Career Advice

Best Career Advice From the 2017 Commencement Speakers


I have to be honest — I didn’t listen to my college commencement address. Sure, it’s not rare for a 20-something to space out, but I truly regret it. I graduated from Stanford University in 2005 and my commencement speaker was Steve Jobs. That’s right, I failed to listen to what is now referred to as one of the best graduation speeches of all timeDoh! I was hot, itchy in my polyester robe, and hung over from celebrating with too many Mike’s Hard Lemonades the night before (Sorry, Mom and Dad). Months later I watched it on YouTube and was so embarrassed that I hadn’t paid attention while sitting in the stadium on that steamy June day. And now, I watch the address at least once a year.

Jobs said things that really have stuck with me like, “You have to trust in something; your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever, because believing that the dots will connect down the road, will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leads you off the well- worn path. That will make all the difference.”

Another one of Jobs’ gems? “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly already want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

So impactful, even now nearly 15 years later.

This inspired me to watch some of this year’s notable speakers at graduations around the country. Let these serve as mini pep talks, the motivation you need to make it through a rough patch, or the celebrity humor that will spur you to live life to the fullest  and dominate your career.


Will Ferrell, USC

“No matter how cliché it may sound you will never truly be successful until you learn to give beyond yourself. Empathy and kindness are the true signs of emotional intelligence, and that’s what Viv and I try to teach our boys.”

“To those of you graduates sitting out there who have a pretty good idea of what you’d like to do with your life, congratulations. For many of you who maybe don’t have it all figured out, it’s okay. That’s the same chair that I sat in. Enjoy the process of your search without succumbing to the pressure of the result. Trust your gut, keep throwing darts at the dartboard. Don’t listen to the critics and you will figure it out.”

“Class of 2017, I just want you to know you will never be alone on whatever path you may choose. If you do have a moment where you feel a little down just think of the support you have from this great Trojan family and imagine me, literally picture my face, singing this song gently into your ear: If I should stay, I would only be in your way. So I’ll go, but I know, I’ll think of you every step of the way. And I will always love you, will always love you, will always love you, Class of 2017. And I will always love you.”


Mark Zuckerberg, Harvard

“I’m here to tell you finding your purpose isn’t enough. The challenge for our generation is creating a world where everyone has a sense of purpose.”

“Purpose is that sense that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, that we are needed, that we have something better ahead to work for. Purpose is what creates true happiness.”

“You’re graduating at a time when this is especially important. When our parents graduated, purpose reliably came from your job, your church, your community. But today, technology and automation are eliminating many jobs. Membership in communities is declining. Many people feel disconnected and depressed, and are trying to fill a void.”

“To keep our society moving forward, we have a generational challenge — to not only create new jobs, but create a renewed sense of purpose.”

“But it’s not enough to have purpose yourself. You have to create a sense of purpose for others.”

“Now it’s our turn to do great things. I know, you’re probably thinking: I don’t know how to build a dam, or get a million people involved in anything. But let me tell you a secret: no one does when they begin. Ideas don’t come out fully formed. They only become clear as you work on them. You just have to get started.”

Helen Mirren, Tulane University

“The trick is to listen to your instinct, grab the opportunity when it presents itself and then give it your all. You will stumble and fall, you will experience both disaster and triumph, sometimes in the same day, but it’s really important to remember that like a hangover, neither triumphs nor disasters last forever. They both pass and a new day arrives. Just try to make that new day count.”

“Ignore anyone who judges the way you look, especially if he or she is some anonymous creep lurking on the Internet. And if you are that person lurking on the Internet — STOP IT, just stop it, go outside and DO something.”

“Don’t be afraid of fear. Those words bring me back to my grammar school and our headmistress, Mother Mary Mildred, an ancient Nun — is there any other type? — with one drooping eyelid and a lifetime lived behind the walls of a convent. She said those words to me the moment I walked into her class, a trembling 11 year old about to enter high school. Sixty years later and I will never forget those words or that teacher. I think what she meant was, don’t let fear rule you. Now, mind you, sometimes it’s wise to be afraid, like when you are about to take a dive into a pool with not enough water in it. Or drive a car drunk. In moments like those — be afraid, be very afraid and absolutely don’t do it. And if you want more information on this, please visit a paraplegic ward. But for the moments when you are challenged by other fears – like “Am I good enough?” “Am I smart enough?” “Will I fail?” – throw caution to the winds, look fear straight-away in its ugly face, and barge forward. And when you get past it, turn around and give it a good swift kick in the ass. And thank Mother Mary Mildred.”

