Here are a few motivational gems from past keynote speakers Jeff Bezos, Conan O’Brien, Oprah and more.
Entrepreneurs look beyond convention and inspire creativity. That’s just one reason that they get hired to speak at commencement ceremonies at universities around the country.
“ When life sucks you under, you can kick against the bottom, break the surface, and breathe again ~ Sheryl Sandberg”
True to form, some of them tried to motivate students with an unorthodox approach, like VC Ben Horowitz, who told Columbia graduates, “Don’t follow your passion.”
Here are a few inspiring commencement speech quotes from notable entrepreneurs and business leaders, and the lessons they seek to impart:
Be resilient in the face of life’s losses and disappointments
“Dave’s death changed me in very profound ways. I learned about the depths of sadness and the brutality of loss.
“But I also learned that when life sucks you under, you can kick against the bottom, break the surface, and breathe again.
“I learned that in the face of the void – or in the face of any challenge – you can choose joy and meaning. I’m sharing this with you in the hopes that today, as you take the next step in your life, you can learn the lessons that I only learned in death.
“Lessons about hope, strength, and the light within us that will not be extinguished.”
– Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, discussing the death of her husband Dave while delivering the commencement speech at the University of California-Berkeley in May 2016.
Think outside the box
“Don’t let other people box you into their system of rules. They will tend to produce mediocre results for you. Make your own rules, hack the system and change the world.”
– Wayne Chang, director of product strategy at Twitter, speaking to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 2016.
Take pride in your choices, and use your gifts wisely
“This is a group with many gifts.
“I’m sure one of your gifts is the gift of a smart and capable brain…Your smarts will come in handy because you will travel in a land of marvels. We humans – plodding as we are – will astonish ourselves.
“We’ll invent ways to generate clean energy and a lot of it. Atom by atom, we’ll assemble tiny machines that will enter cell walls and make repairs.
“This month comes the extraordinary but also inevitable news that we’ve synthesized life. In the coming years, we’ll not only synthesize it, but we’ll engineer it to specifications.
“I believe you’ll even see us understand the human brain. Jules Verne, Mark Twain, Galileo, Newton – all the curious from the ages would have wanted to be alive most of all right now.
“ There is no such thing as failure. Failure is just life trying to move us in another direction ~ Oprah Winfrey”
“As a civilization, we will have so many gifts, just as you as individuals have so many individual gifts as you sit before me.
“How will you use these gifts? And will you take pride in your gifts or pride in your choices?”
– Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, speaking to the Princeton Class of 2010.
Don’t be afraid of failure
“It doesn’t matter how far you might rise.
“At some point you are bound to stumble… If you’re constantly pushing yourself higher…the law of averages, not to mention the Myth of Icarus, predicts that you will at some point fall.
“And when you do I want you to know this, remember this: There is no such thing as failure. Failure is just life trying to move us in another direction.”
– Oprah Winfrey, speaking to the Harvard Class of 2013.
Embrace your inexperience; ask naive questions
“I often hear from new graduates that it’s better to wait until you have more experience … [b]ut I’m a big believer in the power of inexperience.
“It was the greatest asset I had when I started TFA. If I had known at the outset how hard it was going to be, I might never have started.
“The world needs you before you stop asking naïve questions and while you have the time to understand the true nature of the complex problems we face and take them on.”
– Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America, Boston University, May 2013.
Direct your own learning
“I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out. And here I was spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life.
“So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made.
“The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting. It wasn’t all romantic.
“I didn’t have a dorm room, so I slept on the floor in friends’ rooms, I returned Coke bottles for the 5-cent deposits to buy food with, and I would walk the seven miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple. I loved it.
“And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on.”
– Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, Stanford University, 2005.
“ Don’t follow your passion…following your passion is a very ‘me’-centered view of the world ~ Ben Horowitz”
Don’t follow your passion
“Don’t follow your passion…following your passion is a very ‘me’-centered view of the world.
“When you go through life, what you’ll find is what you take out of the world over time — be it money, cars, stuff, accolades — is much less important than what you’ve put into the world.
“So my recommendation would be follow your contribution.
“Find the thing that you’re great at, put that into the world, contribute to others, help the world be better and that is the thing to follow.”
– Ben Horowitz, co-founder of Andreessen Horowitz venture capital firm, speaking to the Columbia University Class of 2015.
Live your life to avoid creating future regrets
“Imagine yourself in 50 years.
“You’re in your early 70s, near the end of your career. You begin to ponder your life.
“The career successes, how you’ve been able to provide for your family…But then you start to think about all of the things you wished you had done just a little differently, your regrets. I can guess at what they might be.
“Sitting in 2062, you wish that you had spent more time with your children.
“That you had told your spouse how much you loved them more frequently. That you could have even one more chance to hug your parents and tell them how much you appreciate them before they passed.
“That you could have smiled more, laughed more, danced more and created more. That you better used the gifts you were given to empower others and make the world better.
“Just as you’re thinking this, a genie appears from nowhere and says, ‘I have been eavesdropping on your regrets. They are valid ones. I can tell you are a good person so I am willing to give you a second chance if you really want one.’ You say ‘Sure’ and the genie snaps his fingers.
“All of a sudden you find yourself right where you are sitting today. It is June 8, 2012, at Killian Court.
“You are in your shockingly fit and pain-free 20-something body and begin to realize that it has really happened.
“You really do have the chance to do it over again. To have the same career successes and deep relationships.
“But, now you can optimize. You can laugh more, dance more and love more.
“Your parents are here again, so it is your chance to love them like you wished you had done the first time.
“You can be the source of positivity that you wished you had been the first time around.”
– Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy, speaking to MIT in 2012.
Don’t cling to success – learn to love your mistakes
“But my mistakes have been necessary.
“I’ve dwelled on my failures today because, as graduates of Harvard, your biggest liability is your need to succeed, your need to always find yourself on the sweet side of the bell curve.
“ My mistakes have been necessary ~ Conan O’Brien”
“Success is a lot like a bright white tuxedo. You feel terrific when you get it, but then you’re desperately afraid of getting it dirty, of spoiling it.
“I left the cocoon of Harvard, I left the cocoon of Saturday Night Live, I left the cocoon of the Simpsons.
“And each time it was bruising and tumultuous. And yet every failure was freeing, and today I’m as nostalgic for the bad as I am for the good.
“So that’s what I wish for all of you — the bad as well as the good. Fall down. Make a mess. Break something occasionally.
“Know that your mistakes are your own unique way of getting to where you need to be. And remember that the story is never over…I will go now to make bigger mistakes and to embarrass this fine institution even more.
“But let me leave you with one last thought. If you can laugh at yourself, loud and hard, every time you fall, people will think you’re drunk. Thank you.”
– Conan O’Brien, speaking to the Harvard Class of 2000 (he counts as an entrepreneur because he’s started successful shows and production companies that employ lots of people).
This article originally appeared on Kabbage and was republished with permission.
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