Lifestyle
20 Great Graduation Speeches Will Change How You Look at Success and Failure
Our greatest actors, writers, musicians, and leaders give really great advice-but it's not just for college graduates.
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It's easy to dismiss the lessons delivered in a college commencement speech as reserved for bright, privileged kids with a degree at a fancy school who have their whole lives ahead of them. Anyone still grinding through college or living in the real world probably doesn't exactly feel like the target audience for these inspiring words. And that's not wrong!

But the point of these speeches isn't to give those bright-eyed youngsters lessons for that given moment in time. No one needs advice on how to relax after a lifetime of school and tests and teachers. This advice is for graduates to store away somewhere and remember once real life beats their ass. Because that'll happen. This is advice for the hard times to come. This is advice for the people still struggling away to kick off careers, to make dreams come true, etc., etc.

In many ways, this isn't advice for those graduates getting ready to spend the weekend getting obliterated at parties—this is advice for those of us bitterly hearing it long after the fact. Maybe you're 10, 20, 40 years out of school and you need some shot of inspiration, professionally, creatively, or otherwise—these are the words for you.

BARACK OBAMA

School: Howard University

Class: 2016

Most inspiring quote: "So don't try to shut folks out, don't try to shut them down, no matter how much you might disagree with them. There's been a trend around the country of trying to get colleges to disinvite speakers with a different point of view, or disrupt a politician's rally. Don't do that—no matter how ridiculous or offensive you might find the things that come out of their mouths. Because as my grandmother used to tell me, every time a fool speaks, they are just advertising their own ignorance. Let them talk. If you don't, you just make them a victim, and then they can avoid accountability."

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ELLEN DEGENERES

School: Tulane University

Class: 2009

Most inspiring quote: "It was so important for me to lose everything because I found what the most important thing is. The most important thing is to be true to yourself."

KANYE WEST

School: Los Angeles Trade Technical College

Class: 2015

Most inspiring quote: "When you're the absolute best, you get hated on the most."

JANE LYNCH

School: Smith College

Class: 2012

Most inspiring quote: "Life is just one, big improvisation."

AMY POEHLER

School: Harvard University

Class: 2011

Most inspiring quote: "Try putting your iPhones down every once in awhile and look at people's faces."

ELIZABETH WARREN

School: Suffolk University

Class: 2016

Most inspiring quote: "Knowing who you are will help you when it's time to fight. Fight for the job you want, fight for the people who mean the most to you and fight for the kind of world you want to live in. It will help when people say that's impossible or you can't do that. Look, if you take the unexpected opportunities when they come up, if you know yourself, and if you fight for what you believe in, I can promise that you will live a life that is rich with meaning."

DAVID BYRNE

School: Columbia University

Class: 2013

Most inspiring quote: "I believe that there is a way to have a very, very satisfying, enriching and creative life in the arts, but it depends on what criteria you use to look at that. But I would say that if you're being creative, with happiness, satisfaction, all that—you're succeeding."

STEPHEN COLBERT

School: Northwestern University

Class: 2011

Most inspiring quote: "If everybody followed their first dreams in life, the world would be ruled by cowboys and princesses."

OPRAH WINFREY

School: Harvard University

Class: 2013

Most inspiring quote: "It doesn't matter how far you might rise. At some point you are bound to stumble because if you're constantly doing what we do, raising the bar. If you're constantly pushing yourself higher, higher the law of averages not to mention the Myth of Icarus predicts that you will at some point fall. And when you do I want you to know this, remember this: there is no such thing as failure. Failure is just life trying to move us in another direction."

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JON STEWART

School: The College of William and Mary

Class: 2004

Most inspiring quote: "So how do you know what is the right path to choose to get the result that you desire? And the honest answer is this: You won't."

GEORGE SAUNDERS

School: Syracuse University

Class: 2013

Most inspiring quote: "What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded… Sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly."

MERYL STREEP

School: Barnard College

Class: 2010

Most inspiring quote: "This is your time and it feels normal to you but really there is no normal. There's only change, and resistance to it and then more change."

NEIL GAIMAN

School: University of the Arts

Class: 2012

Most inspiring quote: "Husband runs off with a politician? Make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by mutated boa constrictor? Make good art. IRS on your trail? Make good art. Cat exploded? Make good art. Someone on the Internet thinks what you're doing is stupid or evil or it's all been done before? Make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, and eventually time will take the sting away, but that doesn't matter. Do what only you can do best. Make good art."

CONAN O'BRIEN

School: Dartmouth College

Class: 2011

Most inspiring quote: "I did a lot of silly, unconventional, spontaneous, and seemingly irrational things, and guess what? With the exception of the blue leather suit, it was the most satisfying and fascinating year of my professional life."

TONI MORRISON

School: Wellesley College

Class: 2004

Most inspiring quote: "Of course, you're general, but you're also specific. A citizen and a person, and the person you are is like nobody else on the planet. Nobody has the exact memory that you have. What is now known is not all what you are capable of knowing. You are your own stories and therefore free to imagine and experience what it means to be human without wealth. What it feels like to be human without domination over others, without reckless arrogance, without fear of others unlike you, without rotating, rehearsing and reinventing the hatreds you learned in the sandbox. And although you don't have complete control over the narrative—no author does, I can tell you—you could nevertheless create it."

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BILL GATES

School: Harvard University

Class: 2007

Most inspiring quote: "Don't let complexity stop you. Be activists. Take on the big inequities. It will be one of the great experiences of your lives."

DAVID FOSTER WALLACE

School: Kenyon College

Class: 2005

Most inspiring quote: "The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death. It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: 'This is water.'"

DENZEL WASHINGTON

School: University of Pennsylvania

Class: 2011

Most inspiring quote: "Fall forward. This is what I mean: Reggie Jackson struck out 2,600 times in his career, the most in the history of baseball. But you don't hear about the strikeouts. People remember the home runs. Fall forward. Thomas Edison conducted 1,000 failed experiments. Did you know that? I didn't know that because the 1,001st was the light bulb. Fall forward. Every failed experiment is one step closer to success."

ZADIE SMITH

School: The New School

Class: 2014

Most inspiring quote: "Walk down these crowded streets with a smile on your face. Be thankful you get to walk so close to other humans. It's a privilege. Don't let your fellow humans be alien to you, and as you get older and perhaps a little less open than you are now, don't assume that exclusive always and everywhere means better. It may only mean lonelier. There will always be folks hard selling you the life of the few: the private schools, private plans, private islands, private life. They are trying to convince you that hell is other people. Don't believe it. We are far more frequently each other's shelter and correction, the antidote to solipsism, and so many windows on this world."

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STEVE JOBS

School: Stanford University

Class: 2005

Most inspiring quote: "Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose."

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Matt Miller
Matt Miller is the Associate Culture Editor for Esquire.com
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