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Lessons Learned from This Year’s Graduation Speeches

This piece originally appeared on The Well, Jopwell’s editorial hub.

Much like a great TED Talk, a well-executed university commencement speech can inspire us all. Case in point: These lessons, anecdotes, and quotes shared by some of 2016’s esteemed speakers:

1. Lin-Manuel Miranda: Your stories are essential.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator and star of the Broadway musical Hamilton, told University of Pennsylvania’s newest grads to be conscious of their words and think deeply about the narratives they want to tell. Be deliberate about your own missions and visions, he stressed. “The simple truth is this: Every story you choose to tell, by necessity, omits others from the larger narrative. One could write five totally different musicals from [Alexander] Hamilton’s eventful, singular American life, without ever overlapping incidents. For every detail I chose to dramatize, there are 10 I left out.”

2. Barack Obama: You have to have a strategy.

The President reminded the graduates of Howard University that while the world is far from perfect, it is also a far better place than it was 100 years ago. There is more work to be done in terms of justice and wealth distribution, yes, but the change everyone seeks will only come with mindfulness. “You have to go through life with more than just passion for change; you need a strategy,” he said. “I’ll repeat that. I want you to have passion, but you have to have a strategy. Not just awareness, but action. Not just hashtags, but votes.”

3. Sheryl Sandberg: Not everything that happens to us happens because of us.

Reflecting on the death of her husband, Facebook chief operating officer and “Lean In” author Sheryl Sandberg shared several deeply personal lessons with University of California, Berkeley’s class of 2016. Speaking publicly about her loss for the first time, she told graduates how important it is to think about and work through what each day brings. ”What I want to talk about today is what you do next. About the things you can do to overcome adversity no matter when it hits you or how it hits. The easy days ahead of you will be easy. It’s the hard days – the days that challenge you to your very core – that will determine who you are,” she said through tears. “Live with the understanding of how precious every day will be, because that’s how precious every day actually is.”

4. Spike Lee: Wake up.

Spike Lee addressed the grads of Johns Hopkins University with a theme he’s tried to infuse in each of his 23 films about being ready, mindful, and better. “Wake up,” he told the grads. “After you leave here today, it’s gonna be real life, and real life is no joke. It’s real out here for the other 99 percent, for sure. Now it’s up to you, this new generation, to make it fairer, a just world. It’s up to the graduating classes of 2016 to make it a better world for the 99 percent, who are being hornswoggled, hoodwinked, duped, rebuked, and scorned, double-crossed, incarcerated, profiled, starved, miseducated, used and abused, and even shot down on our streets.”

5. Steve Harvey: Success isn’t everything. Great people change other people’s lives.

Steve Harvey reminded Alabama State University grads that being selfish is far easier than becoming a person who makes a difference. “There is a difference between success and greatness. You got your degree; that’s successful. So far, this has been about yourself … Great people put other people’s needs in front of theirs. Great people go back to their communities and change lives,” he said. “Go out of here and be great – be a life changer.”

6. Loretta Lynch: It’s on us – all of us – to make justice real in the world.

United States Attorney General Loretta Lynch referenced the University of Pennsylvania’s motto, “Laws without morals are in vain,” in her address to graduates of the university’s law school. “Each of us has an obligation to make justice real in the world in whatever way we can,” she said, emphasizing that someone doesn’t automatically fulfill that obligation simply by holding a law degree. “I have continued to hold onto that purpose, to that calling, to make the promise of justice real for those coming through our criminal justice system. My grandfather was willing to risk his livelihood – and perhaps his life – for that ideal. How could I ever reach for less? All of us can practice law; but how do we hold justice in our hands?”

7. Russell Wilson: I wasn’t ready to take no for an answer.

Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson reminded students at the University of Wisconsin to fight hard and to keep pushing no matter how much rejection they encounter. “So here’s my first charge to the graduates: When life tells you no, ask yourself honestly, ‘What am I capable of?’ And once you know the answer, don’t be afraid to let everyone else know it, too.”

Cross-posted from Jopwell.

Photo by KitAy

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