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Commencement speeches come but once a year, and many get lost to the history of tired cliches.
But the best ones stay far away from these stale platitudes, turning an old idea on its head or conjuring a brand-new thought to inspire and challenge its audience.
This year’s speeches have seen no shortage of wise words, delivered by actors, philanthropists, and journalists. Here are some of the best so far.
Helen Mirren, Tulane University
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Compassion is a common theme among graduation speeches, but actress Helen Mirren took the idea a step further by talking about the tattoo on her left hand.
The tattoo says “in La’kesh,” which is a Mayan phrase meaning “You are my other self. We are one. I am another yourself,” she told the Tulane graduates.
In these divisive times, Mirren focused her speech on togetherness.
The wisdom: “We are all in this together.”
Sheryl Sandberg, Virginia Tech
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Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, recently published a book called “Option B.” It details her emotional recovery from the death of her husband, and she borrowed many of the themes to use in her Virginia Tech commencement speech.
Sandberg encouraged students to cultivate resilience, not just for themselves but also to instill it in other people.
The wisdom: “An important way you can serve and lead is by helping build resilience in the world.”
Oprah, Smith College
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This graduation season, Oprah is visiting nine schools attended by former students of her Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy. One of them is Smith College, where she spoke on the importance of service.
So much of her personal happiness is derived from helping others, Oprah said. The more she donates her time to help people, the more fulfilled (and successful) she feels.
The wisdom: “[A]sk the question: How can I be used?”
Octavia Spencer, Kent State University
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Kids are often told not to let failure shape who they are – to stay focused in the face of adversity in the hope they’ll someday succeed.
But at her address to Kent State students, Spencer invoked Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If-“ to warn of the power of success in changing people – sometimes for the worst. It’s the process of moving towards triumph that matters more, she says.
The wisdom: “Treat triumph and disaster just the same.”
Fareed Zakaria, Bucknell University
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CNN journalist Fareed Zakaria is the author of “In Defense of a Liberal Education,” and his speech to Bucknell grads echoes the thesis. He calls on people to celebrate intellectual diversity in the same way we cherish other forms.
Zakaria tells the students to always stay aware of their blind spots, and to question dogmas for the sake of moving toward a tolerant, free-thinking society.
The wisdom: “The most important skill you need is asking ‘What am I not seeing?'”
Adam Grant, Utah State University
- George Lange
Grant, a University of Pennsylvania psychologist, told Utah State University graduates that most typical commencement speech wisdom is only partly true, if not outright false.
He singles out the wisdom to “never give up.” Grant, an expert on why people succeed, says the research on success clearly shows people need to give up when they stop making progress toward their goal.
The wisdom: “Sometimes quitting is a virtue.”
Martin Casado, Northern Arizona University
- Northern Arizona University
Casado, a computer scientist and entrepreneur, spoke to Northern Arizona University students about something people in the business world know all too well: failure. Specifically, he urged students to hone their skills at failure.
He says he failed many, many times before finally selling a company he cofounded in 2007 for $1.26 billion in 2012.
The wisdom: “Get good at [failure].”