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16 Lessons from the Best Commencement Speeches Given by Writers

Graduation day is a whirlwind of emotion and activity. Between posing for photos, nervously waiting to finally accept your diploma on the stage, and saying farewell to friends and professors, it is easy to forget what was said in the commencement address.

Some of the best commencement speeches of all time were given by writers who, like most commencement speakers, achieved incredible success. Their unique world view allows them to make complex issues relatable to all people. They take their own experiences and shape them into the experience of every reader. In the following commencement speeches, authors address future innovators, thinkers, and leaders preparing to take on a new role in the world.

1. J.K. Rowling, Harvard University, 2008

J.K. Rowling is the bestselling author of the Harry Potter series. Before becoming a brilliant author and humanitarian, she was what some might consider a failure. She, like many of us, was struggling to find her place in the world and to balance her responsibilities with her passion for writing. It was hitting rock bottom that propelled her to put pen to paper and follow her dreams.

"Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me."

2. Madeleine L'Engle, Wellesley College, 1991

Madeleine L'Engle is an award-winning author whose novels include A Wrinkle in Time and The Arm of the Starfish. During her address, she traced her journey through education. An elementary school teacher pushed her to pursue her creative interests, and L'Engle stressed the importance of finding people who believe in you and encourage you to tackle the impossible.

"Remember that one of the glories of being human is that we are fallible. We are the creatures who learn by making mistakes. I don't know about you, but I learn by what I do wrong, not by what I do right."

3. Shonda Rhimes, Dartmouth University, 2014

Shonda Rhimes is an award-winning screenwriter; Grey's Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder are all products of her mind. After graduating, she had a very specific career path in mind: become Toni Morrison. She dreamed and dreamed until she eventually realized there could only be one Toni Morrison. She then entered film school, and the rest was history. Her advice to the Dartmouth class of 2014? Stop dreaming and start doing.

"Ditch the dream and be a doer, not a dreamer. Maybe you know exactly what it is you dream of being, or maybe you're paralyzed because you have no idea what your passion is. The truth is, it doesn't matter. You don't have to know. You just have to keep moving forward."

4. Neil Gaiman, University of the Arts, 2012

Neil Gaiman is an author and screenwriter famous for such works as The Sandman, American Gods, and Coraline. He never attended post-secondary school because he knew exactly what he wanted to be right after high school. He pictured his goal of becoming an author as a mountain, and he only made choices that brought him closer to the top. He eventually reached it, and his only regret is that he didn't enjoy the success. He was always looking forward instead of living in the moment.

"That was the hardest lesson for me, I think: to let go and enjoy the ride, because the ride takes you to some remarkable and unexpected places."

5. Louise Erdrich, Dartmouth University, 2009

Louise Erdrich is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. Her notable works include Love Medicine and Tracks. When she was a student at Dartmouth University, she worked as a prep cook in the cafeteria. After an afternoon of chopping onions, she smelled horrible when she went to her next class. Instead of leaving, she sat and did her work at the risk of humiliation. This is how the Law of the Onion was created.

"The Law of the Onion. It goes something like this: you have to risk humiliation if you want to move forward. But the Law of the Onion also states: don't take things personally. If other people's opinions are not personal to you, good or bad, you have a kind of freedom to be who you are."

6. Nora Ephron, Wellesley College, 1996

Nora Ephron is a novelist and screenwriter responsible for such classics as You've Got Mail and Sleepless in Seattle. She advised graduates to prepare for change. Who you are today and what is most important to you right now will not be the same later in your life, and that's okay. You will grow, your priorities will change, and eventually you will end up where you want to be.

"What are you going to do? Everything, is my guess. It will be a little messy, but embrace the mess. It will be complicated, but rejoice in the complications. It will not be anything like what you think it will be like, but surprises are good for you."

7. Ray Bradbury, Caltech University, 2000

Ray Bradbury, author of Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles, demanded that graduates follow their passions and dreams. He noted that technology is changing the way we do things, yet we still only have so much time. You have an obligation to the universe to use your time to discover who you are and what you want, and to go after it.

"You've been put here because the universe exists. There's no use the universe existing, if there isn't someone there to see it. Your job is to see it. Your job is to witness. To witness; to understand; to comprehend and to celebrate!"

