College graduation season is a hopeful, forward-looking time for millions of people. Commencement addresses typically deal in platitudes telling graduates that if they believe in their dreams they can do anything. But the most valuable advice for entrepreneurs often comes from those who understand what it really takes to strike out on your own.
While not everyone on our list is an entrepreneur in the traditional sense, each are wildly successful pioneers in their industries. From billionaire author J.K. Rowling's lessons in failure to Google Chairman Eric Schmidt's advice to say "yes" more, the insights in the following speeches are sure to motivate, no matter what stage your business is in.
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Don't waste your time. -- Steve Jobs
At Jobs's 2005 Stanford commencement address, the Apple founder gave advice that hits home for many entrepreneurs: Your time is short. Don't waste it working on someone else's dream.Instead, focus on making your dream a reality.
"Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice."
Related: Hyper-Curious and Willing to Fail: How You Can Be More Like Steve Jobs
Bring your whole self to work.-- Sheryl Sandberg
A few months before Sandberg told women to "Lean In" in her popular book, Facebook's chief operating officer included strong messages about gender equality in leadership positions in her 2012 commencement address to Harvard Business School graduates. She encouraged both men and women to be authentic at work.
"Bring your whole self to work. I don't believe we have a professional self Monday through Friday and a real self the rest of the time. It is all professional, and it is all personal."
Disappointment is inevitable. -- Conan O'Brien
After his public departure from hosting NBC's Tonight Show in 2010, O'Brien delivered the commencement address at Dartmouth in 2011. Following a year spent reinventing himself and his career, he advised graduates that disappointments are inevitable. But from those failures we learn what we are really capable of, he said.
"Whether you fear it or not, disappointment will come. The beauty is that through disappointment you can gain clarity, and with clarity comes conviction and true originality."
Don't wait for perfection. -- Guy Kawasaki
Kawasaki, the renowned author, investor and entrepreneur, addressed Atherton, Calif-based Menlo College graduates in 2012 with a top-10 list of lessons he's learned in his more than 30 years in business. Among his advice: Embrace both change and PowerPoint, and pursue joy not happiness. He also offered a valuable lesson for entrepreneurs: Getting it right takes a lot of trial and error, so you shouldn’t waste time seeking perfection.
"Don't wait for perfection. Life isn't perfect. Do the best you can and ship. Real people ship, and then they test and then they ship again. Then you wake up one day and you have something insanely great."
Do what you love. -- Jerry Yang
At the University of Hawaii's commencement in 2009, Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang gave a bullet-pointed list of advice perfectly suited for budding entrepreneurs. While sharing how he created Yahoo in a trailer with David Filo, he revealed that the idea was born out of a discovery they made while they should have been working on their graduate research. He encouraged others to let go of their plans andto follow something they feel passionately about.
"If you find something that feels right but doesn't seem to fit into your master plan, take a chance, and commit to it by working hard. You shouldn't be afraid to let passion get behind the wheel.You might really love where you end up."
Be prepared to fail. -- J.K. Rowling
Rowling, author of the popular Harry Potter series, spoke to Harvard's 2008 graduating class about at topic she admitted most of them likely hadn't had much experience with: failure. The billionaire said she was living in poverty when she decided to follow her dream of writing novels. Her lesson is one that all entrepreneurs should take to heart: If you never fail, you aren't taking enough risks.
"I was set free because my greatest fear was realized. Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well have not lived at all, in which case you fail by default."
Success isn't always vertical. -- Reid Hoffman
In his 2012 commencement speech at Boston's Babson College, LinkedIn co-founder Hoffman touted the importance of the entrepreneurial spirit. While stressing the importance of building a wide network, Hoffman pointed out that success will likely not resemble climbing a ladder as many grew up to believe.
"Success…is no longer a simple ascension of steps. You need to climb sideways and sometimes down, and sometimes you need to swing from the jungle gym and establish your own turf somewhere else on the playground."
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What you do does not define who you are. -- Chris Gardner
After ripping up his prepared speech and cracking jokes, entrepreneur and motivational speaker Gardner gave an emotional address at the University of California, Berkeley Commencement in 2009. Gardner's 2006 autobiography The Pursuit of Happyness, which was made into a movie of the same name, chronicled his struggles as a homeless single father. Speaking to graduates facing a dismal job market, he encouraged them to seek the intangible rewards of relationships and personal fulfillment over financial success.
"There is an opportunity to create a new vision of the American Dream. A new vision that says achieving balance in your life is more important than the balance in your checking account…A new vision that says what you do does not define who you are."
Make excellence your brand. -- Oprah Winfrey
The former talk-show host and founder of the OWN network addressed the 2012 class of Atlanta's Spelman College in her trademark no-nonsense way, quoting from The Color Purple and referencing Taco Bell. Winfrey, a woman whose name itself is an instantly recognizable brand, stressed the importance of service and integrity over fame when building your own brand.
"Let excellence be your brand… When you are excellent, you become unforgettable. Doing the right thing, even when nobody knows you're doing the right thing will always bring the right thing to you."
Say "yes" often. -- Eric Schmidt
The executive chairman of Google addressed graduates at his alma mater, the University of California, Berkeley, in 2012. Schmidt encouraged everyone to think like entrepreneurs and cultivate an innovative mindset. With that spirit of trying new things, he promoted the power of saying "yes" to more of life's invitations.
"Find a way to say 'yes' to things, even if it's outside of your comfort zone. 'Yes' lets you stand out in a crowd. 'Yes' is a very tiny word that allows you to do very big things. Say it often."