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5 business lessons from commencement speeches

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5 business lessons from commencement speeches

Updated: March 27th, 2020

5 business lessons from commencement speeches

As a business owner, you probably don’t look to college commencement speeches as a source of inspiration when you’re feeling frustrated or defeated — but you should. Of course, TED talks and podcasts are great ways to learn, but commencement speeches are also chock-full of evergreen business lessons that apply no matter your age or education level.

Here are five university commencement speeches delivered by successful individuals from a variety of fields. Their stories and sage words are guaranteed to motivate you and encourage you to think critically about your business.

1. Embrace failure / J.K. Rowling, Harvard University, 2008

In this insightful speech, famed author J.K. Rowling talks about the inherent value of failure — namely that it helps you succeed. Drawing on her experience as a poor single mother struggling to publish her first book, Rowling explains that failure can be a driving force: one that liberates you from fear and motivates you to pursue what you want most.

As she puts it, “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.” Take a cue from Rowling and embrace your business failures as opportunities to grow and become bolder.

2. Get comfortable with change / Jimmy Iovine, USC, 2014

Music mogul Jimmy Iovine’s main advice is to get comfortable with change and the fear that comes with it.

In his speech, Iovine explains that he learned his greatest life lesson when he realized the successful record company he built couldn’t compete with the new industry model of downloading free music. He had a choice: get on board or get left behind. In today’s fast-moving world, one with seemingly infinite technological advancements and cultural shifts, he explains that you need to be prepared to learn, adapt, and start over if necessary.

3. Build businesses that do good / Bill Gates, Harvard University, 2007

Bill Gates, investor, philanthropist, and founder of Microsoft, uses this speech to pose a question he asks himself: How can you do the most good for the greatest amount of people with the resources you have?

For years, Gates was unaware of the millions of people around the world living in poverty and battling diseases. Once he realized he could help, he changed his approach to business. Pursuing innovation and advancement is important, but he argues it’s more important to develop creative business models that turn profits and solve problems. Gates tells Harvard, “Humanity’s greatest advances are not in its discoveries — but in how those discoveries are applied to reduce inequity.”

4. Spend less time dreaming and more time doing / Shonda Rhimes, Dartmouth, 2014

If you feel overwhelmed or paralyzed by the dreams you have for your business, this funny, candid speech will set you straight.

Author, screenwriter, and TV show producer Shonda Rhimes tells the Dartmouth graduates, “While [some] are busy dreaming, the really happy people, the really successful people, the really interesting, engaged, powerful people, are busy doing.” Dreaming is only effective if you follow it up with action — whether you’re brainstorming a new business model or imagining how to grow your company. You don’t even need to know exactly what you want to do. Rhimes says the most important thing is to stay open to possibilities and just start somewhere.

5. View setbacks as opportunities / Steve Jobs, Stanford University, 2005

This powerful speech from the late Steve Jobs (entrepreneur, Apple founder, and tech icon) will resonate no matter where you’re at in your career.

Sharing stories from three pivotal events in his life — enrolling in a calligraphy course, getting fired from Apple, and receiving a cancer diagnosis — Jobs explains that it’s your setbacks that often lead you to success. He encourages the audience to approach every obstacle as an opportunity to learn, but mostly to pursue the work you’re passionate about. He says, “The only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”

Successful business owners are always willing to learn and evolve. Whether you look to podcasts, past teachers, fellow business owners, or famous commencement speeches, you can find valuable lessons — about fear, change, growth, and purpose — anywhere.


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