The Collected Wisdom Of Celebrity Graduation Speeches

Now that it’s graduation season, I want to toss some nuggets of wisdom to all you graduates and graduettes:

  1. Commencement means beginning! Ugh sorry.
  2. Graduation is boring.
  3. The worst part is the speeches. I had to wait until law school graduation to hear a good one. It was probably not worth the crushing debt.
  4. Wherever you’re graduating from probably had an awesome speaker… last year.
  5. Your speaker will make a joke at the beginning of the address about giving a short speech, but alas;
  6. The speaker will not.

If your speaker was boring, irrelevant, or awful, then you should watch one of these great speeches instead. Or, if you aren’t graduating from anywhere, play these if you ever feel yourself in need of a pep talk. Watching these speakers is like basking in the combined wisdom of Coach Taylor and Mrs. Coach, often accompanied by the rakish good looks of Tim Riggins.

The Comedians

Amy Poehler

“ You never know what is around the corner unless you peek. Hold someone’s hand while you do it. You will feel less scared. You can’t do this alone. Besides it is much more fun to succeed and fail with other people. You can blame them when things go wrong. Take your risks now. As you grow older, you become more fearful and less flexible.”
“ Limit your “always” and your “nevers.” Continue to share your heart with people even if its been broken. Don’t treat your heart like an action figure wrapped in plastic and never used.”

I love Amy Poehler like my dog loves me. If you have a dog who’s not an asshole, you understand. Poehler can solve any dilemma, and make you laugh when she does it. That’s why, when I have any sort of life problem, I look to see if there’s an Ask Amy on-point (Amy: Please film something about first-time homebuying. It’s very hard.) Just think of this speech as an extended Ask Amy where the question is “what do I need to know to function as an adult?” Except she doesn’t get into the homebuying stuff.

Conan O’Brien

 ” In 2000, I told graduates “Don’t be afraid to fail.”  Well now I’m here to tell you that, though you should not fear failure, you should do your very best to avoid it.   Nietzsche famously said “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”  But what he failed to stress is that IT ALMOST KILLS YOU.  Disappointment stings and, for driven, successful people like yourselves it is disorienting.  What Nietzsche should have said is  “Whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you watch a lot of Cartoon Network and drink mid-price Chardonnay at 11 in the morning.”[… ] [T]here are few things more liberating in this life than having your worst fear realized.  […] Your path at 22 will not necessarily be your path at 32 or 42.  One’s dream is constantly evolving, rising and falling, changing course.”

How many stories do you hear about people who know exactly what they’re going to be as a little kid, and spend their whole life working for it – as though it’s the most admirable course? Isn’t it just as good a story to keep growing as a person and finding new things you love and throwing yourself into them? I don’t think I’m a lesser person because I have knowledge of … you know, classical piano and Spanish linguistics that I don’t use in my everyday life; I think I’m better for the changed courses.

Fred Armisen


“Avoid people who tell you that something you want to do is not possible. You can all be male models… even the girls. Remember that there’s no one way of doing things.
Be around people who make you laugh. And if you can’t find anyone, make a group of friends out of hay, coconuts and hockey sticks. And no matter what you do in life, it’s okay.”
If you feel aimless and spend years doing a job that seems meaningless to you, even that is okay. You don’t necessarily have to be defined by your work. You will naturally gravitate to the things that make you happy.”

It’s sort of a new thing, this idea that you need to find a job that fulfills you – that you’d do without pay – in order to be an actualized person. As some have pointed out, that’s a privileged position to take. So I loved this idea that maybe the thing that brings you the most joy and makes you feel most fulfilled isn’t going to be your job.

Stephen Colbert

Remember, you cannot be both young and wise. Young people who pretend to be wise to the ways of the world are mostly just cynics. Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying “yes” begins things. Saying “yes” is how things grow. Saying “yes” leads to knowledge. “Yes” is for young people. So for as long as you have the strength to, say “yes.”

The day I stop being affected by improv as a life metaphor is the day I stop. Everything. Because what’s left after that?

The Writers

JK Rowling

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.

We hear a lot about Rowling writing Harry Potter in cafes while living in public housing. But what nobody says is that at the time, she had no way to know whether her book would succeed, or if she was even doing the right thing. You’re probably not going to write the next Harry Potter, but you’ve succeeded by at least trying. You have not, however, succeeded as much as the person who wrote Harry Potter. Sorry.

Neil Gaiman

” Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do.
Make good art.
I’m serious. Husband runs off with a politician? Make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by mutated boa constrictor? Make good art. IRS on your trail? Make good art. Cat exploded? Make good art. Somebody on the Internet thinks what you do is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before? Make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, and eventually time will take the sting away, but that doesn’t matter. Do what only you do best. Make good art.
Make it on the good days too.”