8. Amy Poehler, Harvard University, 2011

Amy Poehler is an actress, comedian, and author famous for her work on Saturday Night Live and Parks and Recreation. In her commencement speech, she imparted some of this wisdom: find people. Find people who support you and challenge you to be better. You can go through life alone, but it is a lot more fun to go through it with others.

"Listen, say yes, live in the moment, make sure you play with people who have your back, make big choices early and often."

9. Zadie Smith, New School, 2014

Zadie Smith is a novelist and short story writer whose works include White Teeth and On Beauty. In her commencement speech, she recognized that we are all unique beings, but at the same time we are part of the larger human race, and it takes many people working together to change the world.

"It feels good to give your unique and prestigious selves a slip every now and then and confess your membership in this unwieldy collective called the human race."

10. Margaret Atwood, University of Toronto, 1983

Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid's Tale, used her address to emphasize that even though we are human and can't control everything, we can control ourselves and our reactions to hardships. Our attitudes toward important issues can change the outcomes if we fight and make our voices heard.

"When faced with the inevitable, you always have a choice. You may not be able to alter reality, but you can alter your attitude towards it."

11. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Wellesley College, 2015

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is the award-winning author of such works as Americanah and Half of a Yellow Sun. She quit medical school to pursue a career in writing. Fortunately, the risk paid off. She notes that if the outcome had been different, if she had failed at becoming an author, it wouldn't have mattered. The important thing is that she tried, and she asks graduates to try and keep trying.

"We cannot always bend the world into the shapes we want, but we can try, we can make a concerted and real and true effort…. And so as you graduate, as you deal with your excitement and your doubts today, I urge you to try and create the world you want to live in."

12. Toni Morrison, Wellesley College, 2004

Toni Morrison is a Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist most known for Beloved. She pointed out that the graduates of today will soon become the decision-makers of the world and that the mistakes of past generations do not need to be repeated.

"You are your own stories and therefore free to imagine and experience what it means to be human without wealth. What it feels like to be human without domination over others, without reckless arrogance, without fear of others unlike you, without rotating, rehearsing and reinventing the hatreds you learned in the sandbox. And although you don't have complete control over the narrative (no author does, I can tell you), you could nevertheless create it."

13. Anna Quindlen, Villanova University, 2000

Anna Quindlen is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist. She advised graduates to get a life outside of work, because you cannot be the best at your work if it is all you have. It does not matter how big your house is or how much money you have; what matters is the people standing beside you.

"Get a life in which you are not alone. Find people you love, and who love you. And remember that love is not leisure, it is work."

14. Anne Lamott, University of California, Berkeley, 2003

Anne Lamott is a novelist and nonfiction writer. In her commencement address, she noted that there is often a lot of pressure for young people to follow a certain path laid out by family or society. Lamott reminded graduates that they do not have to follow these plans. Their goal should not be following someone else's standards for their lives, but figuring out who they want to be.

 "Your problem is how you are going to spend this one odd and precious life you have been issued. Whether you're going to spend it trying to look good and creating the illusion that you have power over people and circumstances, or whether you are going to taste it, enjoy it and find out the truth about who you are."

15. Stephen King, Vassar College, 2001

Stephen King has had tremendous success as an author, writing such classics as It and The Shining. In his commencement address, he did not paint a rose-colored picture of the future, but he did share one of his own experiences. He has accumulated a fortune from his work, but after being in a car accident, he realized that his fortune doesn't mean anything. Instead of accumulating wealth, we should focus on using our power to do good.

"We come in naked and broke. We may be dressed when we go out, but we're just as broke."

16. John Green, Kenyon College, 2016

John Green is a young adult fiction writer, known for Paper Towns and Looking for Alaska. His speech reflected on his experiences entering adulthood, what it means to be a part of the "interconnected web of the human story," and the best advice he's ever received: don't be a jerk.

"You are about to be a nobody. And that's important, because when you become a somebody, if you can remember what it was like to be a nobody, you won't be a jerk."


The future can be daunting to new graduates—you're leaving behind the place you have known and the goals you have striven toward, and you must turn your attention to a new and possibly unknown challenge.

Once the gown has been hung up, the dorm room emptied, and the goodbye hugs given, the words of these authors will be sure to offer direction, comfort, and hope.



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