“And Helen’s Rule No. 5 for a happy life? Don’t overcomplicate things. You can navigate each day just by following some very practical dos and don’ts.

Like don’t put hot cups on waxed wooden surfaces.

In fact, don’t ever wax wooden surfaces.

Don’t procrastinate.

Do say thank you when it is merited.

Don’t procrastinate… especially in saying thank you when it is merited.

Don’t lose your sense of humor.

Do confront bullies.

Don’t procrastinate.

Do open your heart to love.

Don’t confuse sex with love. Love generally lasts longer than two minutes.

Don’t smoke tobacco… or chew it.

Don’t dive into water if you don’t know how deep it is.

And one more thing — don’t procrastinate.”

Octavia Spencer, Kent State University

“Keep chasing those moments where you discover something new about your voice. Don’t ever let that end. Keep your minds and hearts open to life’s endless and unforeseeable possibilities. And filing in those ‘you’ details, you also chose who would be a part of those vignettes and stories in this chapter of your lives at Kent State. Friendships were crated here. Relationships began. Relationships ended. Mentors came into your life, and these are the faces you will remember when you look back at your time here, faces you chose for this season of time. You spent every day developing these connections, adding in layer after layer in a constant state of give-and-take with people who mean so much to you. You lived in closer proximity to your friends that most of you ever will again. This bonded you together in a special way.”

“But my dear graduates, let me be frank, the best years are very much ahead of you. And they can be whatever you want them to be. Your work, your life, your weekdays, your weekends, can all be filled with as much meaning as you dictate.”

“But whatever chapter, whatever your next chapter is, define it by being true to your authentic self. Fill it with meaning. Because you’re on the other side now, and maybe fear is starting to creep in, perhaps aggressively — fear of the unknown.”

“The journey you take now will be led by you alone. Let me say that again. The journey you take now will be led by you alone. Don’t let that scare you, oh no, let that liberate you. Remember, no one came here the same way, and you won’t all achieve success the same way. But because you all have shaped your path to graduation in a way that is uniquely and undeniably yours, I am pretty confident that you will continue to do that. But as you move forward, please, please, please, oh please, don’t let yourself get caught up in the trap of comparison. You know what I’m talking about. Ignore the silly 30-Under-30 list that the internet throws at you before you’ve even had your morning cup of coffee. Those will be the bane of your existence post-graduation, trust me. Trust me. Comparing yourself to other’s success only slows you down from finding your own.”

Hillary Clinton, Wellesley College

“Don’t be afraid of your ambition, of your dreams, or even your anger – those are powerful forces. But harness them to make a difference in the world. Stand up for truth and reason. Do it in private – in conversations with your family, your friends, your workplace, your neighborhoods. And do it in public—in Medium posts, on social media, or grab a sign and head to a protest. Make defending truth and a free society a core value of your life every single day.”

“Don’t let anyone tell you your voice doesn’t matter. In the years to come, there will be trolls galore—online and in person—eager to tell you that you don’t have anything worthwhile to say or anything meaningful to contribute. They may even call you a Nasty Woman. Some may take a slightly more sophisticated approach and say your elite education means you are out of touch with real people. In other words, “sit down and shut up.” Now, in my experience, that’s the last thing you should ever tell a Wellesley graduate.”

“Our culture often celebrates people who appear to go it alone. But the truth is, that’s not how life works. Anything worth doing takes a village. And you build that village by investing love and time into your relationships. And in those moments for whatever reason when it might feel bleak, think back to this place where women have the freedom to take risks, make mistakes, even fail in front of each other. Channel the strength of your Wellesley classmates and experiences. I guarantee you it’ll help you stand up a little straighter, feel a little braver, knowing that the things you joked about and even took for granted can be your secret weapons for your future.”

Pharrell Williams, New York University

 “The days of being anonymous activists or participants are over. How can we inspire if we are behind the scenes? Your generation is unraveling deeply entrenched laws, principals, and misguided values that have held women back for far too long and, therefore, have held us all back.”

“There is no humanity without education and there is no education without humanity.”

“As you find ways to serve humanity, it gives me great comfort knowing this generation is the first that understands that we need to lift up our women. Imagine the possibilities when we remove imbalance from the ether because it’s imbalanced right now. Imagine the possibilities when women are not held back.”

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