They're the speeches given to US university students just before they graduate – but the advice they contain applies to anyone. We've rounded up five inspiring commencement speeches to help you whether you’re looking for a new direction, or just need some inspiration now you’re back at your desk.
"Don't be afraid to fail" – JK Rowling spoke to Harvard University students in 2008
“I think it's fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears that my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.
“Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution. I had no idea then how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.
“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 for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.”
"Your definition of success will change" – Ellen DeGeneres spoke to Tulane students in 2009
“When I was younger I thought success was something different. I thought when I grow up, I want to be famous. I want to be a star. I want to be in movies. When I grow up I want to see the world, drive nice cars, I want to have groupies. To quote the Pussycat Dolls. How many people thought it was 'boobies', by the way? It's not, it's 'groupies'.
“But my idea of success is different today. And as you grow, you'll realise the definition of success changes. For many of you, today, success is being able to hold down 20 shots of tequila.
“For me, the most important thing in your life is to live your life with integrity and not to give into peer pressure to try to be something that you're not, to live your life as an honest and compassionate person, to contribute in some way. So to conclude my conclusion, follow your passion, stay true to yourself. Never follow anyone else's path, unless you're in the woods and you're lost and you see a path and by all means you should follow that. Don't give advice, it will come back and bite you in the arse. Don't take anyone's advice. So my advice to you is to be true to yourself and everything will be fine.”
“It’s ok not to have a plan” – author Anne Patchett gave this speech to students at Sarah Lawrence College in 2006
“If all fairy tales begin, ‘Once upon a time’, then all graduation speeches begin, ‘when I was sitting where you are now’. We may not always say it, at least not in those exact words but it’s what graduation speakers are thinking. We look out at the sea of you and think: Isn’t there some mistake? I should still be sitting here. I was that young fifteen minutes ago, I was that beautiful and lost.
“Time has a funny way of collapsing when you go back to a place you once loved. You find yourself thinking, I was kissed in that building, I climbed up that tree. This place hasn’t changed so terribly much, and so by an extension of logic, I must not have changed much either.
“Coming back is the thing that enables you to see how all the dots in your life are connected, how one decision leads you to another, how one twist of fate, good or bad, brings you to a door that later takes you to another door, which aided by several detours — long hallways and unforeseen stairwells — eventually puts you in the place you are now. Every choice lays down a trail of bread crumbs, so that when you look behind you there appears to be a very clear path that points straight to the place where you now stand. But when you look ahead there isn’t a bread crumb in sight — there are just a few shrubs, a bunch of trees, a handful of skittish woodland creatures. You glance from left to right and find no indication of which way you’re supposed to go. And so you stand there, sniffing at the wind, looking for directional clues in the growth patterns of moss, and you think, What now?
“Sometimes not having any idea of where we’re going works out better than we could possibly have imagined.”
“In the end we are our choices” – Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, spoke to Princeton students in 2010
"Tomorrow, in a very real sense, your life – the life you author from scratch on your own – begins. How will you use your gifts? What choices will you make? Will inertia be your guide, or will you follow your passions? Will you follow dogma, or will you be original? Will you choose a life of ease, or a life of service and adventure? Will you wilt under criticism, or will you follow your convictions?
Will you bluff it out when you're wrong, or will you apologise? Will you guard your heart against rejection, or will you act when you fall in love? Will you play it safe, or will you be a little bit swashbuckling? When it's tough, will you give up, or will you be relentless? Will you be a cynic, or will you be a builder? Will you be clever at the expense of others, or will you be kind?
“I will hazard a prediction. When you are 80 years old, and in a quiet moment of reflection narrating for only yourself the most personal version of your life story, the telling that will be most compact and meaningful will be the series of choices you have made. In the end, we are our choices. Build yourself a great story.”
"Don't live someone else's life" – Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, gave this address to Stanford University graduates in 2005
"No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to Heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.
"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 others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition ... Stay hungry, Stay foolish."