Work/Life

The Best Advice From 2019 Commencement Speeches Will Inspire You Every Day

Kick-start your career and life with wisdom from Oprah Winfrey, Stacey Abrams and Missy Elliott.
Take it from Oprah Winfrey, Missy Elliott and Stacey Abrams.
Take it from Oprah Winfrey, Missy Elliott and Stacey Abrams.

When the school year ends, advice season begins. Graduating college seniors are often inundated with advice on where to live, what job to take and whom to become.

What your distant relative says you should do may not carry the same weight as suggestions from the people who actually lived the career you want. Below are the best lessons that famous entrepreneurs, politicians and artists want new graduates to know in 2019.

Oprah Winfrey, media mogul: “What is this here to teach or show me?”

Oprah Winfrey
Oprah Winfrey

“My favorite question when in crisis is, ‘What is this here to teach or show me?’ Jeff Weiner, one of my friends and founder of LinkedIn, says that failure is what’s going to humble you. It helps you realize how fleeting success can be ― at least traditional measures of success ― because you realize that, to some extent, how it is just beyond your control and you invest less in it in terms of the way you define yourself.

“Success in terms of achieving objectives, in terms of manifesting a mission, in terms of manifesting a vision ― that’s all good, especially if what you do can create good in the world. But to the extent that you start to define yourself through traditional measures of success, to the extent that that’s your source of self-esteem, you’re destined to be unhappy because you cannot control it.” ― Colorado College commencement address

Stacey Abrams, former Georgia gubernatorial candidate: “Do not edit your desires.”

Stacey Abrams
Stacey Abrams

“When you aim high, when you stretch beyond your easiest conceptions, the temptation to pare back your ambitions will be strong, especially when there are those who don’t share them.

“Here me clearly: Do not edit your desires. You are here in this space, you are entering this world to want what you want, regardless of how big the dream. You may have to get there in stages, you may stumble along the way, but the journey is worth the work. And do not allow logic to be an excuse for setting low expectations.

“You know, this occurs when we allow ourselves to be less because we think, ‘If it were possible, someone would have done this before.’ But the fact is no one can tell you who you are.” – American University School of Public Affairs commencement address

Missy Elliott, rapper and songwriter: “As long as you are breathing, it is never too late.”

Missy Elliott
Missy Elliott

“I had 12 [awards] nominations one night and I had my speech written out. I was in the mirror the night before saying, ‘I wanna thank this person, I wanna thank Janet Jackson’... I ain’t never get to say that speech because I walked away with nothing.

”... I became ill where I couldn’t even write. My nervous system shut down on me. I thought, ‘This was it, there is no need for me to keep going,’ but something in my spirit, the drive and the patience, because you have to have patience -– as long as you are breathing, it is never too late. People will tell you, ‘You are too old.’ People will tell you, ‘It will never work.’ But don’t believe that. Because I’m standing here today.” – Berklee College of Music commencement address

Ken Jeong, actor: “What is your Act 2?”

Ken Jeong
Ken Jeong

“You guys are all at the start of your story, of your film. And you guys are finishing up act one of your film and your story. Just asking you guys an open ended question: what is your Act 2? Everyone here has a different timeline. Everyone here has a unique story. Figure out what your Act 2 is and embrace the change, embrace the twists and the unexpected turns. There will be good and there will be bad, but embrace that, because you never know what happens.” – University North Carolina Greensboro commencement address

Bill Nye, science educator, television host: “Everyone you’ll ever meet knows something you don’t.”

Bill Nye
Bill Nye

“Everyone you’ll ever meet knows something you don’t. Everyone. Farmers know things about plants that most of us, even botanists, never will. Bricklayers have an intimate knowledge of what it takes to lay bricks. Cooks know how to use copper bowls to control egg proteins, and that’s cool. Respect that knowledge and learn from others. It will bring out the best in them, and it will bring out the best in you.” ― Goucher College commencement address

Sonia Sotomayor, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court: “Education has a more important value than money.”

Sonia Sotomayor
Sonia Sotomayor

“Education has a more important value than money. It is deeply important to our growth as people and as a community. I am often asked if I ever imagined as a child being on the Supreme Court, the highest court in the United States. ‘No,’ I say, ’When I was a child, my family was poor. No lawyer or judges lived in my neighborhood. I knew nothing about the Supreme Court. ... You cannot dream of becoming something you do not know about. You have to learn to dream big. Education exposes you to what the world has to offer, to the possibilities open to you.” – Manhattan College commencement address

Tim Cook, Apple CEO: “Don’t try to emulate the people who came before you to the exclusion of everything else.”

Tim Cook
Tim Cook

“When Steve [Jobs, Apple co-founder] got sick, I had hardwired my thinking to the belief that he would get better. I not only thought he would hold on, I was convinced, down to my core, that he’d still be guiding Apple long after I, myself, was gone.

“Then, one day, he called me over to his house and told me that it wasn’t going to be that way. Even then, I was convinced he would stay on as chairman. That he’d step back from the day to day but always be there as a sounding board. But there was no reason to believe that. I never should have thought it. The facts were all there. And when he was gone, truly gone, I learned the real, visceral difference between preparation and readiness.

“It was the loneliest I’ve ever felt in my life. ... All I knew was that I was going to have to be the best version of myself that I could be. I knew that if you got out of bed every morning and set your watch by what other people expect or demand, it’ll drive you crazy.

“So what was true then is true now. Don’t waste your time living someone else’s life. Don’t try to emulate the people who came before you to the exclusion of everything else, contorting into a shape that doesn’t fit.

“It takes too much mental effort – effort that should be dedicated to creating and building. You’ll waste precious time trying to rewire your every thought, and, in the meantime, you won’t be fooling anybody.” – Stanford University commencement address

Kristen Bell, actress: “Listen as fiercely as you want to be heard.”

Kristen Bell
Kristen Bell

“When you listen as fiercely as you want to be heard, when you respect the idea that you are sharing the Earth with other humans, and when you lead with your nice foot forward, you will win, every time. It might not be today, it might not be tomorrow, but it comes back to you when you need it. We live in an age of instant gratification, of immediate likes, and it is uncomfortable to have to wait to see the dividends of your kindness, but I promise you it will appear exactly when you need it.” – University of South California School of Dramatic Arts commencement address

Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany: “We need to be prepared to keep bringing things to an end in order to feel the magic of new beginnings.”

Angela Merkel
Angela Merkel

“The moment when you step out in the open is also a moment of risk taking. Letting go of the old is part of a new beginning. There is no beginning without an end, no day without night, no life without death. Our whole life consists of the difference, the space between beginning and ending. It is what lies in between that we call life and experience.

“I believe that time and time again, we need to be prepared to keep bringing things to an end in order to feel the magic of new beginnings and to make the most of opportunities. That was what I learned as a student, as a scientist, and it is what I experience now in politics. And who knows what life will bring after my time as a politician? That, too, is completely open. Only one thing is clear: It will again be something different and something new.” – Harvard University commencement address

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