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11 inspirational graduation speeches by geek deities

Anyone who’s been to university will tell you that the day they walked across the stage at their graduation (graduations in some cases) was one of the proudest of their life. Years of academic and emotional toil is distilled to a few seconds walking across the stage. The order of events varies from institution to institution, but the same elements are all there: the academic gowns, the hoods and mortar boards and, most importantly, the scroll officially recognizing that all that hard work was for something.

The speaker can often set the tone for a graduation ceremony. They can potentially lead the crowd along, or lose them completely. That’s a lot of pressure, and it only increases when the speaker is someone with a recognisable name. In the case of the gods and goddesses we’ve assembled below however, all delivered on the weight of their expectation. In fact, some of these speeches (Steve Jobs’ being the most obvious) have moved beyond being watched by the graduates and their friends into mainstream virality. All however have lessons within them that can be applied to everyday life.

Joss Whedon — Wesleyan 2013

Every geek’s favourite director Joss Whedon was refreshingly honest in his graduation speech at Weslyan University, a private liberal arts college in Middletown, Connecticut. The man behind shows like Firefly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and mega blockbuster The Avengers is himself a Wesleyan alumnus and was apparently inspired by how uninspiring Bill Cosby’s speech had been during his graduation.

Whedon’s central theme is identity and how we can only really earn identity by being conscious of the fact that we follow many paths at once and that there is always more than one side to any argument. In a world where it is increasingly easy to connect with people, but also easy to block out those who don’t agree with us, Whedon’s assertion that we need to understand ourselves as part of the world rather than an individual within it, is particularly pertinent.

Quotable quote: “The only way to understand your position and its worth is to understand the opposite”.

Steve Jobs — Stanford 2005

This is probably the most famous graduation speech of all time and was catapulted even further into the limelight following Jobs’ death in 2011. In it, Jobs describes his experiences “dropping in” to college, starting (and leaving Apple) as well as battling the cancer that would ultimately claim his life. The speech has become a go-to for entrepreneurs, tech innovators and anyone trying to justify making a sudden life-change.

The message is clear: do what you love, and put everything you have into ensuring that what you’re doing is what you love in the limited time you have on this planet. Even if you’ve seen this video, which you likely have, it’s worth watching again.

Quotable quote: “Death is very likely the single best invention of life”, “Stay hungry, stay foolish”.

Bill Gates — Harvard 2007

Gates was probably Jobs’ fiercest rival in the personal computing space. It’s interesting therefore that, like Jobs, Gates dropped out of university before he finished his degree. Also like Jobs, Gates dropped in on classes he hadn’t signed up for, but managed to do so while he was still at Harvard.

Given that the speech came shortly after Gates announced that he would be stepping down from full-time work at Microsoft to concentrate on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, it’s hardly surprising that it concentrates on philanthropy and the usefulness of innovation to humanity.

Quotable quote: “I love getting people excited about software, but why can’t we generate even more excitement about saving lives?”.

Dick Costolo — University of Michigan 2013

We tend to think of Twitter CEO Dick Costolo as the dour business-driven antidote to the zany innovation of Jack Dorsey and the design-driven creativity of Ev Williams and Biz Stone. As Costolo’s 2013 graduation speech at his alma mater, the University of Michigan, proves however he can actually be pretty light-hearted and affable. Self-deriding throughout, Costolo wears his geek credentials proudly. The speech nonetheless contains some important life lessons.

The most important of these lessons is probably that life seldom turns out the way you think it will. After graduating with a computer science degree, Costolo thought he would move to Chicago and try get into an improv comedy group, before going on to Saturday Night Live and, ultimately, “fame and glory”. As it turned out, that “Hollywood” version of things didn’t quite pan out. Instead he ended working menial jobs. The experience did however teach him to take bigger risks and “be in this moment” which enabled him to create a sequence of companies over the next 20 years, which ultimately led him to Twitter.

Quotable quote: “Not only can you not plan the impact you’re going to have, you often won’t recognise it even while you’re having it.”

Steve Wozniak — High Point University 2013

Steve Wozniak, affectionately referred to as “The Woz”, co-founded Apple with Steve Jobs. Wozniak’s speech urges the graduates at High Point University to differentiate themselves, and find out what they’re better at than anyone else. Relating the story of how he built the Apple I, Wozniak explains that trusting the ideas he had in his head as a young person allowed him to move beyond the accepted wisdom and build things cheaper, more efficiently and of better quality.

Quotable quote: “The purpose of a good education isn’t actually what you’ve learned”.

