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7 World-Class Authors Offer Timeless Advice for Grads

Congratulations, graduates! But before you get the party started, let the following words of wisdom soak in.

7 World-Class Authors Offer Timeless Advice for Grads

Photo: J.K. Rowling Delivers Harvard Commencement Speech in 2008. Courtesy of JustJared.

As the academic year comes to a close and diplomas are handed out, anxiety about the future washes over every soon-to-be grad: cross-country moves, the intimidating job market, new faces—the next unwritten chapter of life.

We get it. And, thankfully, Neil Gaiman, J.K. Rowling, and others do, too. So for those of you getting ready to put on your cap and gown and celebrate all of your accomplishments, here is some wisdom for the future pulled from some of our favorite authors’ commencement speeches.


 

Strive for Excellence

“Try not to waste too much of your time chasing after success. Success is fickle and very perishable and largely beyond your control. Attainment—excellence—is the thing to strive for, believe me. It will belong to you. Choose your work carefully. It will shape you, it is what you will become. Take your work seriously, but not yourselves.” —David McCullough, Middlebury 1986

Read the full speech here.

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Swim Naked in Wild Jungle Rivers

“Do all the other things, of course, the ambitious things—travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers (after first having them tested for monkey poop)—but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you towards the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality—your soul, if you will—is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Teresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret, luminous place. Believe that it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits timelessly.” —George Saunders, Syracuse 2013

Read and watch the full speech here.

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Jobs Pay the Bills; Work Humbles You

“Your work should be something that satisfies, excites and rewards you, something that gives your life meaning and direction, that stays fresh and new and challenging, a task you’ll never quite master, that will never be completed. It should be the kind of work that constantly humbles you, that never allows you to become smug—in short, work that sustains you instead of just paying your bills. While you search for this work, you’ll need a job.” —Richard Russo, Colby 2004

Read the full speech here.

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Rock Bottom Is Okay

“So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because 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 already been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.” —J.K. Rowling, Harvard 2008

Read and watch the full speech here.

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Choose Personality over Brains

“If you have to choose character or intelligence—in a friend or in a candidate—choose character. Intelligence without character is dangerous, but character without intelligence only slows down a good result.” —Gloria Steinem, Tufts 1987

Read the full speech here.

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It’s All About Luck

“Life’s outcomes, while not entirely random, have a huge amount of luck baked into them. Above all, recognize that if you have had success, you have also had luck—and with luck comes obligation. You owe a debt, and not just to your Gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky.” —Michael Lewis, Princeton 2012

Read the full speech here.

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Make Mistakes

“Fourthly, I hope you’ll make mistakes. If you’re making mistakes, it means you’re out there doing something. And the mistakes in themselves can be useful . . . And remember that whatever discipline you are in, whether you are a musician or a photographer, a fine artist or a cartoonist, a writer, a dance, a designer, whatever you do you have one thing that’s unique. You have the ability to make art.” —Neil Gaiman, Kenyon 2012

Read and watch the full speech here.

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