Career (and Life) Advice From Famous Graduation Speakers

US News

Every year about this time, before embarking into the so-called real world, college graduates throughout the country receive not just a diploma but advice from graduation speakers, who are often successful celebrities, politicians or other luminaries at the top of their field. That's all well and good, but the rest of us could use that advice, too. After all, it isn't as if, several years out of college, people have mastered the real world and no longer need any help. That's why the midlife crisis is so popular. Arguably, just about everybody is trying to figure how to work this crazy thing called life.

So if you're looking for a pep talk related to your career and life, here is a sampling of advice from this year's commencement speakers so far.

[Quiz: Which Celebrities Tweeted These Financial Quips?]

If at first you don't succeed ...

"Whether you start a business, or run for office, or devote yourself to alleviating poverty or hunger, please remember that nothing worth doing happens overnight. A British inventor named Dyson went through more than 5,000 prototypes before getting that first really fancy vacuum cleaner just right. We remember Michael Jordan's six championships; we don't remember his nearly 15,000 missed shots."

-President Barack Obama, who spoke at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, on May 5. Moments later, he added: "The point is, if you are living your life to the fullest, you will fail, you will stumble, you will screw up, you will fall down. But it will make you stronger, and you'll get it right the next time, or the time after that, or the time after that."

The world can be a better place - if you make it better.

"There are so many opportunities for giving in this world. Don't engage in random acts of kindness - engage in planned acts of kindness. There are at-risk children who need to be mentored. There are people who go hungry every day, there are those who are infirm and have no one to look after them. Some have experienced a paralyzing loss. Use your knowledge and your heart to stand up for those who can't stand. Speak for those who can't speak. Be a beacon of light for those whose lives have become dark. Fight the good fight against global warming. Be a part of all that is good and decent. Be an ambassador for the kind of world you want to live in."

-Julie Andrews, film legend, spoke to the University of Colorado--Boulder on May 10. She also had this nugget of wisdom: "... fear is a part of life. The trick is to recognize it and then press on anyway."

When the door slams in your face, find a key.

"We all have dreams we follow. Often, we build large parts of our lives around pursuing those dreams. So when there comes a point at which a door gets slammed in your face - and there inevitably will - it can be crushing. But what I'm here to say is ... how you react to these setbacks can end up defining you more than the pursuit of the dream itself."

-John Lasseter, chief creative officer at Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios. Lasseter spoke on May 19 at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla. He added that even more than following your dreams, "it is more important to follow your passion. Because when your dreams get shattered and you trust your passion, guess what? You get a lot more dreams, and they will come true."

Failure is an option.

"Aim high and don't be afraid to fail. It's OK to fail, as long as you give it your best, fail fast and move on quickly. Now you ask: How do you do that? How do you fail fast? And efficiently. You think about the problem, and you work on the most critical and essential part of the challenge first - don't do the easy stuff.

-Steven Chu, a physicist who was the U.S. Secretary of Energy from 2009 until April 22, 2013. He delivered the college commencement at his alma mater, the University of Rochester, on May 19. He added later, "Over the course of my scientific career, I would say that roughly three-quarters of the things I tried either failed or morphed into something, oftentimes better."

This should be the "we" generation.

"...You can change the way you think about other people. You can choose to see their humanity first - the one big thing that makes them the same as you, instead of the many things that make them different from you. It is not just a matter of caring about people. I assume you already do that. It's much harder to see all people, including people whose experiences are very different from yours, as three-dimensional human beings who want and need the same things you do. But if you can really believe that all 7 billion people on the planet are equal to you in spirit, then you will take action to make the world more equal for everyone."

-Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. She spoke to graduates at Duke University in Durham, N.C., on May 12. She also had something to say about connecting with people through technology. She is for it. "I want to encourage you to reject the cynics who say technology is flattening your experience of the world," Gates said. "Please don't let anyone make you believe you are somehow shallow because you like to update your status on a regular basis."

[Read: Financial Strategies for a Lifetime.]

The world moves fast, so move with it.

"The history of technological innovation and economic development teaches us that change is the only constant. During your working lives, you will have to reinvent yourselves many times. Success and satisfaction will not come from mastering a fixed body of knowledge but from constant adaptation and creativity in a rapidly changing world. Engaging with and applying new technologies will be a crucial part of that adaptation."

-Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, who spoke to graduates at Bard College at Simon's Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass., on May 18. Earlier in the speech, he quoted baseball great Yogi Berra, saying, "The future ain't what it used to be," and noting that Berra "also astutely observed, 'it's tough to make predictions, especially about the future.'"

Your goals: Don't call us, we'll call you.

"Don't think about what you want from life. Think about what life wants from you. If you're observant, some large problem will plop itself in front of you. It will define your mission and your calling. Your passion won't come from inside. It will come from outside."

-David Brooks, political and cultural columnist for The New York Times, who spoke to Sewanee--University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., on May 11. He later added that it's also very important to marry well - it's the most important decision anyone will make in their lives. "If you have a great marriage and a crappy career, you will be happy. If you have a great career and a crappy marriage, you will be unhappy," he said.

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Plan for the unplanned.

"... all the planning and preparation in the world can't prepare you for the many twists that are coming your way. Just today, one of you may meet the guy you will marry - or the guy you will divorce. You can't predict it all. People will tell you to plan things out as best you can. They will tell you to focus. They will tell you to follow your dreams. They will all be right.

"But they will also be a little bit wrong. 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."

-Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who delivered her commencement speech to graduates at Springfield College in Springfield, Mass., on May 19. She added, "So to all of you who have always known what you wanted to be when you grow up, go get 'em. But for everyone, plans or no plans, keep a little space in your heart for the improbable. You won't regret it."

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