2013 commencement speeches: The funniest and most inspiring moments

The Week
President Obama gave the commencement address at Morehouse College.
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President Obama gave the commencement address at Morehouse College.

"If you're still playing beer pong five years from now, you may be on the wrong track"

STEPHEN COLBERT
University of Virginia

So self obsessed — tweeting your Vines, hashtagging your Spotifys and Snapchatting your YOLOs — your generation needs everything to be about you. And that's very upsetting to us baby boomers because self-absorption is kind of our thing. We're the original "me" generation, we made the last 50 years all about us. We took all the money we soaked up all the government services and we've deep-fried nearly everything in the ocean. It may seem that all that's left for you is unpaid internships, Monday to Tuesday mail delivery, and, thanks to Global Warming, soon semester at sea will mean sailing the coast of Ohio…

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But while we may be leaving you with an economy with fewer job opportunities for the new graduate to slip into. While traditional paths may seem harder to find, that also means that you will learn sooner than most generations the hard lesson that you must always make the path for yourself. There is no secret society out there that will tap you on the shoulder one night and show you the way. Because the true secret is your life will not be defined by the society that we have left you. To paraphrase Robert Bolt, society has no more idea of what you are than you do because ultimately it has only your brains to think with. Every generation must define itself and so make a world that suits itself.

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PRESIDENT OBAMA
Morehouse College

Just as Morehouse has taught you to expect more of yourselves, inspire those who look up to you to expect more of themselves. We know that too many young men in our community continue to make bad choices. Growing up, I made quite a few myself. Sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down. I had a tendency sometimes to make excuses for me not doing the right thing. But one of the things that all of you have learned over the last four years is that there is no longer any room for excuses...

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Keep setting an example for what it means to be a man. Be the best husband to your wife, or your boyfriend, or your partner. Be the best father you can be to your children. Because nothing is more important...

My whole life, I've tried to be for Michelle and my girls what my father was not for my mother and me. I want to break that cycle where a father's not at home, where a father's not helping to raise that son or daughter. I've tried to be a better father, a better husband, a better man.

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Even now, I'm still practicing, I'm still learning, still getting corrected in terms of how to be a fine husband and a good father. But I will tell you this: Everything else is unfulfilled if we fail at family, if we fail at that responsibility.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON
Smith College

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At the moment, our society's notion of success is largely composed of two parts: money and power. In fact, success, money, and power have practically become synonymous.

But it's time for a third metric, beyond money and power — one founded on well-being, wisdom, our ability to wonder, and to give back. Money and power by themselves are a two-legged stool — you can balance on them for a while, but eventually you're going to topple over. And more and more people, very successful people, are toppling over. Basically, success the way we've defined it is no longer sustainable. It's no longer sustainable for human beings or for societies. To live the lives we want, and not just the ones we settle for, the ones society defines as successful, we need to include the third metric.

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What adding well being to our definition of success means is that, in addition to looking after our financial capital, we need to do everything we can to protect and nurture our human capital.

So as you leave this beautiful campus today to follow your dreams and scale great heights in whatever profession you choose, I beg you: Don't buy society's definition of success. Because it's not working for anyone. It's not working for women, it's not working for men, it's not working for polar bears, it's not working for the cicadas that are apparently about to emerge and swarm us. It's only truly working for those who make pharmaceuticals for stress, diabetes, heart disease, sleeplessness and high blood pressure.

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JON LOVETT (Former presidential speechwriter)
Pitzer College

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F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, "Yeah, this should definitely be in 3D."

No, what he said was, "[T]he test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." That's what you have to do: You have to be confident in your potential, and aware of your inexperience. And that's really tough. There are moments when you'll have a different point of view because you're a fresh set of eyes; because you don't care how it's been done before; because you're sharp and creative; because there is another way, a better way. But there will also be moments when you have a different point of view because you're wrong, because you're 23 and you should shut up and listen to somebody who's been around the block.

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I believe we may have reached "peak bullshit." And that increasingly, those who push back against the noise and nonsense; those who refuse to accept the untruths of politics and commerce and entertainment and government will be rewarded. That we are at the beginning of something important.

All you have to do is avoid BSing yourself — in whatever you choose to do. To avoid the path of the sad gay judge filled with regret. To go forward with confidence and an eagerness to learn. And to be honest with yourselves, and others — to reject a culture of insincerity by virtue of the example you set in your own lives.

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KERRY WASHINGTON
George Washington University

When you leave here today and commence the next stage of your life, you can follow someone else's script, try to make choices that will make other people happy, avoid discomfort, do what is expected, and copy the status quo. Or you can look at all that you have accomplished today and use it as fuel to venture forth and write your own story. If you do, amazing things will take shape.

You and you alone are the only person who can live the life that writes the story that you were meant to tell. And the world needs your story because the world needs your voice. Every single one of you. And because as your story unfolds, you will inspire others to find their stories, and so on, and so on. And those are the stories… that I can't wait to watch. In fact, don't be surprised if you get a call from me wanting to option the really good ones into movies because I'm so Hollywood now.

JOHN GREEN (Author)
Butler University

I would just note that the default assumption is that the point of human life is to be as successful as possible, to acquire lots of fame or glory or money as defined by quantifiable metrics: number of Twitter followers, or Facebook friends, or dollars in one's 401k.

This is the hero's journey, right? The hero starts out with no money and ends up with a lot of it, or starts out an ugly duckling and becomes a beautiful swan, or starts out an awkward girl and becomes a vampire mother, or grows up an orphan living under the staircase and then becomes the wizard who saves the world. We are taught that the hero's journey is the journey from weakness to strength. But I am here today to tell you that those stories are wrong. The real hero's journey is the journey from strength to weakness… And because you went to college, you will be more alive to the experience, better able to contextualize it, and maybe even find the joy and wonder hidden amid the dehumanizing drudgery.

But still, you are probably going to be a nobody for a while. You are going to make that journey from strength to weakness, and while it won't be an easy trip, it is a heroic one. For in learning how to be a nobody, you will learn how not to be a jerk. And for the rest of your life, if you are able to remember your hero's journey from college grad to underling, you will be less of a jerk. You will tip well. You will empathize. You will be a mentor, and a generous one. In short, you will become like the people you imagined in silence a few minutes ago. (John Green comes in at the 1:01 mark)

ERIC IDLE
Whitman College

I hope I can say something that you can take away with you as you commence your life — or, as the rest of us know, go downhill from here. This is not so much a commencement as the end of the good bit. After college it's a bit like being cast out of paradise. From now on, it's all debts and taxes and death and jobs, marriages and divorces and money problems. It's a mess out there.

So, remember, life is very short. And life can be very pleasant, so do enjoy it. Just remember that throughout all of history and all of the people who ever lived there is not one single person — not Shakespeare, not Mozart, not Chaucer, not Einstein, not Hubble, not Jeff who feeds the donkeys — who wouldn't give up everything they ever achieved in their lifetimes to stand here in your place and be alive here today right now.

Your life is precious. You've only got one. Don't waste it on bad relationships, on bad marriages, on bad jobs, on bad people. Waste it wisely on what you want to do. But if you're still playing beer pong five years from now you may be on the wrong track. You are alive at the finest point in mankind's history. Where we now know more about our origins and our planets and our universe than any preceding generation. Life took over 4 billion years to evolve into you and you have about 70 more years to enjoy it...

Remember you are a tiny little speck of consciousness in an incredibly expanding immense and virtually eternal universe 190 billion light years across. and that's just the bit we can see. So, don't just peruse happiness, catch it. And they may even have a cure for it by then.

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