From Barack Obama to Marissa Mayer – Top 10 commencement speech gems for startups

Barack Obama
Barack Obama

It’s the height of commencement season, that wonderful time when political leaders and luminaries impart their wisdom to a class of university graduates and hand out diplomas. For entrepreneurs (and everyone else), it’s a good time to glean insight and reflect on what’s important in our personal and professional lives. Without further ado, here’s our Top 10 nuggets of commencement speech wisdom for startups…

Barack Obama

1) Barack Obama on starting a business that matters

No stranger to commencement speeches, President Obama delivered a personal talk about racism, responsibility and opportunity to Morehouse College, the all-black liberal arts college that Martin Luther King Jr attended. As more and more inane startups pop up, what resonated with us most was his snippet about why you’re doing what you’re doing.

Sure, go get your MBA, or start that business. But ask yourselves what broader purpose your business might serve, in putting people to work, or transforming a neighborhood. The most successful CEOs I know didn’t start out intent just on making money — rather, they had a vision of how their product or service would change things, and the money followed.

2) Arianna Huffington on redefining success

The powerhouse behind The Huffington Post gave a energetic speech on why we need to redefine success, bring on a third women’s revolution and (put down our Club Mates so we can) sleep our way to success – literally.

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.

3) Jon Lovett on fighting the culture of bullshit

Cut the bullshit – that’s the key message that Lovett, former White House speechwriter, is making in his address. But it’s not just for grads, entrepreneurs can learn a thing or two about self-honesty and authenticity…

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.

4) JK Rowling on failure

Three out of four startups fail – which is why failure is a popular topic in the startup world. In this commencement speech, the author of the Harry Potter series recalls personal failures and offers invaluable insight on what she gained from them.

Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me.

Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive.

It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.

5) Steven Colbert on choosing the hard path

Before delivering the speech, Colbert – host of the popular American satirical late-night show The Colbert Report – took a moment to ask the audience to make sure their cell phones were turned… on. “I wouldn’t want anyone to miss a text or a tweet while I’m giving my speech,” he said.

If you have 17 minutes to spare, this highly entertaining address is a must-watch. Not only does Colbert share insights on taking the hard path, he has characterised our generation perfectly: “self obsessed – tweeting your Vines, hashtagging your Spotifys and Snapchatting your YOLOs”.

If you must find your own path, and we have left you no easy path, then decide now to choose the hard path that lead to the life and world that you want. And don’t worry if we don’t approve of your choice.


6) David Foster Wallace on the importance of awareness

In 2005, Wallace – the late author of notable works such as The Infinite Jest and The Pale King – gave a profound and moving speech about attentiveness, empathy and the realities of adult life. His speech was later adapted into a short book titled This is Water.

As I’m sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotised by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now)… Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to, and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.

It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us.

7) Denzel Washington on taking risks

For entrepreneurs, innovation and risk-taking usually go hand-in-hand. For actor Denzel Washington, his journey to success involved getting out his comfort zone and “falling forward” – which he encourages you to do.

I’ve found that nothing in life is worthwhile unless you take risks. Fall forward. Every failed experiment is one step closer to success. You’ve got to take risks. You will fail at some point in your life. Accept it. You will lose. You will embarrass yourself. You will suck at something. There is no doubt about it. Never be discouraged. Never look back. Give everything you’ve got. And when you fall throughout life, fall forward.

8) Conan O’Brien on the beauty of disappointment

Startup mistakes or disappointments can invite media frenzies but don’t let it hold you down. Television host and comedian Conan O’Brien faced a very public disappointment in 2010 with his late-night talk show. Looking back, O’Brien said his experience with a near-career disaster led him to one of the most satisfying and fascinating years of his life.

No specific job or career goal defines me, and it should not define you. In 2000, I told graduates to not be afraid to fail, and I still believe that. But today I tell you that whether you fear it or not, disappointment will come. The beauty is that through disappointment you can gain clarity, and with clarity comes conviction and true originality.

9) Marissa Meyer on talent

Marissa Mayer, President and CEO of Yahoo, is one of the most successful business women in America. Prior to Yahoo, Mayer was a long-time executive at Google. She’s been working with some of the brightest minds in tech and has a few pieces of advice for entrepreneurs on choosing the right people and environment to work in.

Find the smartest people you can, and surround yourself with them. Working with smart people means you’ll be challenged to do your best. You’ll have to strive to keep up with them and as a result, they’ll elevate your thinking. When there are better players around you, you get better.

10) Steve Jobs on trusting… something

No list of inspiring commencement speeches would be complete without the classic Steve Jobs commencement address at Stanford in 2005 that is full of eye-opening and meaningful wisdom.

You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

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