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Indispensable Life Advice from Our Favorite Commencement Speeches

Graduation can be a scary milestone, especially if you’re not sure what to do next. Take some inspiration from our favorite commencement speeches.
by Rosamund Mather | Jul 25 2018

If you’ve graduated or are just about to, you’re entering one of the most exciting times of your life. However, that excitement is not without its uncertainty and anxieties.

Plenty of people have been through exactly what you’re feeling now, and they can offer a little perspective on what it means to build a good life. Here are some of our favorite commencement speeches that offer reassurance, inspiration, and a little advice on how to do work that really matters.

Conan O’Brien: “I had conviction in what I was doing”.

In his speech at Dartmouth in 2011, O’Brien describes how he found himself adrift following his departure from The Tonight Show, which he’d been hosting for 17 years. He embraced this as his golden opportunity to start trying things he hadn’t had been able to in over a decade and a half, even going so far as to call it the most satisfying and fascinating year of his professional life.

The things he did were challenging and silly, but the key for him was that he believed in what he was doing. While it’s by now a cliché that it’s the journey that matters just as much as the destination, if not more, there’s actually some truth in it. Closing a certain chapter in your life affords you the freedom to carve out a new identity and not have to think too much about where you’re going to end up.

Don’t wish your life away; for now, take some of that passion and put it to good use with the means that you have, even if you’re a bit scared of where you might end up with it.

Elon Musk: “Focus on signal over noise”

Not every startup story follows the same formula, so try to resist the urge to follow the crowd. You shouldn’t spend lots of money or resources, for example, just because everyone else is. Instead, think critically and seek out the “signal”: are your efforts actually resulting in a better product or service? Home in on your pain points, the areas you could truly improve in, and focus on working on those.

Another thing that money can’t buy — at least not in the traditional sense of the phrase — is good people. Budding founders should know that the most important factor when it comes to a company is people who can work well together, and who are focused cohesively in one direction to guarantee success.

Also, it might sound a little trite coming from a guy who builds rockets and submarines for fun, but Musk believes that for graduates, now’s the perfect time to take risks before you have a family and other obligations. That means exploring your interests and experimenting with that thing you couldn’t devote ample time to while you were busy studying, letting you see what works (and what doesn’t).

Oprah Winfrey: “Aim for a life of substance through service”

Winning is great, and no shade if you own lots of great shoes, says Oprah, but shoes don’t equal happiness. Instead, aim for a life of substance through service; that is, offering your whole self.

The baseline for this is first discovering what you stand for, and then figuring out how you can make this of use to others. Your legacy will be every life you’ve touched, and for that reason, the risk of failing will be worth it, as it’s unlikely you’ll have been completely alone on your journey.

You’re bound to have tried something new and learned lessons that can only be grasped the hard way, and you won’t be forgetting these challenges in a hurry. That’s why times when you fail — or at least when things don’t go quite according to plan — are the moment you will learn the most about yourself.

JK Rowling: “Failure means stripping away the inessential”

For the best-known children’s author of our day, failure signifies being brave and taking a risk. That doesn’t necessarily have to mean doing something drastic; it means looking right into the core of yourself, which is no mean feat!

Before you get swept away into the money and status aspect of your career, ask yourself what happiness looks like for you and how you can take steps to achieve it. If you set that goal early, you can refer back to it later and remind yourself that hardship is temporary; for example, if you ever feel stuck in a job that you took so you could tend to your financial needs.

While Rowling was embroiled in tough times as an unemployed single parent, she summoned the strength to look for what was there once she stripped away the necessities for survival. The mere knowledge that she could direct her energy into her first novel in any spare moment she could get — and then the fact that she actually did — led her to a victory nobody could have predicted.

You’ll never know how strong you are until you’ve been tested by adversity, and sometimes you have to keep going, even when it doesn’t make sense right away.

Taking time to listen to your heart and distinguishing it from your mind is a skill that takes practice. Allow yourself to fail with the knowledge that your first attempts are half the job done when it comes to building the foundations for your next undertaking.

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