The BEST graduation speeches

From Sheryl Sandberg to Stephen Colbert

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One of the most famous pieces of advice for graduates came from Chicago Tribune writer Mary Schmich, in a column titled: "Advice, Like Youth, Probably Just Wasted on the Young." (aka, "The Wear Sunscreen Speech.")

"Wear sunscreen. If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it," Schmich said. "Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth. Oh, never mind. You will not understand the power and beauty of your youth until they've faded. But trust me, in 20 years, you'll look back at photos of yourself and recall in a way you can't grasp now how much possibility lay before you and how fabulous you really looked. You are not as fat as you imagine."

From business titans like Sheryl Sandberg and Carl Icahn to celebrities like Stephen Colbert and Sean Combs, there has been some great advice delivered at commencement speeches. One of the best pieces of advice I've ever received is: Don't treat your job search like dating. Don't think "I shouldn't call right away — I should play it cool and wait a few days."

In those two days you were waiting? Somebody else may have already gotten the job. Send your resume. Follow up by email or phone. Leave the coy behavior for that cute girl from chemistry class.

"I think there is this skills-gap shift we're seeing. Younger people coming out of school are more prepared for the kind of jobs we need in this sort of new economy," said Simply Hired CEO James Beriker. Specifically, how adept they are with technology, which he thinks can be helpful for emerging companies as well as those that are well-established.

His advice for new grads? Don't take the summer off! Too many kids say I'm tired, I need a break — I DESERVE a break. I'll start looking for a job in September. But it's still really competitive out there, so he says better to get a jump on the competition and start over the summer.

As we head into graduation season, a batch of commencement speakers will add their tips to the list. Before we kick our young out of the academic nest, squawking and flapping into the real world, here are some of the best graduation speeches in recent history.

By Cindy Perman
Posted 4 May 2014; Updated 16 May 2016 by Akane Otani

Sheryl Sandberg

Sheryl Sandberg
Source: NBC

University of California, Berkeley (2016)

You will not be defined by what you achieve; instead, you'll be defined by how you survive adversity, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg told University of California, Berkeley graduates.

It was the first time Sandberg had spoken publicly about the death of her husband, Dave Goldberg, the CEO of SurveyMonkey, who died at age 47 in 2015. While Sandberg admitted the speech would be difficult to deliver, she told graduates she felt it was important to speak frankly about the things she had learned from her husband's death.

"I'm sharing this with you today in the hopes that on this day in your lives, with all the momentum and the joy, you can learn in life the lessons I only learned in death ... lessons about hope, strength and the light within us that will not be extinguished," Sandberg said.

Some months after Goldberg's death, Sandberg made it a New Year's resolution to write down three moments of joy every night before going to bed. That practice, she said, "has changed my life."

"Finding gratitude and appreciation is key to resilience. People who take the time to list things they are grateful for are happier and healthier," she said.

While tragedy is inevitable in life, Sandberg said, by practicing resilience, people can grow from tragic events, not just survive them.

"When the challenges come, I hope you remember that anchored deep within you is the ability to learn and grow. You are not born with a fixed amount of resilience. Like a muscle, you can build it up, draw on it when you need it," Sandberg said. "In that process you will figure out who you really are—and you just might become the very best version of yourself."

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President Barack Obama

President Barack Obama speaks after receiving an honorary doctorate of laws during the 250th anniversary commencement ceremony at Rutgers University on May 15, 2016 in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
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Rutgers University (2016)

President Barack Obama is optimistic — optimistic that college graduates are entering a world that is, by almost every measure, "better than it was 50 years ago, or 30 years ago, or even eight years ago."

People like to muse about "the good old days," yet it's important to step back and recognize how far America has come as a country, Obama told Rutgers University graduates.

"Since I graduated, crime rates, teenage pregnancy, the share of Americans living in poverty — they're all down. The share of Americans with college educations have gone way up. Our life expectancy has, as well. Blacks and Latinos have risen up the ranks in business and politics. More women are in the workforce," he said.

Such markers of change shouldn't give people leeway to be complacent. Instead, they should remind people that America moves forward when it embraces engaging with others, Obama said.

"If the past two decades have taught us anything, it's that the biggest challenges we face cannot be solved in isolation," he said. "When overseas states start falling apart, they become breeding grounds for terrorists and ideologies of nihilism and despair that ultimately can reach our shores. When developing countries don't have functioning health systems, epidemics like Zika or Ebola can spread and threaten Americans, too. And a wall won't stop that."

