College graduation season is upon us, and with it comes a new crop of commencement speeches. Their words are meant to inspire graduates, filling them with hope and spirit as they charge into the real world. But the speeches also often deliver practical guidance to better manage your money or build a career. Even if it’s been a while since you donned a cap and gown, modern commencement speeches may offer valuable tips that you can apply toward starting a business, saving for retirement, or achieving other personal finance and career goals.
To that end, we’ve compiled some of the best lessons from 2014’s college graduation speeches and those of years past. Enjoy.
"Be Real About What It's Going to Take to Achieve Those Dreams"
- Commencement speaker: Sean “Diddy” Combs (opens in new tab), entertainer and entrepreneur
- Speaking at: Howard University
- When: May 10, 2014
- SEE ALSO: Do You Have What It Takes to Be a Millionaire?
“Don’t be afraid to close your eyes and dream, but then open your eyes and see. For a lot of people, the distance between their dream and reality is intimidating, and they get stuck. They get paralyzed, just like I was in that marathon. [Combs ran the New York City marathon in 2003.] And the only way forward is to be real about what it’s going to take to achieve those dreams. You have to be honest with yourself. You have to tell yourself the truth. You have to tell yourself the truth of what it’s going to take for you to be successful.”
"The World Is Built Around Hard Work"
- Commencement speaker: Michael Bloomberg (opens in new tab), former New York City mayor and founder of financial-information and media company Bloomberg LP
- Speaking at: Tufts University
- When: May 20, 2007
- SEE ALSO: 10 High-Risk Jobs That Pay Big Bucks
“If you’re going to be successful, the other piece of advice that I can give you is be the first one in in the morning, be the last one there at night and never take a sick day. If you want to succeed, I’m sorry, but that’s exactly what you’re going to have to do. The world is built around hard work. Success is a measure of hard work. And while luck certainly plays a part in success, you will notice that the harder you work, the luckier you'll get. And so if you really want to share in the great American dream and have the great things, and really have a smile on your face, work hard, but make sure that you enjoy it.”
"We Need to Fight to Educate Ourselves and Our Children Like Our Lives Depend on It"
- Commencement speaker: Michelle Obama (opens in new tab), first lady
- Speaking at: Bowie State University
- When: May 17, 2013
- SEE ALSO: 10 Grad-School Degrees Worth the Debt
“Today, getting an education is as important if not more important than it was back when this university was founded. Just look at the statistics. People who earn a bachelor’s degree or higher make nearly three times more money than high school dropouts, and they’re far less likely to be unemployed. A recent study even found that African American women with a college degree live an average of six-and-a-half years longer than those without. And for men, it’s nearly ten years longer. So yes, people who are more educated actually live longer.
“So I think we can agree, and we need to start feeling that hunger again, you know what I mean? We need to once again fight to educate ourselves and our children like our lives depend on it, because they do.”
"Opportunities. . . May Come at Inconvenient Times, but That Will Make Them All the More Precious"
- Commencement speaker: Mitt Romney (opens in new tab), 2012 Republican nominee for U.S. president and former Massachusetts governor
- Speaking at: Liberty University
- When: May 12, 2012
- SEE ALSO: 6 Surprisingly Simple Ideas That Made Millions
“I was asked to help rescue the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. I’m embarrassed now to recall that when this opportunity was first presented to me, I dismissed it out of hand. I was busy, I was doing well, and, by the way, my lack of athletic prowess did not make the Olympics a logical step. In fact, after I had accepted the position, my oldest son called me and said, ‘Dad, I’ve spoken to the brothers. We saw the paper this morning. We want you to know there’s not a circumstance we could have conceived of that would put you on the front page of the sports section.’
“The Olympics were not a logical choice, but it was one of the best and most fulfilling choices of my life. Opportunities for you to serve in meaningful ways may come at inconvenient times, but that will make them all the more precious.”
"Address Every Challenge Head-on"
- Commencement speaker: Mary Barra (opens in new tab), chief executive officer, General Motors
- Speaking at: University of Michigan
- When: May 3, 2014
- If you have an issue in your life—at work or at home—pull the drain plug. Address it head on, with everything you have, and address it right away . . . Remember that hope is not a strategy. And problems don’t go away when you ignore them – they get bigger.”
- SEE ALSO: The MacGyver Money Quiz: How to Escape Tricky Financial Jams
“I’m reminded of the plant manager who asked his lead engineer to explain her hiring process. She said, ‘We fill a bathtub with water and offer the applicant a teaspoon, a teacup and a bucket. Then we ask him or her to empty the tub.’
‘I get it,’ the manager said. ‘A go-getter will use the bucket.’
‘No,’ said the engineer. ‘A go-getter will pull the drain plug.’
"Don't Put Limits on Yourself"
- Commencement speaker: Sheryl Sandberg (opens in new tab), chief operating officer, Facebook
- Speaking at: City Colleges of Chicago
- When: May 3, 2014
- I’ve seen over and over how much self-belief drives outcomes. And that’s why I force myself to sit at the table, even when I am not sure I belong there—and yes, this still happens to me. And when I’m not sure anyone wants my opinion, I take a deep breath and speak up anyway.
