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From SRK to Steve Jobs: Speeches to inspire you

June 18, 2013 08:39 IST

Image: Steve Jobs
Photographs: Lucas Jackson/Reuters

We bring you excerpts from some of the most powerful and inspiring graduation speeches by the likes of Larry Page, Steve Jobs, Azim Premji and Shah Rukh Khan.

When you're standing at the threshold of your career, wondering what lies ahead, a few wise words can go a long way towards shaping the path you're going to take.

In the following pages, we bring you advice, anecdotes, experiences and poignant quotes from some of the best graduation speeches ever made by world-famous personalities, all stalwarts in their respective fields. Read on...

The late Steve Jobs, Co-Founder, former Chairman and CEO, Apple Inc

When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: "If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you'll most certainly be right."

It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: "If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?"

And whenever the answer has been "no" for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.

Because almost everything -- all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure -- these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.

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

You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

-- Excerpted from Steve Jobs' commencement address at Stanford University in 2005

To read this speech in its entirety, click here

Larry Page, Co-Founder and CEO of Google

Image: Larry Page
Photographs: Stansfield/Wikimedia Commons

I have a story about following dreams. Or maybe more accurately, it's a story about finding a path to make those dreams real.

You know what it's like to wake up in the middle of the night with a vivid dream?

And you know how, if you don't have a pencil and pad by the bed to write it down, it will be completely gone the next morning?

Well, I had one of those dreams when I was 23. When I suddenly woke up, I was thinking: what if we could download the whole web, and just keep the links and...I grabbed a pen and started writing!

Sometimes it is important to wake up and stop dreaming. I spent the middle of that night scribbling out the details and convincing myself it would work.

Soon after, I told my advisor, Terry Winograd, it would take a couple of weeks to download the web -- he nodded knowingly, fully aware it would take much longer but wise enough to not tell me.

The optimism of youth is often underrated!

Amazingly, I had not 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!

-- Excerpted from Larry Page's speech to the Class of 2009 at the University of Michigan

Conan O'Brien, American TV host and actor

Image: Conan O'Brien
Photographs: Stansfield/Wikimedia Commons

I took a lot of criticism, some of it deserved, some of it excessive, and, to be honest with you, it hurt like you would not believe. But I'm telling you all this for a reason.

I've had a lot of success. I've had a lot of failure.

I've looked good. I've looked bad.

I've been praised. And I've been criticised.

But my mistakes have been necessary.

I've dwelled on my failures today because, as graduates of Harvard, your biggest liability is your need to succeed, your need to always find yourself on the sweet side of the bell curve. Success is a lot like a bright white tuxedo.

You feel terrific when you get it, but then you're desperately afraid of getting it dirty, of spoiling it.

I left the cocoon of Harvard, I left the cocoon of Saturday Night Live, I left the cocoon of The Simpsons.

And each time it was bruising and tumultuous.

And yet every failure was freeing, and today I'm as nostalgic for the bad as I am for the good.

So that's what I wish for all of you -- the bad as well as the good.

Fall down. Make a mess. Break something occasionally.

Know that your mistakes are your own unique way of getting to where you need to be. And remember that the story is never over.

-- Excerpted from Conan O'Brien's speech at Harvard University on Class Day in 2000

Sheryl Sandberg, COO, Facebook

Image: Sheryl Sandberg
Photographs: Brian Snyder/Reuters

When I was first at Facebook, a woman named Lori Goler, a 1997 graduate of HBS, was working in marketing at eBay and I knew her kind of socially.

And she called me and said, "I want to talk with you about coming to work with you at Facebook. So I thought about calling you," she said, "and telling you all the things I'm good at and all the things I like to do. But I figured that everyone is doing that. So instead I want to know, what's your biggest problem and how can I solve it?"

My jaw hit the floor. I'd hired thousands of people up to that point in my career, but no one had ever said anything like that. I had never said anything like that.

Job searches are always about the job searcher, but not in Lori's case. I said, "You're hired. My biggest problem is recruiting and you can solve it." So Lori changed fields into something she never thought she'd do, went down a level to start in a new field and has since been promoted and runs all of the people operations at Facebook and has done an extraordinary job.

Lori has a great metaphor for careers. She says they're not a ladder; they're a jungle gym.

As you start your post-HBS career, look for opportunities, look for growth, look for impact, look for mission.

Move sideways, move down, move on, move off.

Build your skills, not your resume.

Evaluate what you can do, not the title they're going to give you.

Do real work.

Take a sales quota, a line role, an ops job, don't plan too much, and don't expect a direct climb.

If I had mapped out my career when I was sitting where you are, I would have missed my career.

-- Excerpted from Sheryl Sandberg's speech at Harvard Business School on May 23, 2012

To read this speech in its entirety, click here

Azim Premji, Chairman, Wipro Limited

Image: Azim Premji
Photographs: Monika Flueckiger/World Economic Forum

Take charge!

This was the first thought that came to me, when over four decades ago, I stepped into the Wipro factory at Amalner.

I was 21 and had spent the last few years in Stanford University Engineering School at California.

Many people advised me to take up a nice, cushy job rather than face the challenges of running a hydrogenated oil business.

Looking back, I am glad I decided to take charge instead. Essentially, leadership begins from within.

It is a small voice that tells you where to go when you feel lost. If you believe in that voice, you believe in yourself.

When it comes to choosing your careers, you have to take charge of your own destiny. 