While I do love the advice above, I also really loved Tavi Gevinson’s response to it — that sometimes when things go really wrong, it’s okay if all you want to do is consume other people’s art. There’s value in being an observer too – she likened it to the Fat Lady metaphor in Franny and Zooey. So, make good art – if you can. If you can’t, just take in things that you think are good, instead.  When you can make art, it will make yours better. And if you never make anything, it will make you better.

Toni Morrison

If these are indeed the best years of your life, you do have my condolences because there is nothing, believe me, more satisfying, more gratifying than true adulthood. The adulthood that is the span of life before you. The process of becoming one is not inevitable. 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.

I’d listen to Toni Morrison talk even if she wasn’t really saying anything — but she is.

David Foster Wallace


“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”
[…]  The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death. It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:
“This is water.”
“This is water.”
It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime.”

If I were you I’d listen to the whole thing, if only because Wallace’s extended Supermarket story is a better description of the Fundamental Attribution Error – and why it matters, and how mindfulness and presence can combat it – than I learned in any college psych class.

John Green

“This is difficult to do—it is difficult to remember that people with lives different and distant from your own even celebrate birthdays, let alone with gifts of graffitied plywood. You will always be stuck inside of your body, with your consciousness, seeing through the world through your own eyes, but the gift and challenge of your education is to see others as they see themselves, to grapple with this mean and crazy and beautiful world in all its baffling complexity”

A graduation speech for all of us who sometimes get overwhelmed when we think about how everyone out there has as much of an inner life as we do.

The Musicians

Dolly Parton

Now if I have but one favor to ask of you, it’s that you care more. Did you ever notice that there are a whole lot of people that do things just well enough to get by? But, caring is about striving for perfection. It’s about how you look. It’s about how you prepare. And how you keep your commitments.

I’m not even sorry: I love Dolly Parton. She’s my favorite kind of person: she’s hilarious, she’s caring, and she’s an unlikely polymath. Really! Parton sings, acts, composes, writes, runs an entertainment empire, and has a great not-for-profit. Dolly sends books to every child born in Tennessee until the kid is 5. My nephew was born in Nashville, moved to New York, and still got the books. I loved her distinction between dreams and wishes, and I can’t think of a better role model for those of us who don’t feel the need to pick just one thing to do.

Patti Smith

You are never alone. You have friends and family. But you also have your ancestors. Your ancestors sing in your blood. Call to them: their strength through the ages will come into you. And then there are your spiritual ancestors. Call on them. They have set themselves up through human history to be at your disposal. Jesus said “I am with you always, even to the end of time.” Alan Ginsberg, Walt Whitman. They are with you. Choose the one you wish. He or she will walk with you. Don’t forget that: you are not alone.

In Just Kids, Patti and Robert Mapplethorpe loved their idols – poets, musicians, artists – as fiercely as you love people in your real life. So I don’t know how I missed that Smith saw this as a two-way relationship — your idols love you back, because when somebody inspires you they are guiding your steps. What is better than a universe so generous that it scatters these people throughout time for us, if we want to use them?

John Legend

“Soul is about authenticity. Soul is about finding things in your life that are real and pure, the things that you know are at your core, the things you were put on this earth to do, the moments when sound and silence come together.”

How To Fall In Love With John Legend In 14 Minutes Or Less: By John Legend. This speech is really good, everyone – a beautiful, accessible discussion of the politics of empathy.

Sean Combs

“Nobody is going to give you anything. There’s no rescue team coming, no National Guard, no aid coming. Nothing. You’re going to have to go out there and get it. And the only way forward is to decide you want that dream so bad that you are going to work harder, you’re going to get up earlier, you’re going to stay later, you’re going to push passed the people who doubted you, laughed at you, hated on you.”

Sean Combs, who we are allowed to call Puff Daddy again, gives the kind of tough love advice that graduates – and all of us – need to hear if we’re going to get things done. I also like the part where he says to imagine him singing in your ear “I thought I told you that we won’t stop.” In the unlikely event that I land a law school commencement speech, I will tell the graduates to picture me putting both my hands on their shoulders, leaning very close to their face, and screaming “GET JUSTICE! GO! GET JUSTICE! GO!”, so I really like this approach.

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6 thoughts on “The Collected Wisdom Of Celebrity Graduation Speeches

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  2. When I went to Alaska after college, one of my roommates was in love with commencement speeches, and I think she transferred that to me. We talked about that David Foster Wallace one forever. And I love Neil Gaiman’s.
    Still upset that BC didn’t snag A-Poehls for my graduation, but at least we got the line “I graduated from Boston College, which some call ‘The Harvard of Boston'” out of it.
    YES on JK Rowling. I think about that a lot: how when we talk about her rise to success, we talk about it like it was obvious that she would eventually be successful. She had no way to know that things would work out for her. We don’t talk about what it feels like to work really hard for something with absolutely no guarantee that it will pay off. It’s terrifying.
    And I just really love Stephen Colbert.

    Like

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