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Celebrity Advice for New Grads Goes Double for Business Leaders

Confession: Short of an in-depth Google search, I couldn’t recall a single piece of advice the speaker at my college graduation gave my classmates and me on that fateful day in May so many years ago.

Granted, the speaker wasn’t a celebrity like Stephen Colbert (no offense, whoever you were), but save for a few witty lines, I still doubt I’d remember much. I’m not proud of it, either, because I bet that advice would still apply to my professional life today.

With that in mind – and in honor of graduation season – I picked out a few takeaways from some of my favorite celebrity commencement speeches this year to see how they apply to professionals of all levels – not just new graduates.

Leadership Advice from 2011’s Celebrity Commencement Addresses

“There are few things more liberating than having your worst fear realized.”Conan O’Brien

O’Brien discussed his own professional disappointment over having his worst fear realized – getting his dream job of hosting The Tonight Show abruptly taken away from him – and using it as a jumping off point to try “a lot of silly, unconventional, spontaneous ridiculous and seemingly irrational things.” The result, he said, was “the most satisfying and fascinating year of my professional life.” He continued by saying, “if you accept your misfortune and handle it right, your perceived failure can become a catalyst for profound reinvention,” a belief that applies to anyone in any aspect of life – both personal and professional – before closing with, “Work hard, be kind, and good things will happen.” Amen, Coco.

“Be open to collaboration. Other people’s ideas are often better than your own.” – Amy Poehler

Poehler reminded the crowd at Harvard’s commencement ceremony that they all owe their successes to the people in their life who helped them get there. Her next piece of advice holds true for anyone at any level of their career – but perhaps especially for those who are actively hiring and interviewing people to add to their teams: “Find a group of people who challenge and inspire you. Spend a lot of time with them, and it will change your life.”

“Cultivate in them the faith to carry on, and they will take care of the rest.” – Tom Hanks

Though Hanks was advising the graduates of Yale on how to help war veterans make an easier transition to civilian life, he could have easily been telling managers how to lead their employees. He emphasize the need to work together to improve and unify the nation, mirroring the need for employers and employees to work together for the benefit the overall organization.

He also reminded all present for the speech that, even in the face of circumstances beyond our control, our success is determined by how we approach those challenges: “Each new day fear is…lurking in the darkness on the edge of town. Your rising from bed every morning will give fear its chance to grow stronger just as it will afford faith its chance to blossom. You will make the choice to react to one or create the other.”

You are not the most important person in the scene. Everyone else is.” – Stephen Colbert

Colbert equated the first lesson he ever learned from doing improv at Chicago’s Second City to life, reminding the crowd at Northwestern that great improv scenes happen when everyone on stage works to make their scene partners look good. “Try to love others and serve others and hopefully find those who love and serve you in return,” he later said. The same applies to leadership: If you treat your employees with respect and work to help them succeed, they’ll return the favor.

“There are no mistakes.” – Tina Fey

Like Colbert, Fey relayed the lessons she learned in improv comedy to the Fieldston 2011 graduating class, suggesting that they apply these lessons to life. Also like Colbert, Fey could easily have been speaking to talent managers when she advised them to view mistakes as opportunities.  “I think the idea of living in a world where there are no mistakes – there are only choices, and we move forward from our choices – is a pretty great world to live in.”

Tina Fey at Fieldston from Cyber Shepherd on Vimeo.

What 2011 celebrity commencement speeches were your favorites?

Mary Lorenz

About Mary Lorenz

Mary is a copywriter for CareerBuilder, specializing in B2B marketing and corporate recruiting best practices and social media. In addition to creating copy for corporate advertising and marketing campaigns, she researches and writes about employee attraction, engagement and retention. Whenever possible, she makes references to pop culture. Sometimes, those references are even relevant. A New Orleans native, Mary now lives in Chicago, right down the street from the best sushi place in the city. It's awesome.
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