Words to Live By: 5 of the Best Commencement Speeches Ever

A round-up of graduation talks filled with wisdom and inspiration, from J.K. Rowling to Steve Jobs to Meryl Streep

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It's graduation season, so commencement addresses by actors, politicians, writers, musicians, and other luminaries are sweeping the world of higher education across the entire spectrum of mediocrity and profound wisdom. Let's use this as an invitation to remember some of the most compelling, provocative, and deeply inspirational speeches of years past. Here are five of my all-time favorites.

1. J. K. ROWLING AT HARVARD (2008)

On June 5, 2008, Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling speaks about the benefits of failure and the crucial importance of imagination--in a way that isn't the least bit contrived but is, rather, brimming with wit, wisdom, humor, and humility.

"I cannot criticize my parents for hoping that I would never experience poverty. They had been poor themselves, and I have since been poor. And I quite agree with them that it is not an ennobling experience. Poverty entails fear, and stress, and sometimes depression. It means a thousand petty humiliations and hardships. Climbing out of poverty by your own efforts, that is something on which to pride yourself. But poverty itself is romanticized only by fools." ~ J.K. Rowling

"Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure. But the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. [F]ailure means a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself to be anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena where I believe I truly belonged. [R]ock bottom became the solid foundation on which I built my life." ~ J.K. Rowling

2. STEVE JOBS AT STANFORD (2005)

On June 12, 2005, Steve Jobs delivered Stanford's 114th's commencement address and spoke with remarkable candor and eloquence about connecting dots, education, love, and loss. (And, yes, he manages to swiftly slip a Microsoft jab right in the middle of it.) The part that resonates with me the most is the heartfelt case he makes for following our creative curiosity, rather than formal education's prescriptive paradigm of learning, in order to contribute to the world our best potential.

"If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards 10 years later. Again, you can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something -- your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life." ~ Steve Jobs

Full transcript here.

3. ROBERT KRULWICH AT BERKELEY (2011)

Robert Krulwich, co-producer of WNYC's fantstic Radiolab, author of the ever-illuminating Krulwich Wonders and winner of a Peabody Award for broadcast excellence, is one of the best science writers working today. He recently addressed the graduating class at Berkeley's School of Journalism and made some remarkably poignant points about passion and the future of journalism. No audio or video recording is available (yet), but you can read the full transcript here--and I can't recommend enough that you do.

Presented by

Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

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