Thomas Edison State University By Thomas Edison State University • September 13, 2013

The 7 Best Life Lessons from 2013 Commencement Speeches

We are always receiving (be it warranted or unwarranted) advice, hearing tips and opinions on every topic from raising kids to eating right, dating to careers, and everything in between. After awhile, advice (especially from certain people) can be annoying or even offensive, and we end up tuning out the message. However, the advice we really should be listening to is not really advice at all, but life lessons intended to help us think. To be more open-minded. To be more understanding of the world around us.

At the end of every school year, commencement speakers in colleges around the globe offer their own life lessons, some funny, some thought-provoking, some encouraging – all inspiring. And 2013 was no different. This year’s class of speakers offered life lessons that not only today’s graduates, but also the graduates of yesterday and tomorrow, should take to heart. So here’s our favorite seven life lessons from some of the most powerful, knowledgeable and influential people of our time.

On Leadership: John Donahoe, CEO and President at eBay Inc.

“Be the best leader you can be by linking your work with a sense of purpose, never stop learning, [understand] the most valuable learning often comes during difficult times and build your full life, not just your work life. The skills you learn in your personal life – listening, empathy, and humility -- are invaluable for success at work.” 

On Assertiveness: Randi Zuckerberg, Founder and CEO at Zuckerberg Media

“Being a good worker means being proactive about creating opportunities for yourself. It means thinking of additional things you could be doing, and going above and beyond your delegated responsibilities…. In business, you want people who are creative, who are go-getters, who create opportunities out of nothing.  So, go out into the world. And do the best darn job you can. Good work is always recognized and rewarded. But in order to get placed on the project team that catches your eye, you have to speak up and ask for it. Don’t be afraid to be assertive and let the team know what you want. You might get a "No," but at least your manager knows that you would like to try your hand at something new in the future…. Ask for what you want rather than allow others to pigeonhole you into what they think you want.”

On Humanity: Deepak Chopra, Founder, Chopra Foundation

“I entreat you to not lose your idealism with the passage of years. That idealism is connected to your knowingness of the good that can be created and the power to manifest it. In you lies the potential for a more peaceful, just, sustainable, healthier and happier world. Remember that the goal of all other goals is to be happy… . To really be happy you need to expand awareness and overcome your self-limiting beliefs and then choose selfless actions, or ways to be of service to others. This leads to true and lasting happiness and wisdom.

On Adaptability: Elizabeth Warren, United States Senator from Massachusetts

“All the planning and preparation in the world can’t prepare you for the many twists that are coming your way… You can’t predict it all… Never be so faithful to your plan that you are unwilling to consider the unexpected. Never be so faithful to your plan that you are unwilling to entertain the improbable opportunity that comes looking for you. And never be so faithful to your plan that when you hit a bump in the road – or when the bumps hit you – you don’t have the fortitude, grace, and resiliency to rethink and regroup…. Plans or no plans, keep a little space in your heart for the improbable. You won’t regret it… .By getting an excellent education, you have built a strong and resilient foundation. And if you work hard, persevere, and leave yourself open to the occasional unexpected opportunity, you’ll do great.”

On Self-purpose: Jeff Immelt, Chairman and CEO at GE

“We could all look around and accept today’s challenges as insurmountable. Or we can use them to inspire action. See the word “lookout” not as a warning but as an invitation to make a difference on something that matters. Be on the lookout for the opportunity to change. To learn. To take risk. To persist. And to lead. Always strive to be better… that way, I know, you will make the world better.”

On Happiness: Arianna Huffington, President and Editor-in-Chief at The Huffington Post Media Group

“The founding fathers wrote about the pursuit of happiness, and if you go back to the original documents -- as I'm sure all of you have done -- happiness did not mean the pursuit of more ways to be entertained. It was the happiness that comes from feeling good by doing good…. So find your place to stand -- your place of wisdom and peace and strength… so that all of us -- women and men -- can live our lives with more grace, more joy, more empathy, more gratitude, and yes, more love.”

On Courage: Maria Shriver, Journalist, Author and Activist

As you head out into the Open Field of life, keep your mind open, keep your heart open. Don’t be afraid to be afraid. Courageous people often are afraid… Have the courage to go beyond your fears. Have the courage to go beyond judgment. Have the courage go beyond shoulda-could-woulda — go beyond others’ rules and expectations. Live and write your own story and then be brave enough to communicate it authentically. Trust me, someone else will be inspired by it and learn from it. Be committed to communicating the truth. Don’t get so caught up along the way in what you’re doing and where you’re going that you lose sight of your core values: who you are and what's important in your life. And finally, remember this: Whenever you’re in doubt: PAUSE — take a moment. Look at your options — check your intentions — and THEN? Take the high road.”

These commencement speakers offer all of us the insight and wisdom of exceptional backgrounds and experiences that we ordinarily might not get. Their life lessons and guidance prove useful and necessary to hear in today’s difficult world. Perhaps some their words will influence you, or you may share them with someone you know who needs to hear it.

Thomas Edison State University

Written by Thomas Edison State University

Subscribe to the Thomas Edison State University Blog and get the latest updates delivered straight to your inbox.