Make Good Commencement Addresses

"Be wise, because the world needs more wisdom. And if you cannot be wise, pretend to be someone wise, and then just behave like they would."

With so many schools reaching the end of term, the Internets are buzzing about this year's best commencement address: Neil Gaiman's to the University of the Arts

It stands out, of course, because most commencement addresses are abominable

I don't remember a single thing about mine — not the speaker, nor anything he or she said. I assume it was boring. I assume it was too long. I assume I used those minutes to daydream about the graduation cake I was going to eat when I got home. (Maureen Johnson wrote a great post about this just today.)

But . . . 

Good ones. They DO exist. And they're always worth revisiting.

My favorite commencement address is J.K. Rowling's to Harvard in 2008 about failure and imagination. (Can you imagine speaking to Harvard about failure? How gutsy!) I still watch it every few months (with a box of tissues), because so much of what she says is worth being reminded of.

This, especially, always resonates:

"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."

I also love Steve Jobs' Stanford commencement from 2005, now something of a classic for bringing back the Whole Earth Catalog's farewell message: "Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish."

But I like this part just as much:

"Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle."

If you haven't watched either of those speeches, go forth.

And if you have yet to watch Neil's, go forth again! Zen Pencils made a wonderful comic — "Make Good Art" — from the most quotable bit, but this was also smart stuff:

"When you start out on a career in the arts, you have no idea what you're doing. This is great. People who know what they're doing know the rules, and they know what is possible and what is impossible. You do not. And you should not . . . If you don't know it's impossible, it's easier to do. And because nobody has done it before, they haven't made up rules to stop anyone from doing that particular thing again."

I also enjoyed the address This American Life host (and nerdy dreamboat extraordinaire) Ira Glass gave to Goucher College this year. Not as many people are talking about it — that's what happens when you go against Neil Gamain ;-) — but it's both hilarious and poignant:

[NOTE: The sound on that video sucks. But it's worth it.]

A choice quote:

"As your parents catch up to you, don't be a dick."

There's also an anecdote about the time his grandmother met Adolf Hitler. I won't spoil the story itself, but it ends with this thought:

"We lurch forward in our lives. We try this. We try that. We make the best guesses that we can based on what we believe at the time, and it is entirely possible that a Goucher grad — that you or you or you — will get the chance to change the world and kill Adolf Hitler, and you will miss it."

But . . .

"When you get your chance to remake the world, when you get the chance to change everything for yourself and hopefully for others, too — when you get your chance to shoot Adolf Hitler — you will know what to do. That's my wish for you."

In the spirit of this post, I'd like to give a shout-out to my cousin Emma, who just graduated from high school, as well as all of the other recent graduates who happen to be reading this. The post-graduate world? It's AWESOME. I'm so happy for you!

I'll leave you with Neil Gaiman's final words:

"Now go and make interesting mistakes. Make amazing mistakes. Make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make good art."


  1. I really need to watch all of these speeches, the quotes alone are great. I think Ira Glass is way under appreciated AND adorable. :) Neil Gaiman, I often have to read things he has written over and over because its so brilliantly phrased.

  2. I daydreamed about my cake, too. It made it so much easier.

  3. I almost cried every five minutes of Neil's speech. He's an amazing author and an amazing person as well.

  4. I love the speech by Steve Jobs because finding a job you truly enjoy is so important.

  5. I love the J.K. Rowling speech because it's so different from what you expect a graduation speech to be.

    I just graduated from college a couple weeks ago, and I don't think we actually had a speaker. The faculty gave some speeches, and the president said something or other about doing important stuff, but that was about it. Then again, I wasn't paying that much attention because we were wearing these heavy black robes and it was really hot out.

  6. I think I'm going to copy down all these quotes on post-it notes and just stick 'em around my house. Such great wisdom. (:

  7. I watched the JK Rowling address last night. Such a good speech. thanks for all of the links here. Call me schmaltzy, but I adore speeches like this...when viewed in the luxury of my own home on Youtube! As for actually being at a graduation, I kind of like Maureen's ideas.



  8. "...the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work."

    This is really resonating with me right now!

  9. JK Rowling's speech is one my favorite speeches of all time. The quote you posted about failure is the exact quote I have my students reflect on at the beginning of the school year to set the tone for knowing that learning is about failing just as much as it is about succeeding.

  10. I feel sort of weird that the Neil Gaiman quote there at the end reminded me of that chick's HS Valedictorian speech in one of those Twilight movies. o_O

    And I never tire of being reminded of JK Rowling's story. What a journey she's been on, and the perfect person to address a college graduating class. So inspiring.

  11. I LOVE this post. Thank you for gathering all this goodness in one place.

  12. Wow, thank so much for this post. Right now I'm trying to get approve the subject for my thesis (such a long and obnoxious process, things work rarely different in this country) so I can finally start the project itself.
    So this post just made tear up because I have had a terrible time with this and I cannot wait to graduate and hear the boring and too long commencement address. And day dream with my cake.
    I love the part of Steve Jobs' speech that you quoted, it makes me believe that I can find what I'm looking for even if I don't know what it is yet.

    Thank you for this post, really. Now I'll go watch J.K Rowling's, I haven't seen that one. Steve Jobs' on the other hand, was part of every class of every single year of my college career but somehow it always has something new to contribute to my life.