- SEE ALSO: 10 Reasons You're Still Broke
“Over my many years in school and the workforce, I have seen so many people hold themselves back. I see people sit on the side of the room instead of sitting at the table. I see people sit in the back rather than at the front. I see people lower their hands rather than keep them up. And I see people lower their voices when they should speak up.
Believing in yourself was part of what got you to this special day. Continue to believe in yourselves. Don’t let anyone put limits on you. Don’t put limits on yourself.”
"The Key to Success Is Continuously Maintaining an Ever-Present Curiosity"
- Commencement speaker: Sonia Sotomayor (opens in new tab), U.S. Supreme Court justice
- Speaking at: New York University
- When: May 16, 2012
- SEE ALSO: Kiplinger's Personal Finance Quiz
“I hope your education has taught you not to be afraid, to admit that you don’t have all the answers. It may be the most important lesson of your schooling. Every one of you has had a moment in your time at NYU when a new thought, insight or piece of knowledge excited you. Find more of those moments. The key to success is continuously maintaining an ever-present curiosity, openness to and joy in learning new things. . .
“For me, curiosity about the world and people I interacted with and maintaining an excitement about new learning propelled me forward in my career. In law school, I studied international law. I met Bob Morgenthau, the famed Manhattan district attorney, completely by chance. I was wandering the halls of my law school, when I spied a table of food in the back of a room and decided to sit in to hear Bob, the last speaker being introduced. At the food line, we met and shortly thereafter, he offered me a job. I was interviewing at the State Department and with law firms doing international work. But. . . I went with my gut and took the job Bob Morgenthau told me would be the greatest responsibility a young lawyer could have, as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan. That meeting, with a lifelong mentor, charted a new course in my life. That curiosity in listening to a speaker I knew nothing about—add in a free dinner—started my career.”
"Wisdom Acquisition Is a Moral Duty"
- Commencement speaker: Charlie Munger (opens in new tab), vice-chairman, Berkshire Hathaway
- Speaking at: University of Southern California, Gould School of Law
- When: May 13, 2007
- SEE ALSO: Warren Buffet's Words of Wisdom for Investors
“Wisdom acquisition is a moral duty. And there’s a corollary to that proposition, which is very important. It means that you’re hooked for lifetime learning, and without lifetime learning you people are not going to do very well. You are not going to get very far in life based on what you already know. You’re going to advance in life based on what you learn after you leave here.
“If you take Berkshire Hathaway, which is certainly one of the best-regarded corporations in the world and may have the best long-term investment record in the entire history of civilization, the skill that got Berkshire through one decade would not have sufficed to get it through the next decade with the achievements made. Without Warren Buffet being a learning machine, a continuous learning machine, the record would have been absolutely impossible. The same is true at lower walks of life. I constantly see people rise in life who were not the smartest, sometimes not even the most diligent, but they are learning machines. They go to bed every night a little wiser than they were when they got up. And, boy, does that habit help, particularly when you have a long run ahead of you.”
"You Achieve Big Things Not With One Big Step but With Many Small Steps"
- Commencement speaker: Rick Mastracchio (opens in new tab), NASA astronaut
- Speaking at: University of Connecticut, School of Engineering (delivered from the International Space Station)
- When: May 10, 2014
- SEE ALSO: Knight Kiplinger's 8 Keys to Financial Security
“Folks I meet . . . want to know how they can become an astronaut. Well, you become an astronaut the same way you accomplish any goal: through hard work and perseverance. Everyone has goals, dreams and wishes, but not everybody wants to do the daily work it takes to reach their goals. Let’s face it: Big dreams and lofty goals take hard work and long hours to achieve. You achieve big things not with one big step but with many small steps. You didn’t complete college in one day. It took you working hard almost daily for four or five years. Other big goals and accomplishments will probably take a similar level of work and effort. So I’ve come to realize that the difference between the people who get selected as an astronaut (or those who achieve their goals) and those who don’t is the ability to work toward their goals on a day-to-day basis.”
- Commencement speaker: Denzel Washington (opens in new tab), Academy Award-winning actor
- Speaking at: University of Pennsylvania
- When: May 16, 2011
- SEE ALSO: 5 Midlife Millionaires
“I’m sure in your experiences—in school, in applying to college, in picking your major, in deciding what you want to do with life—people have told you to make sure you have something to fall back on. But I’ve never understood that concept, having something to fall back on. If I’m going to fall, I don’t want to fall back on anything, except my faith. I want to fall forward. . .
Here’s what I mean. Reggie Jackson struck out 2,600 times in his career, the most in the history of baseball. But you don’t hear about the strikeouts. People remember the home runs. Fall forward.
Thomas Edison conducted 1,000 failed experiments. Did you know that? I didn’t either because number 1,001 was the light bulb. Fall forward. Every failed experiment is one step closer to success.”