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Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama reacts as she receives an honorary degree during Dillard University's commencement ceremony in New Orleans, Saturday, May 10, 2014.
Jonathan Bachman | AP

Dillard University (2014)

First lady Michelle Obama, an education activist, gave an especially poignant to the Class of '14 at Dillard University, a historically black school founded in 1869 — four years after the Civil War.

She encouraged students to use their experiences with adversity to address the world's tragedies.

"You all have seen so much. You've witnessed this school's rebirth after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina — the new buildings that replaced the ones you lost, the classrooms that started filling back up again, the service projects that you all have done to help this community bounce back. And I know along the way that each of you has written your own story of resilience and determination to make it here to this day."

The first lady also referred to the special bus lines created to get students to school during Jim Crow in the 1930s and to the many subsequent students who come from tough neighborhoods.

"But let me tell you, those students were hungry — you hear me? Hungry. They studied like their lives depended on it. They blazed through their lessons. And that hunger for education lasted for generations in the African-American community here in New Orleans," she said.

Her message: We can't afford to give up, even in the face of racial disparity or civil wars elsewhere in the world.

"See, because we're the lucky ones, and we can never forget that we didn't get where we are today all on our own," she said. "We got here today because of so many people who toiled and sweat and bled and died for us — people like our parents and grandparents and all those who came before them, people who never dreamed of getting a college education themselves but who worked and saved and sacrificed so that we could be here today. We owe them. And the only way to pay back that debt is by making those same kinds of sacrifices and investments for the next generation."

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Sean Combs

Sean Combs does a little dance across the stage while he delivers his keynote address during Howard University's commencement ceremonies on May, 10, 2014 in Washington, DC.
Bill O'Leary | The Washington Post | Getty Images

Howard University (2014)

Puff Daddy, Puffy, P. Diddy—and now, Dr. Combs. Combs, a college dropout, was a controversial choice for a commencement speaker. But he finally got his degree at Howard University's commencement, where he surprised with a heartfelt, if unconventional, speech about the university he attended for two years.

Combs took a unique approach to the speech, reaching out on social media for tips for his speech. "It's time for us to evolve," he said. "We're changing things here, you see?"

"My world was changed here at Howard," Combs said. "On the second day of school I learned something here that would change my life forever. I was raised by a single mom in Harlem. My dad, Melvin Combs, died when I was 3 years old. My mom always told me he died in a car accident, but something never felt right."

Combs told of doing research in the library, looking through old microfilms and finding his father had been murdered in a drug deal gone bad. That day, he said he decided to work hard and embrace his entrepreneurial spirit in honor of his mother's sacrifices, who worked four jobs to send him to college.

"Do you know how powerful you are?" he asked graduates. "Our stories may be different, but I bet some of you grew up with single mothers or fathers. Maybe you came here from Africa or the Caribbean. Maybe you were the first in your family to go to college, like I was. Maybe there was a time when you didn't have a place to live or enough food to eat. ... But guess what? You did it. You put this day on your calendar, you overcame the odds. You made a decision, and you followed through. You will change the world. Let that sink in."

Combs encouraged graduates to take the dream "you're embarrassed to tell anyone about," and set out to do it.

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Lewis Black

Source: Erik Jepsen | UC San Diego Publications

Thurgood Marshall College, University of California at San Diego (2013)

Comedian Lewis Black, known for his angry rants, stressed the importance of humor and pursuing your dreams — and he even apologized for the Social Security checks they might not get.

"Our parents passed it on to our generation, but no one ever said to us that we were supposed to pass it on to the next generation. So we spent it."

His best line was about what to expect in the real world.

"You are now entering a world that's filled to the brim with idiots. Since there are so many idiots out there, you actually may start to think you're crazy. You are not. They are idiots."

"Whatever you do, don't tell them that they are an idiot.There may come a day when you may need that idiot. Idiots may be idiots — but they do have a memory."

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Michael Lewis

Source: Denise Applewhite | Office of Communications | Princeton University

Princeton (2012)

Michael Lewis, author of bestselling books including "Liar's Poker," "The Big Short," "Moneyball" and "Flash Boys," talked about his time at Princeton — and recalled asking a professor what he thought of his thesis.

"What did you think of the writing?" Lewis asked.

