A different version of this story first appeared on PR Daily in May, 2014.
Graduation season is nearly here.
Here’s a sampling of a dozen quotes from commencement addresses through the years that stand out for being unexpected, funny, or truly memorable.
1. Aaron Sorkin to Syracuse University in May 2012
“Make 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. It’s a combination of life being unpredictable, and you being super dumb.”
2. Conan O’Brien to his alma mater Harvard University in May 2000
“As you leave these gates and re-enter society, one thing is certain. Everyone out there is going to hate you. Never tell anyone in a roadside diner that you went to Harvard. In those situations, the correct response to, ‘Where did you go to school?’ is ‘School? I never had much in the way of book learnin’ and such.’ And then get in your BMW and get the hell out of there.”
3. Stephen Colbert to his alma mater Northwestern University in June 2011
“In 1986, our commencement speaker was George Schultz, secretary of state, fourth in line to the president. You get me—basic cable’s second most popular fake newsman. At this rate, the class of 2021 will be addressed by a zoo parrot in a mortar-board that has been trained to say “congratulations.”
4. J. K. Rowling to Harvard University in June 2008
“I was convinced that the only thing I wanted to do, ever, was to write novels. However, my parents, both of whom came from impoverished backgrounds and neither of whom had been to college, took the view that my overactive imagination was an amusing personal quirk that would never pay a mortgage or secure a pension. I know that the irony strikes with the force of a cartoon anvil, now.”
5. Bono to the University of Pennsylvania in May 2004
“I love America because America is not just a country, it’s an idea. You see my country, Ireland, is a great country, but it’s not an idea. America is an idea, but it’s an idea that brings with it some baggage, like power brings responsibility. It’s an idea that brings with it equality, but equality, even though it’s the highest calling, is the hardest to reach. The idea that anything is possible, that’s one of the reasons why I’m a fan of America. It’s like ‘Hey, look there’s the moon up there, let’s take a walk on it, bring back a piece of it.’ That’s the kind of America that I’m a fan of.”
6. Theodor Seuss Geisel to Lake Forest College in June 1977
His speech, in its entirety:
“My uncle ordered popovers
from the restaurant’s bill of fare.
And, when they were served,
he regarded them
with a penetrating stare
Then he spoke great Words of Wisdom
as he sat there on that chair:
‘To eat these things,’
said my uncle,
‘you must exercise great care.
You may swallow down what’s solid
you must spit out the air!
as you partake of the world’s bill of fare,
that’s darned good advice to follow.
Do a lot of spitting out the hot air.
And be careful what you swallow.’”
7. Margaret Atwood to the University Of Toronto in June 1983
“It is to Victoria College that I can attribute the fact that Bell Canada, Oxford University Press and McClelland and Stewart all failed to hire me in the summer of ‘63, on the grounds that I was a) overqualified and b) couldn’t type, thus producing in me that state of joblessness, angst and cosmic depression which everyone knows is indispensable for novelists and poets, although nobody has ever claimed the same for geologists, dentists or chartered accountants.”
8. Gloria Steinem to Tufts University in May 1987
“I am terminally sentimental about graduations. They are more individual than weddings, more conscious than christenings, or bar mitzvahs or bat mitzvahs. They are almost as much a step into the unknown as funerals—though I assure you, there is life after graduation.”
9. Michael Dell to the University of Texas in 2003
“Try never to be the smartest person in the room. And if you are, I suggest you invite smarter people or find a different room. In professional circles it’s called networking. In organizations it’s called team building. And in life it’s called family, friends, and community. We are all gifts to each other, and my own growth as a leader has shown me again and again that the most rewarding experiences come from my relationships.”
10. Bill Gates to Harvard in 2007
“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!”
11. Steve Jobs to Stanford in 2005
“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…. 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.”
12. Nora Ephron to her alma mater Wellesley in 1996
“Whatever you choose, however many roads you travel, I hope that you choose not to be a lady. I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there. And I also hope that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women.”
I don’t remember the commencement speaker at my graduation. Do you?
Becky Gaylord worked as a reporter for more than 15 years in Washington, D.C.; Sydney, Australia; and Cleveland, Ohio for major publications including
The New York Times,
The Wall Street Journal, and was associate editor of the
Plain Dealer's Editorial Page before she launched the consulting practice, Gaylord LLC. A version of this story first appeared on the 12 Most blog.