Three Great Commencement Speeches by Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and J.K. Rowling

Steve Jobs: “Don’t waste your time living someone else’s life”

Steve Jobs cofounded Apple Computer Inc. at age 21 in 1976, got fired in 1985, and returned in 1997 to lead one of the most remarkable corporate turnarounds in business history. The product and marketing visions he has since executed have elevated him to the status of a business and media superstar. Steve Jobs had a cancerous pancreatic tumor removed in 2004 and underwent a liver transplant in 2009.
In his 2005 commencement address (transcript, video) at Stanford University, Steve Jobs urged graduates to pursue their dreams and fulfill the opportunities in life’s setbacks:
  • Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith. I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love. … Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and 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. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.
  • Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

Bill Gates: “Address the world’s deepest inequities”

Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft and Corbis, is currently the world’s most influential philanthropist. His Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has donated billions of dollars to world health causes, particularly toward the eradication of infectious diseases.
In his 2007 commencement address (transcript, video) at Harvard University, Bill Gates urged graduates to discover and help solve the health and social inequalities that the world faces:

  • I left Harvard with no real awareness of the awful inequities in the world — the appalling disparities of health, and wealth, and opportunity that condemn millions of people to lives of despair. … Humanity’s greatest advances are not in its discoveries — but in how those discoveries are applied to reduce inequity. Whether through democracy, strong public education, quality health care, or broad economic opportunity — reducing inequity is the highest human achievement.
  • If you believe that every life has equal value, it’s revolting to learn that some lives are seen as worth saving and others are not. … I hope you will come back here to Harvard 30 years from now and reflect on what you have done with your talent and your energy. I hope you will judge yourselves not on your professional accomplishments alone, but also on how well you have addressed the world’s deepest inequities … on how well you treated people a world away who have nothing in common with you but their humanity.

J.K. Rowling: “The benefits of failure”

J.K. Rowling, the celebrated author of the Harry Potter series of fantasy novels, is a classic “rags to riches” life success story. At the age of 28, as a depressed, unemployed single mother who lived on welfare, J.K. Rowling started writing the first Harry Potter book at a café. Within five years, thanks to the success of Harry Potter, she rose from obscurity to literary prominence and became a billionaire.
In her 2008 commencement address (transcript, video) at Harvard University, J.K. Rowling urges graduates to persist through failures and despondency:
  • 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. … Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.
  • Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.
  • The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity.
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