Larry Page — University of Michigan 2009

While Google co-founder Larry Page is more typically associated with Stanford, he actually spent his undergraduate years at the University of Michigan, where his parents also met. It’s difficult not to well up when Page reveals that the velvet hood he’s wearing is his father’s. Page’s speech is about following dreams. “Or maybe more accurately,” he says, it’s “about finding a path to make those dreams real”.

“I had one of those dreams when I was 23,” before describing his idea to download the web in a couple of weeks. “The optimism of youth is often underrated! Amazingly, I had no thought of building a search engine. The idea wasn’t even on the radar. But, much later we happened upon a better way of ranking webpages to make a really great search engine, and Google was born. When a really great dream shows up, grab it!”

Quotable quote: “I know it seems like the world is crumbling out there, but it is actually a great time in your life to get a little crazy, follow your curiosity, and be ambitious about it”.

Marrissa Mayer — IIT 2009

Back in 2009, Marissa Mayer was still a Google employee, three years away from becoming CEO at Yahoo!. Her graduation speech at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) concerns how learning goes beyond absorbing facts to how you actually think. She also advises the students to surround themselves with smart people, because doing so will push them intellectually to think harder and “in entirely different ways”. It was that attitude, she says, which motivated her to seek out a job at Google.

Quotable quote: “When there are better players around you, you get better.”

Neil Gaiman — University of Philadelphia 2012

The previous entrants in this list all spent at least some time in institutes of higher education. Not so, for British author Neil Gaiman. That does not, however, make what the man behind works like American Gods, Coraline, and numerous episodes of Dr Who has to say any less compelling. Rather than trying to provide answers to profound questions and inspire people to go above and beyond themselves, Gaiman’s approach is to suggest that they do what they need to pursue the things they love. Once they’ve managed to find that however, they need to ensure that they keep track of what they originally wanted to do. Gaiman relates how he found himself becoming someone who replied to emails for a living and wrote as a hobby. “I started answering fewer emails, and was relieved to find I was writing much more,” he says.

Perhaps the most applicable piece of advice he gives however is to “make good art” when life gets rough.

Quotable quote: “The biggest problem of success is that the world stops you conspiring to do what you do”.

Arianna Huffington — Smith College 2013

Huffington Post co-founder Arianna Huffington is one of the people most responsible for blurring the lines between blogging and online journalism. It should hardly be surprising therefore that her preparation for her speech at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, included researching the graduating class on social media.

The central tenet of her speech is redefining success. “What I urge you to do is not just take your place at the top of the world, but change the world,” she says. Moreover, she urges the graduates of the all-women university to lead the way in a third wave in the women’s movement. This movement would see the definition of success changed from which valorises working long hours in the pursuit of profit at the expense of health and happiness, she says.

Quotable quote: “Never underestimate the power of complete incomprehensibility.”

Salman Khan — MIT 2012

Salman Khan is probably the least well-known name on this list, but those in the know will be aware of the fact that he’s at the forefront of a revolution in online education. Khan is the founder of Khan Academy, a non-profit organisation with a mission to provide “a free world-class education for anyone anywhere”.

In this graduation speech at Khan’s Alma Mater, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), he reveals how the renowned university made the decision to step to the forefront of online education instead of resisting it. While much of the speech celebrates MIT, it does contain some harsh truths. “The world will be far less efficient, far less fair, far less productive, and far more political than what you may have imagined it to be,” he says. The antidote to this is, apparently, to “fight these forces of negativity, to increase the net positivity in the world, to optimize the happiness of yourself and the people you love”. This can be done, he says, by staring each day with a smile, “even a forced one”, “view stressful, political interactions as nothing more than a deeply immersive strategy game” and surrender your own ego.

Quotable quote: “I always tell people that MIT is the closest thing to being Hogwarts”.

Sheryl Sandberg — Barnard College 2011

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg was the first woman to serve on the social network’s board of directors. Before Facebook, Sandberg was Vice President of Global Online Sales and Operations at Google. She also was involved in launching Google’s philanthropic arm Google.org. If anyone knows about technology and leadership therefore it’s her.

In her speech at Barnard College in New York Sandberg urges the graduates to get beyond their own self-doubt. “Let the obstacles in your path be external not internal,” she says adding that “fortune does favor the bold and you’ll never know what you’re capable of if you don’t try.” But she also urges them to be aware of the fact they are privileged in that they have an opportunity to fundamentally change the world and that they should grab that opportunity with both hands.

Quotable quote: “Never let your fear overwhelm your desire”.

Author | Stuart Thomas

Stuart Thomas
Stuart is the editor-in-chief of Engage Me Online. After pursuing an MA in South African literature, he spent five years reporting on the global technology scene. Intrigued by the intersection of technology and work, he joined Engage Me as the editor-in-chief. He is a passionate runner, and recently ran... More

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