Advice for Graduates

Graduation season is here! Students of all ages dress in caps and gowns and pick up their hard-earned diplomas. These students might be graduating from high school, college, grad school, law school, or medical school. The graduates hold their diplomas and pose for pictures with friends and family.

2002 graduation from grad school

Graduating is a big deal, and it should be celebrated. Family and friends beam with pride at the graduates and their accomplishments.

1989 High School graduation

Bill Clinton said this at his commencement speech at West Point May 1993, “Your sons and daughters, your brothers and sisters really made it, and you can take pride in their graduation and in the strong values that you must have helped to instill in them that made this day possible for them.

I saw Clinton speak to the graduates of the class of 1997 but couldn’t find a good quote from that speech.

1997 West Point Graduation

Graduating is exciting but also scary for graduates. Whether they are poised to go to college, a grad school, a trade school, or if they are ready to hit the workforce.

Friends and family want to advise graduates, but sometimes getting tips from outside the family is more effortless. This outside advice starts during the commencement ceremony. Graduation speeches should inspire grads as they venture into new territories. Unfortunately, I don’t remember my graduation speech from thirty years ago. Thankfully today, we have access to many past graduation speeches.

1993 graduation ceremony

So I put together some advice and words of wisdom for grads using famous speeches and quotes about success or new beginnings.

From Ideas Ted, This writer analyzed 100 graduation speeches — here are the 4 tips they all share. These four tips are useful. Read more in the link.

  1. Dream Big
  2. Work Hard
  3. Make Mistakes
  4. Be Kind

Even though some speeches were delivered many years ago, these four tips are timeless. Of course, it’s hard to offer advice when the world is constantly changing and evolving, but these tips will be helpful for graduates of all ages.

Dream Big

“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.” Steve Jobs, Stanford University, 2005

It is important to have dreams and aspirations, even if they change as you age.

You’ll end up having more than one job and more than one career over the course of your life; to keep gaining new skills — possibly even new degrees; and you’ll have to keep on taking risks as new opportunities arise.” Barack Obama at Arizona State University on May, 13, 2009

Word Hard

“Dreams are lovely. But they are just dreams. Fleeting, ephemeral, pretty. But dreams do not come true just because you dream them. It’s hard work that makes things happen. It’s hard work that creates change.” Shonda Rhimes, Dartmouth College, 2014

You will have to work hard in college and grad school. Eventually, you will find yourself in a job that requires hard work. But don’t back away from challenges. It’s okay to ask for help, but try your best before backing down from a challenge. I take pride in the work I’ve done over the years.

“I just directed my first film. I was completely unprepared, but my own ignorance to my own limitations looked like confidence and got me into the director’s chair. Once there, I had to figure it all out, and my belief that I could handle these things, contrary to all evidence of my ability to do so was half the battle. The other half was very hard work. The experience was the deepest and most meaningful one of my career.” — Natalie Portman at Harvard University, 2015

Makes Mistakes

“In your life, you will inevitably misspeak, trust the wrong person, underreact, overreact, hurt the people who didn’t deserve it, overthink, not think at all, self-sabotage, create a reality where only your experience exists, ruin perfectly good moments for yourself and others, deny any wrongdoing, not take the steps to make it right, feel very guilty, let the guilt eat at you, hit rock bottom, finally address the pain you caused, try to do better next time, rinse, repeat.” Taylor Swift, New York University, 2022

When I grew up and went to school and eventually to work, I was afraid to disappoint my family. Unfortunately, we all make mistakes in life and might disappoint people. However, the people in your life who care about you will forgive your mistakes. Making bad decisions is okay; you can’t avoid them. Taylor’s advice is crucial because you must move on from your missteps. Dwelling wrong choices or mistakes will not help you. Instead, own your errors and move forward.

“Whatever your dream is right now, if you don’t achieve it, you haven’t failed, and you’re not some loser. But just as importantly — and this is the part I may not get right and you may not listen to — if you do get your dream, you are not a winner,” Colbert said. Stephen Colbert’s 2011 speech at Northwestern University. There are no winners or losers in life except in sports.

Conan O’Brien’s 2011 speech at Dartmouth College: “There are few things more liberating in this life than having your worst fear realized,” he said. He explained that for decades the ultimate goal of every comedian was to host “The Tonight Show,” and like many comedians, he thought achieving that goal would define his success. “But that is not true. No specific job or career goal defines me, and it should not define you,” he said.

Be Kind (and make friends)

George Saunders‘ 2013 speech at Syracuse University: “What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness,” he said. “Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded … sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.” 

Empathy and kindness are the true signs of emotional intelligence.” — Will Ferrell’s 2017 speech at the University of Southern California

In a turbulent world, we can all be kind and empathetic. Keep those skills. A small act of kindness can do a lot for others. Sometimes, a thoughtful gesture can help you as well. Hold open a door, and have friendly interactions with workers in restaurants, stores, etc.

My college friends, we have lots of fun memories together.

Find your people in college; this should be easier than high school for some graduates. Join clubs and find activities that align with things you enjoy. Become friends with people who share your interests, and you can help each in college and after graduation. Making friends and connections is essential; they can help you later in life.

Bill Gates Norther Arizona University’s 2023 commencement. Don’t underestimate the power of friendship: “The people you’ve [socialized] with and sat next to in lectures are not just your classmates. They are your network,” he said. “Your future co-founders and colleagues. Your best sources of support, information, and advice. The only thing more valuable than what you walk offstage with today is who you walk onstage with.” Bill Gates: Here are ‘the 5 things I wish I was told at the graduation I never had’ CNBC

What I have discovered is this: You can’t do it alone … Listen. Say ‘yes.’ Live in the moment. Make sure you play with people who have your back. Make big choices early and often.” Amy Poehler: Harvard University, 2011

Kurt Vonnegut’s 1999 speech at Agnes Scott College: “We may never dissuade leaders of our nation or any other nation from responding vengefully, violently, to every insult or injury. In this, the Age of Television, they will continue to find irresistible the temptation to become entertainers, to compete with movies by blowing up bridges and police stations and factories and so on,” he said. “But in our personal lives, our inner lives, at least, we can learn to live without the sick excitement, without the kick of having scores to settle with this particular person, or that bunch of people, or that particular institution or race or nation. And we can then reasonably ask forgiveness for our trespasses, since we forgive those who trespass against us.” He talks about the age of television, but this advice works if you insert it in the age of social media. Trying to settle scores on social media is a wasteful use of your time.

In conclusion:

This is your time. Take it on. Don’t be afraid to lean into the wind, love the earth in all of its natural glories and take care of each other.Tom Brokaw Connecticut College 1996

Kermit the Frog put it in a 1996 commencement speech at Southampton College, “May success and a smile always be yours … even when you’re knee-deep in the sticky muck of life.”


Insiders, 19 valuable pieces of advice from the best graduation speeches of all time

Best Colleges, 10 Great College Commencement Speeches

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