Graduation: hugs, pictures, tears, packing…. moving on.

The moment of graduation is almost always bittersweet because it signals change: friendships will be different, reputations must be earned all over again, and that elusive ‘comfort zone’ is staying behind with the old life.  Yet compensation for this loss comes from all the hopes and aspirations lying ahead of the newly minted graduate.

Enter the graduation speech.  The good ones give a nod to loss, while emphasizing opportunity and avoiding platitudes. The very best of them leaven  inspiration with humor. The worst remind you that you are hung over and wearing a polyester gown with a funny hat. Here are ASE’s favorites with excerpts from some:

Steve Jobs at Stanford – June 12, 2005

“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. Stay hungry.  Stay foolish.”

Anna Quindlen at Villanova – June 23rd, 2000

“Here is my resume: I am a good mother to three children. I have tried never to let my profession stand in the way of being a good parent. I no longer consider myself the center of the universe. I show up. I listen. I try to laugh.

I am a good friend to my husband. I have tried to make marriage vows mean what they say. I show up. I listen. I try to laugh.

I am a good friend to my friends, and they to me. Without them, there would be nothing to say to you today, because I would be a cardboard cutout. But I call them on the phone, and I meet them for lunch. I show up. I listen. I try to laugh.”

J.K. Rowling at Harvard – June 5th, 2008



” On this wonderful day when we are gathered together to celebrate your academic success, I have decided to talk to you about the benefits of failure. And as you stand on the threshold of what is sometimes called ‘real life’, I want to extol the crucial importance of imagination…

…. You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”

Stephen Colbert at Knox College –  June 5th, 2006



” …Now will saying “yes” get you in trouble at times? Will saying “yes” lead you to doing some foolish things? Yes it will. But don’t be afraid to be a fool. Remember, you cannot be both young and wise. Young people who pretend to be wise to the ways of the world are mostly just cynics. Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying “yes” begins things. Saying “yes” is how things grow. Saying “yes” leads to knowledge. “Yes” is for young people. So for as long as you have the strength to, say “yes.””

John F. Kennedy at American University, 1963

Text and video at:

“I have, therefore, chosen this time and this place to discuss a topic on which ignorance too often abounds and the truth is too rarely perceived–yet it is the most important topic on earth: world peace.

What kind of peace do I mean? What kind of peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children–not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women–not merely peace in our time but peace for all time.”

Barbara Kingsolver at Duke –  May 11th, 2008

” Hope; An Owner’s Manual

Look, you might as well know, this thing
is going to take endless repair: rubber bands,
crazy glue, tapioca, the square of the hypotenuse.
Nineteenth century novels. Heartstrings, sunrise:
all of these are useful.  Also, feathers.

To keep it humming, sometimes you have to stand
on an incline, where everything looks possible;
on the line you drew yourself.  Or in
the grocery line, making faces at a toddler
secretly, over his mother’s shoulder.

You might have to pop the clutch and run
past all the evidence.  Past everyone who is
laughing or praying for you. Definitely you don’t
want to go directly to jail, but still, here you go,
passing time, passing strange.  Don’t pass this up.

In the worst of times, you will have to pass it off.
Park it and fly by the seat of your pants.  With nothing
in the bank, you’ll still want to take the express.
Tiptoe past the dogs of the apocalypse that are sleeping
in the shade of your future.  Pay at the window.
Pass your hope like a bad check.
You might still have just enough time.  To make a deposit.”

Russell Baker at Connecticut College – May 27th, 1995

“Being dumb is not the worst thing in the world, but letting your clothes shout it out loud depresses the neighbors and embarrasses your parents.”

“Now that you can no longer smoke, drink gin or eat bacon and eggs without somebody trying to make you feel ashamed of yourself, sleeping in the nude is one deliciously sinful pleasure you can commit without being caught by the Puritan police squads that patrol the nation.”

“And finally…smile. You’re one of the luckiest people in the world. You’re living in America. Enjoy it..”

Conan O’Brien at Harvard (Class Day) –  2000



“… I’ve dwelled on my failures today because, as graduates of Harvard, your biggest liability is your need to succeed. Your need to always find yourself on the sweet side of the bell curve. Because success is a lot like a bright, white tuxedo. You feel terrific when you get it, but then you’re desperately afraid of getting it dirty, of spoiling it in any way. I left the cocoon of Harvard, I left the cocoon of Saturday Night Live, I left the cocoon of The Simpsons. And each time it was bruising and tumultuous. And yet, every failure was freeing, and today I’m as nostalgic for the bad as I am for the good. So, that’s what I wish for all of you: the bad as well as the good. Fall down, make a mess, break something occasionally. And remember that the story is never over.”

“I leave you with this: if you can laugh at yourself loud and hard every time you fall…people will think you’re drunk.”

Bono at Penn – May 19th, 2004

” …I became the worst scourge on God’s green earth, a rock star with a cause. Christ! Except it isn’t the cause. Seven thousand Africans dying every day of preventable, treatable disease like AIDS? That’s not a cause, that’s an emergency. And when the disease gets out of control because most of the population live on less than one dollar a day? That’s not a cause, that’s an emergency.”

Kurt Vonnegut at Rice – May 9th, 1998

“…Mark Twain, at the end of a profoundly meaningful life, for which he never received a Nobel Prize, asked himself what it was we all lived for. He came up with six words which satisfied him. They satisfy me, too. They should satisfy you:

”The good opinion of our neighbors.”

More favorites:

Toni Morrison at Wellesley – May 28th, 2004

Bill Gates at Harvard – June 6, 2007

George C. Marshall at Harvard initiating the Marshall Plan – June 5th, 1947

Jerry Zucker at University of Wisconsin – May 17th, 2003

Jeff Bezos at Princeton’s Baccalaureate – May 30, 2010

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