"Put it this way: Never try to make a living at it," the professor replied.


Lewis talked about dabbling in writing but being unsure what to write about. By chance of a seating arrangement at a dinner, he wound up with a job at Salomon Brothers. And that, he said, gave him something to write about.

"Wall Street had become so unhinged that it was paying recent Princeton graduates who knew nothing about money small fortunes to pretend to be experts about money."

"I called up my father. I told him I was going to quit this job that now promised me millions of dollars to write a book for an advance of 40 grand. There was a long pause on the other end of the line. 'You might just want to think about that,' he said." Lewis did think about it — then quit and wrote "Liar's Poker."

The speech was titled "Don't Eat Fortune's Cookie." Lewis talks about a psychology experiment where a group of three people was tasked with a problem to solve, then brought a plate of four cookies. Every time, the person designated the leader would eat the extra cookie — and with gusto! Lips smacking, the whole nine. So Lewis's parting advice was this:

"All of you have been faced with the extra cookie. All of you will be faced with many more of them. In time you will find it easy to assume that you deserve the extra cookie. For all I know, you may. But you'll be happier, and the world will be better off, if you at least pretend that you don't."

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Aaron Sorkin

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Syracuse University (2012)

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, a graduate of Syracuse, told a few sweet stories about growing older, then hit the graduates with a comedic reality check — Sorkin-style.

"[M]ake no mistake about it, you are dumb. You're a group of incredibly well-educated dumb people. I was there. We all were there. You're barely functional. There are some screw-ups headed your way. I wish I could tell you that there was a trick to avoiding the screw-ups, but the screw-ups, they're a-coming for ya'."

He also talked about making "A Few Good Men," and about how a young actor, who had been cast in a small role, bailed out because he got a lead role in another movie. That movie was canceled and the actor's replacement was Noah Wyle, who went on to star in "ER." "I don't know what that first actor is doing and I can't remember his name."

His best advice?

"You'll meet a lot of people who, to put it simply, don't know what they're talking about. ... Develop your own compass, and trust it. Take risks, dare to fail, remember the first person through the wall always gets hurt."

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Stephen Colbert

Timothy Hiatt | Getty Images

Northwestern (2011)

Stephen Colbert has given several commencement speeches. At his alma mater, Northwestern, in 2011, he started off by thanking the university president, the board … "and thank you parents! Of course, if you don't thank them now, you'll have plenty of time to thank them tomorrow when you move back in with them."

"We didn't have cellphones. If you made plans to meet someone in a snowstorm, and they didn't show up, you just had to assume they were devoured by wolves and go on with your life."

His best advice was about following dreams.

"You have been told to follow your dreams. But — what if it's a stupid dream? For instance, Stephen Colbert of 25 years ago lived at 2015 North Ridge — with two men and three women — in what I now know was a brothel. He dreamed of living alone — well, alone with his beard — in a large, barren loft apartment — lots of blond wood — wearing a kimono, with a futon on the floor, and a samovar of tea constantly bubbling in the background, doing Shakespeare in the street for the homeless.Today, I am a beardless, suburban dad who lives in a house, wears no-iron khakis, and makes Anthony Wiener jokes for a living. And I love it. Because thankfully dreams can change. If we'd all stuck with our first dream, the world would be overrun with cowboys and princesses."

"So whatever your dream is right now, if you don't achieve it, you haven't failed, and you're not some loser. But just as importantly — and this is the part I may not get right and you may not listen to — if you do get your dream, you are not a winner."

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Jeff Bezos

Source: Denise Applewhite | Princeton University

Princeton (2010) founder Jeff Bezos starts off with a little snapshot into his childhood:

"As a kid, I spent my summers with my grandparents on their ranch in Texas. I helped fix windmills, vaccinate cattle, and do other chores. We also watched soap operas every afternoon, especially 'Days of our Lives.' My grandparents belonged to a Caravan Club, a group of Airstream trailer owners who travel together around the U.S. and Canada. Every few summers, we'd join the caravan."

He adored his grandparents but his grandmother smoked the whole trip and, Bezos said, he hated the smell.

