Words of Wisdom: 4 Graduation Speeches That Continue to Inspire Me

After trying on my cap and gown, practicing my best fake smile, and mentally preparing myself for the long ceremony ahead, the only thing standing between me and a new beginning was my college graduation. The most memorable part of the ceremony was definitely the commencement speech, in no small part because it was my first time hearing one live. The speaker was the chair and president of a local NGO, and I felt inspired as she described her ascent through the world of nonprofits, eventually reaching an executive position and truly making a difference with her career.   

As I’ve gradually settled into adulthood – and the routine and practical demands that comprise it – I’ve sometimes had difficulty maintaining that sense of vitality. So when I’m feeling uninspired or deflated, I turn to commencement speeches for a little boost. They take me back in time and remind me of the ambition and excitement I felt that day, which I hope to keep with me as I conquer my future.

JK Rowling, Harvard (2008)

Describing her journey from struggling single mom to successful author, Rowling’s speech stands out because instead of celebrating her success, she illustrates how her failures inspired her to write “Harry Potter.” I sometimes fixate on how my past shortcomings have pushed me away from my desired path, but whenever I listen to this speech, I remember how my failures actually taught me a helpful lesson and might be useful in the future. For example, any rejected pitches for freelancing opportunities have refined my ability to both develop and articulate my ideas. Also, if you’ve read her books, you’ll geek-out at the various Harry Potter references throughout the speech.

Jennifer Lee, University of New Hampshire (2014)

Jennifer Lee, the screenwriter and director of “Frozen,” recounts her uphill battle with self-doubt and how she eventually made it over the hump. Lee’s relatable portrait of personal inhibitions, like body insecurities and feelings of inadequacy, illustrates how self-doubt is unnecessary and by extension, unproductive. Lee makes a convincing case for why you should move past your reservations. Whenever my own insecurities pop up, I keep them at bay by thinking of Lee’s maxim that “When you are free from self-doubt, you fail better, because you don’t have your defenses up, you can accept the criticism. You don’t become so preoccupied with that failure that you forget how to learn from it, you forget how to grow.”

Omid Kordestani, San Jose State University (2007)

Google’s business chief for a number of years, Omid Kordestani, offers three pieces of advice about succeeding by changing your outlook. Sometimes, optimism can feel pointless, but Kordestani paints a compelling picture about the constant optimism of immigrants looking for a better life in the West. When I think of this speech, that image always comes to mind and renews my sense of optimism. Kordestani also urges his audience not to worry about straying from their plans and improvising as they go along, which always reminds me to take a leap of faith when I’m unsure about whether to apply for a job because it deviates too much from my envisioned path.

Philip Wang, University of California San Diego (2016)

Philip Wang, one of the founders of Wong Fu Productions, offers the most relatable speech I’ve heard covering life immediately following graduation. Growing up, I was led to believe that I would find “my calling” upon or even before starting college and would transition smoothly into a career I loved. However, Wang’s speech helped me realize that many people don’t find their passions until college is long gone, which lifted the weight on my shoulders to figure out my ideal career. He also coins a phrase I often think about: “Take your time, but don’t waste your time,” which is a great reminder to be proactive, but patient, with your growth.

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