Life Hacks

Graduation, the Most Important Part of College: 5 Life Lessons Learned from Commencement Speeches

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As graduation approaches, many of you may be reflecting on your past four years here. You might think of the friends you’ve made or the obstacles you’ve overcome. Perhaps the lessons you’ve learned come to mind as well, and although you may have learned many that hold important value to your success in your career field, there are some lessons you won’t learn in any classroom or internship. In fact, there are many lessons that can only be learned through experiencing the journey called life. Although no one really knows how life will play out, wouldn’t it be nice if someone gave us a heads-up? Well, these five commencement speeches, given by some of the most well-known people of the 21st century, do just that.

1. Say “yes and…”

In 2015, former SNL cast member, Maya Rudolph, gave the commencement speech to Tulane’s graduating class. Her advice? Always say “yes, and…”, a lesson she learned in thespian school. When asked a question, say yes. Be open to new adventures and experiences, but never leave it at yes. Simply saying yes has a way of finalizing things, of closing the door on so many opportunities before they even have the chance to begin. Instead, say “yes, and…” This leaves the door open to endless possibilities, not just career wise, but life in general. The idea of saying “yes, and…” keeps you moving forward.

2. Let others speak

Former President Barack Obama left the 2016 graduating class of Howard University with many tips for a successful life during his commencement speech. One of the most useful tips was to let others speak. The take away here is this: Regardless of whether you agree with someone, you should still give them the podium. Allow them to speak their mind; to express their stand on opinions, even if they are wrong. During the speech, Obama recalls advice his grandmother gave him saying, “every time a fool speaks, they are just advertising their own ignorance. Let them talk. If you don’t, you just make them a victim, and then they can avoid accountability.”

3. Be true to yourself

In her comedic commencement speech to the graduating class of 2009 at Tulane University, Ellen DeGeneres advises the graduates to be true to themselves. Although this is the most common advice given, it is often seen as easier said than done. Ellen uses her own life experiences to give a real-life example of how much better life can be when you “live your life with integrity and not to give into peer pressure to try to be something that you’re not. To live your life as an honest and compassionate person.” The outcome of being true to yourself always outweighs that of attempting to be someone that you’re not. The idea might seem scary, because let’s be honest, not everyone will like who you are, but you will and that’s all that matters. When you stay true to yourself, you feel better about the things you accomplish. So, remain authentic. Your successes hold so much more meaning when you don’t compromise your integrity.

4. Fall forward

The key point of actor Denzel Washington’s commencement speech to the University of Pennsylvania’s graduating class of 2011 was the idea of “falling forward.” Often in life people tell you to make sure you have a backup plan; something to fall back on in case things don’t go the way you plan. Washington expressed his dislike of this popular concept stating, “if I’m going to fall, I don’t want to fall back on anything, except my faith. I want to fall forward. At least this way I’ll see what I’m going to hit.” Washington wanted the graduates to embrace their failures as a step forward, not a step backwards, because “every failed experiment is one step closer to success.” He encourages the class of 2011 to take risks; it’s the only way to reach success through failure.

5. Embrace your place within the many

Writer Zadie Smith’s life tip to The New School’s graduating class of 2014 was to acknowledge and embrace “your place within the many”. Far too often we find ourselves entertaining the idea of solipsism – the idea that we are better off on our own, the more private, the better. Smith encourages the graduates to embrace being a part of the world. “Don’t let your fellow humans be alien to you, and as you get older and perhaps a little less open than you are now, don’t assume that exclusive always and everywhere means better. It may only mean lonelier,” she says. Instead, see your connection to others as a privilege; a way of correcting what is wrong in society.

In a perfect world, you have the next chapter of your life all mapped out, but that’s not how life works. At some point, you’ll make pit stops or wrong turns; you’ll encounter detours or bumper-to-bumper traffic. But regardless of what you plan to do with your life, or what life plans to do with you, these lessons, along with the ones you’ll learn during your own commencement ceremony, can help you along your journey.

I'm a senior and a Professional Writing major. I most enjoy writing about others, as well as giving helpful advice.

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