I don’t remember my high school commencement speech. Or my college commencement speech. But I wish I did! There is something very special about these benedictions written especially for you (and the one-several thousand graduates with whom you’ve spent the last four years). At the same time, though, a good commencement speech is universal. Most speakers don’t have close relationships with the institutions they’re speaking to, and if they do, they almost certainly don’t have any relationship with the students themselves. This means that a good commencement speech is something more like an open letter, written just for you.
Since I don’t remember any of my own commencement speeches, sometimes I like to take a peek at commencement speeches written for other people. Fortunately for me, some of the greatest speeches have been turned into short little books. Below, I’ve collected some of my favorite quotes and bits of wisdom from the speeches.
NOTE: Leslie Odom Jr.’s book isn’t technically a commencement speech, but when I got to see him speak a few weeks ago, I learned that he was instructed to write it as though it was one. I’m counting it.
Make Good Art by Neil Gaiman
“Go and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here.”
In Conclusion, Don’t worry About it by Lauren Graham
“Your job doesn’t define you—your bravery and kindness and gratitude do. Even without any ‘big’ accomplishments yet to your name, you are enough. Whether you have top billing, or you’re still dancing in the back row, you are enough, just as you are.”
Very Good Lives by J.K. Rowling
“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.”
This is Water by David Foster Wallace
“The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.”
Now Go Out There (and Get Curious) by Mary Karr
“Being smart and rich are lucky, but being curious and compassionate will save your ass. Being curious and compassionate can take you out of your ego and edge your soul towards wonder.”
Failing Up by Leslie Odom Jr.
“Preparation is the sign of your intention.”
Congratulations, By the Way: Some Thoughts on Kindness by George Saunders
“So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it: 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.”