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The Greatest Commencement Addresses of All Time

Kurt Vonnegut, J.K. Rowling, David Foster Wallace, Patti Smith, Anna Quindlen, Steve Jobs, and more.

The commencement address is the secular sermon of our time — a packet of timeless advice on life, dispensed by a podium-perched patronly or matronly shaman of wisdom to a congregation of eager young minds about to enter the so-called “real world.” But the genre’s finest specimens speak to all of us looking for some guidance on the path to the Good Life, transcending boundaries of age or occupation or life-stage. The best commencement speeches are also masterworks of paradox: On the one hand, they gently remind us that what we think we know, we don’t; on the other, they urge us to trust our deepest intuitions about confidence, kindness, integrity, and all those embarrassingly elemental truths which, in all other contexts, our culturally conditioned cynicism leads us to dismiss as tired truisms. But not here — the commencement address is society’s most potent mechanism for clearing the clouds of our cynicism just long enough to allow a few rays of receptivity to shine through, long enough to hang our beliefs and vulnerabilities and hopes on something solid and soul-affirming, and to do so in a non-ironic way.

Gathered in this ongoing archive are the best commencement addresses I’ve encountered over the years — words of wisdom that offer such rare respite, a source of sincere solace for us cynical moderns. Please enjoy.

  1. Joseph Brodsky on winning the game of life (University of Michigan, 1988)
    “Of all the parts of your body, be most vigilant over your index finger, for it is blame-thirsty. A pointed finger is a victim’s logo.”
  2. David Foster Wallace on life (Kenyon College, 2005)
    Revisiting the tragic literary hero’s only public insights on life.
  3. Kurt Vonnegut on kindness, technology, community, and the power of great teachers (Agnes Scott College, 1999)
    “Teaching, may I say, is the noblest profession of all in a democracy.”
  4. Bill Watterson on life and creative integrity (Kenyon College, 1990)
    “The truth is, most of us discover where we are headed when we arrive.”
  5. Anna Quindlen on the secret to a happy life (Villanova, 2000 / undelivered)
    “You cannot be really first-rate at your work if your work is all you are.”
  6. George Saunders on the power of kindness (Syracuse, 2013)
    “What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.”
  7. Patti Smith on life and making a name for yourself (Pratt, 2010)
    How dental care protects our inner Pinocchio.
  8. Greil Marcus on the toxic division of high vs. low culture (School of Visual Arts, 2013)
    “What art does … is tell us, make us feel that what we think we know, we don’t.”
  9. Joss Whedon on embracing our inner contradictions (Wesleyan, 2013)
    “Identity is something that you are constantly earning. It is a process that you must be active in.”
  10. Neil Gaiman on mistakes and the creative life (Philadelphia University of the Arts, 2012)
    “Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before.”
  11. Ann Patchett on writing and life (Sarah Lawrence College, 2006)
    “Coming back is the thing that enables you to see how all the dots in your life are connected.”
  12. Judith Butler on the value of the humanities and why we read (McGill, 2013)
    “We lose ourselves in what we read, only to return to ourselves, transformed and part of a more expansive world.”
  13. Kurt Vonnegut on reading, boredom, belonging, and hate (Fredonia, 1978)
    “Hate, in the long run, is about as nourishing as cyanide.”
  14. Ellen Degeneres on success and following your own path (Tulane, 2009)
    “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.”
  15. Aaron Sorkin on trusting your compass (Syracuse, 2012)
    “Take risks, dare to fail, remember the first person through the wall always gets hurt.”
  16. Barack Obama on the life of service and the impulse to change the world (Wesleyan, 2008)
    “All it takes is one act of service — one blow against injustice — to send forth what Robert Kennedy called that tiny ripple of hope. That’s what changes the world. That one act.”
  17. Conan O’Brien on disappointment and what defines us (Dartmouth, 2011)
    “Whether you fear it or not, disappointment will come. The beauty is that through disappointment you can gain clarity, and with clarity comes conviction and true originality.”
  18. J.K. Rowling on defining failure for ourselves (Harvard, 2008)
    “Climbing out of poverty by your own efforts, that is something on which to pride yourself. But poverty itself is romanticized only by fools.”
  19. Robert Krulwich on friends in low places (Berkeley School of Journalism, 2011)
    “This is the era of Friends in Low Places. The ones you meet now, who will notice you, challenge you, work with you, and watch your back. Maybe they will be your strength.”
  20. Meryl Streep on change and making our own “normal” (Barnard, 2010)
    “Really, there is no ‘normal.’ There’s only change, and resistance to it, and then more change.”
  21. Jeff Bezos on cleverness vs. kindness (Princeton, 2010)
    “Cleverness is a gift, kindness is a choice. Gifts are easy — they’re given after all. Choices can be hard. You can seduce yourself with your gifts if you’re not careful, and if you do, it’ll probably be to the detriment of your choices.”
  22. Oprah Winfrey on failure and maxing out our humanity (Harvard, 2013)
    “The key to life is to develop an internal moral, emotional GPS that can tell you which way to go.”
  23. Adrienne Rich on why an education is something we claim, not something we receive (Douglass College, 1977)
    “Responsibility to yourself means that you don’t fall for shallow and easy solutions.”
  24. Steve Jobs on serendipity and connecting the dots of life (Stanford, 2005)
    “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.”
  25. Debbie Millman on courage and the creative life (San Jose State University, 2013)
    “Imagine immensities, don’t compromise, and don’t waste time.”
  26. Richard Feynman on integrity (Caltech, 1974)
    “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself.”
  27. Daniel Pink on why the best roadmap to an interesting life is the one you make up as you go along (Weinberg College, 2014)
    “Sometimes, the only way to discover who you are or what life you should lead is to do less PLANNING and more LIVING — to burst the double bubble of comfort and convention and just DO stuff.”
  28. Teresita Fernández on What It Really Takes to Be an Artist
    “Being an artist is not just about what happens when you are in the studio. The way you live, the people you choose to love and the way you love them, the way you vote, the words that come out of your mouth… will also become the raw material for the art you make.”
  29. Tom Wolfe on the rise of the pseudo-intellectual (Boston University, 2000)
    “We live in an age in which ideas, important ideas, are worn like articles of fashion.”
  30. John Waters on Creative Rebellion and the Artist’s Task to Cause Constructive Chaos (RISD, 2015)
    “Refuse to isolate yourself. Separatism is for losers.”
  31. Toni Morrison on How to Be Your Own Story and Reap the Rewards of Adulthood in a Culture That Fetishizes Youth (Wellesley, 2004)
    “There is nothing, believe me, more satisfying, more gratifying than true adulthood… Its achievement is a difficult beauty, an intensely hard won glory, which commercial forces and cultural vapidity should not be permitted to deprive you of.”
  32. Parker Palmer on the Six Pillars of the Examined Life (Naropa University, 2015)
    “Take everything that’s bright and beautiful in you and introduce it to the shadow side of yourself… When you are able to say, ‘I am … my shadow as well as my light,’ the shadow’s power is put in service of the good.”

Published May 20, 2014




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