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10 Valuable Financial Lessons from the Best Commencement Speeches of All Time

May 12th, 2021 | 4 min. read

By Jacob Schroeder

financial lessons best commencement speeches

At the most basic level, college commencement speeches are intended to inspire and motivate graduates about to enter the “real world.” But these speeches often convey timeless pieces of wisdom that are relevant to anyone – including those 10, 20, 30 or even 40 years out of college.

These brilliant insights and observations can help shape our beliefs, ethics, careers, relationships and, yes, our finances. If you need some financial inspiration, the words from these 10 popular commencement speeches seamlessly double as valuable financial lessons.

1. David Foster Wallace, Kenyon College, 2005

In his oft-quoted "This Is Water" speech, the author urged grads to constantly question their preconceived notions and choose to see the world in a more positive light.

Most inspiring quote: “The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.…”

Financial translation: By framing things in the right way, you can make smarter choices with your money that lead to better outcomes. It can help you avoid rash decisions, such as impulse buying and making emotional investment changes. It can make you more content with what you have (what I have now is what I once wanted) and more dedicated to saving (to spend this money is to live a life I may not want, but to save is to eventually live the life I do want).

2. U.S. Navy Admiral William H. McRaven, University of Texas, 2014

Adm. McRaven’s commencement speech delivers important lessons based on basic SEAL training. Yet, what is most memorable is his focus on one small chore that can make a profound difference in the rest of your life.

Most inspiring quote: “If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.”

Financial translation: Small financial wins are of big importance. Paying off your credit cards each month, making your first 401(k) contribution, increasing your annual savings rate just a few percent each year, these small money moves greatly improve the likelihood of achieving your financial goals. The good news is that you don’t have to remember doing these things every morning. You can automate good financial behavior through automated deductions and contributions directly from your paycheck.

3. Sheryl Sandburg, UC Berkeley, 2016

In this deeply personal speech, the Facebook COO spoke of her husband’s tragic death to expound on how we can cope with loss and build resilience.

Most inspiring quote: "Not everything that happens to us happens because of us."

Financial translation: From a market crash to an untimely health issue, many things out of our control can impact our finances. Even the best plans are not invincible. The difference between those who succeed and those who don’t is an awareness of that fact and the perseverance to adapt yet stay the course.

4. George Saunders, Syracuse University, 2013

Short story writer and novelist urged graduates to adopt a simple but unfortunately rare practice: kindness.

Most inspiring quote: "What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness… Do all the other things, 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 it tested for monkey poop) – but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness."

Financial translation: One of the greatest things about building wealth is that it could also help make a difference in the lives of others, too. Be kind with your money. If you’re fortunate, you may find that you have more than you need. Giving to others can make a bigger difference in your own life thank you think.

5. J.K. Rowling, Harvard University, 2008

The author and creator of Harry Potter told Harvard's class of 2008 what she learned from her failures before achieving success.

Most inspiring quote: "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."

Financial translation: In work and investing, you need to take risks. Whether it is starting your own company or buying stocks, to ultimately be rewarded requires some level of risk. Without taking risks, you are guaranteed not to receive any kind of growth.

6. Toni Morrison, Wellesley College, 2004

Unlike many commencement speakers, the Nobel Prize-winning writer didn’t offer a specific path to follow. Instead, she asked grads to create their own narratives.

Most inspiring quote: "You are your own stories."

Financial translation: While most of us likely share some common financial goals – retirement, owning a home, etc. – the goals that make a real difference in our lives are personal. They are the one that allows us to lead the kind of life we want. Academic research indicates that setting goals provides two big advantages: it increases motivation and increases achievement.

7. Conan O’Brien, Dartmouth College, 2011

Soon after the late-night host controversially lost “The Tonight Show” job, he gave Dartmouth College a hilarious address providing advice on successfully navigating humiliation and defeat.

Most inspiring quote: "I am here to tell you that whatever you think your dream is now, it will probably change. And that's okay."

Financial translation: A good financial plan is dynamic. After all, life changes, which means your financial goals change, too. The purpose of a plan is to continuously work toward or preserve the life you want. So, it can change as market conditions, government policy, economic factors and personal financial conditions make it necessary to change.

8. Ellen DeGeneres, Tulane University, 2009

The Emmy-winning talk show host and comedian encouraged Tulane’s graduating class to stay true to themselves.

Most inspiring quote: "It was so important for me to lose everything because I found what the most important thing is. The most important thing is to be true to yourself."

Financial translation: Constantly following others or comparing your life to others means giving in to someone else's vision of your life. You could find yourself on the dreaded hedonic treadmill, always striving for bigger and better things to keep up with the Joneses.

9. Richard Feynman, Caltech, 1974

The Nobel laureate and physicist memorably warned Caltech graduates that they are not as smart as they may think.

Most inspiring quote: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.”

Financial translation: Researchers in the field of behavioral finance have identified a wide variety of cognitive biases that affect our relationship with money. These biases, along with our emotions, often cause us to take actions that are not in our best interest. Adopting healthy money habits can lead to better financial decisions. It is one of many benefits of working with a financial adviser. Your financial adviser acts as a barrier between you and costly mistakes.

10. Steve Jobs, Stanford University, 2005

One year after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, the late Apple founder and innovator called upon Stanford graduates to live each day as if it were their last.

Most inspiring quote: "Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose."

Financial translation: Once you achieve the ability to realize your dreams and goals, live and enjoy the fruits of your labor while you can. Saving and investing for decades makes little sense if you become too worried about spending that money on all the things you had planned on doing someday. That someday is now; it may not be tomorrow.