5 Career Lessons From Commencement Speeches That'll Mean More to You Than to a New Grad
Commencement season is a beautiful thing. Not only is this the time for new grads to enter the real world, it’s also prime time for life lessons being passed on by famous successful people. The best part is you don’t have to be a fresh graduate to appreciate or learn from commencement speeches. In fact, the further you get from college, the more you may gain from listening. After all, it’s a lot easier to take in what people are saying when you’re not stressing about the fact that you’re mere days away from moving back in with you parents.
So, whether you’re here to learn or you’re here to relive the magic of graduating, here are five career lessons you can take away from some of the most interesting 2015 commencement speeches.
We believe that a company that has values and acts on them can really change the world. And an individual can too. That can be you. That must be you. Graduates, your values matter. They are your North Star. Otherwise it’s just a job—and life is too short for that.
Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, encouraged graduates to take the time to figure out what they valued and to lean on that when it comes to career decisions.
So, the next time you find yourself feeling a bit lost at work, consider what your values are and see what would happen if you let them make your decision for you. And that applies whether you’re no longer satisfied with your current position or you’re debating making the leap to an entirely new career path.
The first lesson they teach you in figure skating is how to fall…I fell when I started skating at five, 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.
Michelle Kwan, American figure skater, Olympian, and American Public Diplomacy Envoy for the United States, knows plenty about success—but also, just as much about failure. She eloquently encouraged graduates from Salve Regina University to focus not on the fall, but on the recovery.
Throughout your career, you’re going to make mistakes, and you’re going to fail. How you react to that is what people will remember—so whether you just mass CC’d important people who should’ve been BCC’d, or you bombed a presentation in front of your company CEO, remember that people are watching what you do next. That is what they’ll remember.
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.
Bill Nye, a man who needs no introduction, shared a wonderful point about learning that’s important for all of us to understand. It’s easy for us to agree abstractly that learning can happen anywhere and from anyone, but really practicing it takes, well, practice.
The longer you’re working and the higher you climb on the ladder, the harder it becomes to remember this. Especially when it feels like you know more than everyone else around you because you’re in a top management position. But, you need to keep in mind that your intern—that person born in the late ’90s—might actually be able to teach you something that’ll help you.
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...be the left shark.
Meredith Vieira, journalist and talk show host, showed her pop culture savvy by using the left shark phenomenon to illustrate her point about the necessity of creating your own path for success. Breaking convention might not make a lot of sense at first, but it’s often essential to move forward in your career.
And yes, going with the flow works for a lot of people. But, at some point in your career, there will be a moment when you’ll have to decide between taking a risk or continuing to keep your head down. Everyone has their own strategies for dealing with big decisions, but Vieira reminds us all not to dismiss the option to do something a little unexpected, because you might just win big.
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…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.
Natalie Portman, Oscar-winning actress, returned to her alma mater and shared her struggle to see herself as high-achieving despite her “frivolous” love of acting. In a world obsessed with prestige, it’s a nice reminder that finding success is just about being happy.
So, no matter what you’re doing in your career, the first thing to always go back to is whether you’re in love with it or not. If the answer is yes (and, you know, it pays well enough to keep a roof over your head), then you’re at least headed in the right direction.
Photo of Bill Nye courtesy of Rutgers.
Lily Zhang serves as a Career Development Specialist at MIT where she works with a range of students from undergraduates to PhDs on how to reach their career aspirations. When she's not indulging in a new book or video game, she's thinking about, talking about, or writing about careers. Follow her musings on Twitter @lzhng.More from this Author