"At that age, I'd take any excuse to make estimates and do minor arithmetic. I'd calculate our gas mileage or figure out useless statistics on things like grocery spending. I'd been hearing an ad campaign about smoking. I can't remember the details, but basically the ad said 'every puff of a cigarette takes some number of minutes off of your life.' I think it might have been two minutes per puff. At any rate, I decided to do the math for my grandmother. I estimated the number of cigarettes per days, estimated the number of puffs per cigarette and so on. When I was satisfied that I'd come up with a reasonable number, I poked my head into the front of the car, tapped my grandmother on the shoulder and proudly proclaimed, 'At two minutes per puff, you've taken nine years off your life!'"

He expected praise for his genius but instead, his grandmother burst into tears.

His grandfather said simply, "Jeff, one day you'll understand that it's harder to be kind than clever."

His message to graduates?

There's a "difference between gifts and choices. Cleverness is a gift, kindness is a choice."

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J.K. Rowling

Neal Hamberg | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Harvard (2008)

Harvard and Gryffindor — a natural pairing!

"The first thing I would like to say is 'thank you,'" the "Harry Potter" author said in her commencement speech. "Not only has Harvard given me an extraordinary honor, but the weeks of fear and nausea I have endured at the thought of giving this commencement address have made me lose weight. A win-win situation! Now all I have to do is take deep breaths, squint at the red banners and convince myself that I am at the world's largest Gryffindor reunion."

And despite how much she stressed about the speech, looking back on her own graduation, she doesn't recall a single word from the commencement speaker, British philosopher Baroness Mary Warnock. "This liberating discovery enables me to proceed without any fear that I might inadvertently influence you to abandon promising careers in business, the law or politics for the giddy delights of becoming a gay wizard. You see? If all you remember in years to come is the 'gay wizard' joke, I've come out ahead of Baroness Mary Warnock. Achievable goals: the first step to self improvement."

Her most important wisdom for graduates was about failure.

"You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. ... Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected. ... The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive."

Her other message? The importance of imagination.

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Bill Gates

Bill Gates shows just how level the playing field can be: After dropping out of Harvard, he went on to found Microsoft and become one of the wealthiest men in the world. “I’ve been waiting more than 30 years to say this: “Dad, I always told you I’d come back and get my degree. I want to thank Harvard for this honor. I'll be changing my job next year and it will be nice to finally have a college degree on my resume! … “We can make market forces work better for the poor if we can develop a more cr
Source: Getty Images

Harvard (2007)

Bill Gates shows just how level the playing field can be: After dropping out of Harvard, he went on to found Microsoft and become one of the world's wealthiest person.

"I've been waiting more than 30 years to say this: "Dad, I always told you I'd come back and get my degree. I want to thank Harvard for this honor. I'll be changing my job next year and it will be nice to finally have a college degree on my resume! …

"We can make market forces work better for the poor if we can develop a more creative capitalism – if we can stretch the reach of market forces so that more people can make a profit, or at least make a living, serving people who are suffering from the worst inequities. ...

"You have more than we had; you must start sooner, and carry on longer."

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Carl Icahn

Carl Icahn at Drexel University
Source: Drexel University

Drexel University (2008)

Activist investor Carl Icahn also made his address in the poignant year of 2008 and took aim squarely at corporate management.

"We today are in a crisis in our economy. … One of our major problems in this country is management and their ability to compete. With exceptions, we have terrible management in this country. The system is dysfunctional. I can tell you how bad our boards are, with exceptions of course. I sit on a lot of boards. I don't have to watch 'Saturday Night Live' anymore; I just go to the board meetings. I will tell you, it's a sad commentary, that we have an inability to compete."

"[T]here is no way to hold these guys accountable — except if somebody like myself comes along, or some other person, who's really well to challenge them but you have to go through contortions."

"It's again a sad commentary, the way you get to be a CEO. Don't get into the mold most CEOs get into to get elected. I call it 'anti-Darwinian.' I call it 'anti-survival of the fittest.'"

He talked about one CEO he went up against but had praise for him for bucking the board. His final advice to the graduates: "That is what you should seek to be when you go out into the world. You should try to stand up against the trend."

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Steve Jobs

Jack Arent | Palo Alto Daily News | AP

Stanford (2005)

Steve Jobs addressed mortality in a 2005 speech to Stanford grads, a year after his cancer diagnosis. gave it an award for the "Best Ironically Uplifting Comment About Death."

"Death is very likely the single-best invention of life. It's life's change agent; it clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now, the new is you. But someday, not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it's quite true. Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice, heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary. … Stay hungry, stay foolish."

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