The Nine Most Inspirational Quotes From 2015 Commencement Speeches

Photo: Paul Marotta/Getty Images.
Graduation is an exciting time. Graduation speeches, on the other hand — often the last hour between you and officially, finally, being 100% done with school — can be a little boring, even if they do tell you that you’re a special snowflake by quoting Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

And that’s a shame, since the real world is tricky, and a commencement speech is the perfect time to arm a new generation with legitimately helpful advice. (Or, you know, distract them from the impending suckiness of True Adulthood.)

We checked out the crop of speeches this year, from writers, politicians, and the lady who plays Flo on those Progressive Insurance commercials, and pulled out the ones that had something wise to say. Here are the nine most kick-ass pieces of advice we learned at graduations this year.


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Photo: Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images.
Maya Rudolph, Actor
Tulane University

“Hold on to your old friends. Kiss your mama. Admit what your dreams are. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t know what you’re gonna do tomorrow. But, work hard and don’t be lazy — and put away your damn phone once in a while. And, be nice to jerks, because we still don’t know the criteria for getting into heaven yet.”
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Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty Images.
Samantha Power, U.S. Ambassador To The U.N.
University of Pennsylvania

“If you want to change the world, start by ‘acting as if.’ Prior generations have put this a different way: ‘Fake it 'til you make it.’ But, see what happens if you act as if you — your little self — can narrow the massive achievement gap between our nation's rich and poor public schools. Maybe, if you set out to do that, if you act as if, you will find yourself helping tutor a girl in reading or math at the school down the block. See what happens if you act as if you can fight the epidemic of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo; maybe you will find yourself volunteering at an abuse hotline across town and offering comfort to someone who has no one else to talk to.”
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Photo: Brian Killian/Getty Images.
Bill Nye, Science Guy
Rutgers University

"If you’re going to get a bucket of water dumped over your head for any reason, untuck your shirt. You might not think it would make much difference. A cotton shirt like this one is hydrophilic. Water is going to stick to it. True enough, but a shirttail, even a water-loving one, directs a great deal of the torrent around your waistband. So, you get a lot less cold water in your trousers and skirt.

"I’m telling you this not just because it’s so obviously useful, but because there is a big idea: Everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t. This is troubling for many of us know-it-alls. Auto mechanics today write code and debug software. Cooks understand the use of copper to control egg proteins. Bricklayers have intimate knowledge of the strength of materials. Respect their knowledge. Learn from them. It will bring out the best in both of you."
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Photo: David Fisher/REX Shutterstock.
Natalie Portman, Actor
Harvard University

“We bump up against a common trope, I think, of the commencement address. People who have achieved a lot telling you that the fruits of achievement are not always to be trusted. But I think that contradiction can be reconciled, and is in fact instructive.

“Achievement is wonderful when you know why you’re doing it. And when you don’t know, it can be a terrible trap... I realized that seriousness for seriousness’ sake was its own kind of trophy, and a dubious one, a pose I sought to counter some half-imagined argument for who I was. There was a reason I was an actor. I love what I do. And, I saw from my peers and my mentors that that was not only an acceptable reason, it was the best reason.”
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Photo: Paul Marotta/Getty Images.
Meredith Vieira, Journalist
Boston University

“Be the left shark. Remember last Super Bowl, when the Patriots won? You may be thinking of Tom Brady’s deflated balls right now, but I’m thinking of Katy Perry’s half-time performance. She was on stage dancing with two sharks. The shark on the right knew every dance move and performed perfectly. But it was the left shark, the one who went rogue and danced to his own crazy beat, who stole the show. So don’t ever be a conformist for convenience sake. Or, as Mark Twain put it, ‘Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it’s time to pause and reflect.’ Be the left shark.”
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Photo: Thos Robinson/Getty Images.
Joyce Carol Oates, Writer
Niagara County Community College

"An attitude that goes beyond ambition into the realm of the spiritual, the uncharitable — what in boxing, as perhaps in other sports, is called 'heart' — the indefinable core of an individual that declares, I will not give up; I will persevere.' Without heart, an athlete might have a professional career but he/she cannot be a great champion. The writing students of mine who have gone on to be truly successful, in several cases quite impressive careers, were individuals who worked, worked, worked, and did not allow rejections to dissuade them of their inner worth."
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Photo: Al Bello/Getty Images.
Robert De Niro, Actor
New York University

“When it comes to the arts, passion should always trump common sense… Yeah, you’re fucked. The good news is, that’s not a bad place to start.”
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Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images.
Michelle Kwan, Figure Skater
Salve Regina University

“The first lesson they teach you in figure skating is how to fall… I fell when I started skating at 5, still fell when I was five-time world champion. But, the true test is how we recover. I think we can all be that kind of person, taking our fair share of tumbles and falls, but rising with grace and finishing what we began.”
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Photo: Rich Polk/Getty Images.
Stephanie Courtney, Progressive’s "Flo"
Binghamton University

“We’re in a culture and a country that’s obsessed with winners and, moreover, sees winning as a skill. If you succeed, you were smart, not lucky. If you fail, well, it’s your fault. Success, failure. Win, lose. Right way, wrong way. I just want to tell you that it is all a lie. All the setbacks? The dry spells? The times when you feel all alone with the results of your life decisions? That’s a sign that you dared to go outside of your comfort zone and try.”
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