-- Excerpted from Azim Premji's speech to graduates at IIT Delhi

To read this speech in its entirety, click here

Bill Gates, Co-Founder and Chairman, Microsoft

Image: Bill Gates
Photographs: Vincent Kessler/Reuters

My mother, who was filled with pride the day I was admitted at Harvard -- never stopped pressing me to do more for others.

A few days before my wedding she hosted a bridal event, at which she read aloud a letter about marriage that she had written to Melinda.

My mother was very ill with cancer at the time, but she saw one more opportunity to deliver her message, and at the close of the letter she said: "From those to whom much is given, much is expected."

When you consider what those of us here in this yard have been given -- in talent, privilege, and opportunity -- there is almost no limit to what the world has a right to expect from us.

In line with the promise of this age, I want to exhort each of the graduates here to take on an issue -- a complex problem, a deep inequity, and become a specialist on it.

If you make it the focus of your career, that would be phenomenal. But you don't have to do that to make an impact.

For a few hours every week, you can use the growing power of the Internet to get informed, find others with the same interests, see the barriers, and find ways to cut through them.

-- Excerpted from Bill Gates' commencement speech at Harvard University in 2007

Denzel Washington, actor

Image: Denzel Washington
Photographs: Tobias Schwarz/Reuters

Early in my career, I auditioned for a part in a Broadway musical. A perfect role for me, I thought -- except for the fact that I can't sing.

So I’m in the wings, about to go on stage but the guy in front of me is singing like Pavarotti and I am just shrinking getting smaller and smaller…

So I come out with my little sheet music and it was Just My Imagination by the Temptations, that’s what I came up with.

So I hand it to the accompanist, and she looks at it and looks at me and looks at the director, so I start to sing and they’re not saying anything. I think I must be getting better, so I start getting into it.

But after the first verse, the director cuts me off: “Thank you. Thank you very much, you’ll be hearing from me.”

The next part of the audition is the acting part. I figure, I can’t sing, but I know I can act.

But the guy I was paired with to do the scene couldn’t be more overdramatic and over-the top.

Suffice to say, I didn’t get the part.

But here’s the thing: I didn’t quit. I didn’t fall back.

I walked out of there to prepare for the next audition, and the next audition, and the next one. I prayed and I prayed, but I continued to fail, and I failed, and I failed.

But it didn’t matter. Because you know what? You hang around a barbershop long enough -- sooner or later you will get a haircut.

You will catch a break.

Last year I did a play called Fences on Broadway and I won a Tony Award. And I didn’t have to sing for it, by the way.

And here’s the kicker -- it was at the Court Theatre, the same theatre where I failed that first audition 30 years prior.

The point is, every graduate here today has the training and the talent to succeed.

But do you have guts to fail?

-Excerpted from Denzel Washington's commencement address to the Class of 2011 at the University of Pennsylvania

Narayan Murthy, Co-Founder and Executive Chairman, Infosys

Image: Narayan Murthy
Photographs: Rajesh Karkera/

Back in the 1960s, the odds of my being in front of you today would have been zero. Yet here I stand before you!

With every successive step, the odds kept changing in my favour, and it is these life lessons that made all the difference.

My young friends, I would like to end with some words of advice.

Do you believe that your future is pre-ordained, and is already set? Or, do you believe that your future is yet to be written and that it will depend upon the sometimes fortuitous events?

Do you believe that these events can provide turning points to which you will respond with your energy and enthusiasm?

Do you believe that you will learn from these events and that you will reflect on your setbacks? Do you believe that you will examine your successes with even greater care?

I hope you believe that the future will be shaped by several turning points with great learning opportunities.

In fact, this is the path I have walked to much advantage.

-- Excerpted from Narayan Murthy's speech to graduates at New York University's Stern School of Business on May 9, 2007

To read this speech in its entirety, click here

Shah Rukh Khan, actor

Image: Shah Rukh Khan
Photographs: Paresh Gandhi/

At an early age after my parents died...I equated poverty with failure.

I just didn't want to be poor.

So when I got a chance to act in films it wasn't out of any creative desire that I did was purely out of the fear of failure and poverty.

Most of the films I signed were discards of better-known actors and the producers could not find anyone else to do them. I did them all to make sure that I was working to avoid unemployment.

The timing or something was right, and that made them happen.

I became a big star...which means sometimes our success is not the direct result of our actions...Success just happens. Really.

It is accidental and we take credit for it...I know I have done this even out of embarrassment sometimes.

So I believe the true path to success is through the fear of failure.

If you aren't scared enough of failing, you are unlikely to succeed.

It's not pleasant to fail, it's tough.

All of us experience it. You will too if you haven't already. Use it to succeed.

-- Excerpted from Shah Rukh Khan's speech at Yale University, delivered in April 2012

To read this speech in its entirety, click here

J K Rowling, novelist

Image: J K Rowling
Photographs: Robert Spencer/Getty Images

I am nearly finished but I have one last hope for you, which is something that I already had at 21.

The friends with whom I sat on graduation day have been my friends for life.

They are my children's godparents, the people to whom I've been able to turn in times of trouble, people who have been kind enough not to sue me when I took their names for Death Eaters.

At our graduation we were bound by enormous affection, by our shared experience of a time that could never come again, and, of course, by the knowledge that we held certain photographic evidence that would be exceptionally valuable if any of us ran for Prime Minister.

So today, I wish you nothing better than similar friendships.

-- Excerpted from JK Rowling's speech at Harvard University in 2008