"Invest in Low-Cost, All-U.S. and Global Stock Market Index Funds"
- Commencement speaker: Jack Bogle (opens in new tab), founder, The Vanguard Group
- Speaking at: Georgetown University, McDonough School of Business
- When: May 18, 2007
- SEE ALSO: How to Pick the Best Index Funds
“The more that our financial system takes, the less our investors make. . . When we add up all those hedge fund fees, all those mutual fund management fees and operating expenses; all those commissions to brokerage firms and fees to financial advisors; investment banking and legal fees for all those mergers and IPOs; and the enormous marketing and advertising expenses entailed in the distribution of financial products, we’re talking about some $500 billion per year. That sum, extracted from whatever returns the stock and bond markets are generous enough to deliver to investors, is surely enough, if you will, to seriously undermine the odds in favor of success for our citizens who are accumulating savings for retirement . . .
“When you begin to invest . . . do so in a way that minimizes the extraction by the financial community of the returns generated by business. This is, yes, a sort of self-serving recommendation to invest in low-cost, all-U.S. and global stock market index funds, [but it’s] the only way to guarantee your fair share of whatever returns our financial markets are generous enough to provide.”
"Human Innovation and Creativity Will Continue"
- Commencement speaker: Ben Bernanke (opens in new tab), former Federal Reserve chairman
- Speaking at: Bard College at Simon’s Rock
- When: May 18, 2013
- SEE ALSO: Office Technology of the Future
“A safe prediction, I think, is that human innovation and creativity will continue; it is part of our very nature. Another prediction, just as safe, is that people will nevertheless continue to forecast the end of innovation. The famous British economist John Maynard Keynes observed as much in the midst of the Great Depression more than 80 years ago. He wrote then, ‘We are suffering just now from a bad attack of economic pessimism. It is common to hear people say that the epoch of enormous economic progress which characterized the 19th century is over; that the rapid improvement in the standard of life is now going to slow down.’ Sound familiar?
“By the way, Keynes argued at that time that such a view was shortsighted and, in characterizing what he called ‘the economic possibilities for our grandchildren,’ he predicted that income per person, adjusted for inflation, could rise as much as four to eight times by 2030. His guess looks pretty good; income per person in the United States today is roughly six times what it was in 1930.”
"Focus on the Solution, Not the Problem"
- Commencement speaker: Robin Roberts (opens in new tab), anchor, ABC News Good Morning America
- Speaking at: Miami University (Oxford, Ohio)
- When: May 10, 2008
- SEE ALSO: 10 Financial Commandments for Your 20s
“Twenty-five years ago, when I was sitting right where you are, I had no idea that one day I would be working at Good Morning America. That I would be co-anchor with none other than the incredible Diane Sawyer. Had no idea. You have no idea what is ahead of you as well. I had no idea that I would be standing in front of you, a cancer survivor. But I do know, and you should know, if you continue to put yourself in position for good things to happen to you; if you’re willing to make the necessary sacrifices; if you’re patient and persistent; you dream big but you focus small; focus on the solution, not the problem; and above all keep faith, family and friends close to your heart, there is nothing you cannot accomplish. And no matter what you do, make sure you do it from the heart.”
"Spend at Least Some Significant Time in the Service of All"
- Commencement speaker: David Remnick (opens in new tab), editor of The New Yorker
- Speaking at: Syracuse University
- When: May 11, 2014
- SEE ALSO: 9 Ways to Reduce Your Student Loan Debt
“No one is insisting you all become global politicians or selfless activists. Some of you will spend nearly all of your time pursuing private, professional, and personal comforts and rewards. But that does not rule out your spending at least some significant time in the service of all, of all of us. Of seeing the world clear and taking part, in some way large or small, in making it better.”
"Being Pre-Approved for a Credit Card Does Not Mean You Have to Apply for It"
- Commencement speaker: Stephen Colbert (opens in new tab), comedian and host of The Colbert Report
- Speaking at: Knox College
- When: June 3, 2006
- SEE ALSO: 11 Credit-Card Mistakes to Avoid
“I have two last pieces of advice. First, being pre-approved for a credit card does not mean you have to apply for it. And lastly, the best career advice I can give you is to get your own TV show. It pays well, the hours are good, and you are famous. And eventually some very nice people will give you a doctorate in fine arts for doing jack squat.”
"Your Integrity Will Count for So Much More Than Any Bank Balance"
- Commencement speaker: Elizabeth Dole (opens in new tab), former U.S. senator
- Speaking at: Greensboro College
- When: May 13, 2007
- SEE ALSO: Knight Kiplinger's Money & Ethics Quiz
“Graduates, when you are in your golden years looking back over your lives, my belief is it won’t be the cars you drove or the titles you held or the awards you were given that will matter most. No, a caring heart, respect for your fellow man, your character, your integrity—that will count for so much more than any bank balance, any resume and, yes, any college diploma.”
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