you see a path, and by all means you should follow that. Don’t give advice, it will come back and bite you in the ass. Don’t take anyone’s advice. So my advice to you is to be true to yourself and everything will be fine.

Life is like one big Mardi Gras. But instead of showing your boobs, show people your brain, and if they like what they see, you’ll have more beads than you know what to do with.”

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