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The Most Inspiring Advice From 2019 Commencement Speeches

Take it from Oprah Winfrey, Missy Elliott and Stacey Abrams. (Photo: Getty Images)

When the school year ends, advice season begins. Graduating college seniors are often inundated with advice on where to live, what job to take and whom to become. 

What your distant relative says you should do may not carry the same weight as suggestions from the people who actually lived the career you want. Below are the best lessons that famous entrepreneurs, politicians and artists want new graduates to know in 2019. 

Oprah Winfrey, media mogul: “What is this here to teach or show me?”

Oprah Winfrey (Photo: ASSOCIATED PRESS)

“My favorite question when in crisis is, ‘What is this here to teach or show me?’ Jeff Weiner, one of my friends and founder of LinkedIn, says that failure is what’s going to humble you. It helps you realize how fleeting success can be ― at least traditional measures of success ― because you realize that, to some extent, how it is just beyond your control and you invest less in it in terms of the way you define yourself.

“Success in terms of achieving objectives, in terms of manifesting a mission, in terms of manifesting a vision ― that’s all good, especially if what you do can create good in the world. But to the extent that you start to define yourself through traditional measures of success, to the extent that that’s your source of self-esteem, you’re destined to be unhappy because you cannot control it.” ― Colorado College commencement address

Stacey Abrams, former Georgia gubernatorial candidate: “Do not edit your desires.”

Stacey Abrams (Photo: ASSOCIATED PRESS)

“When you aim high, when you stretch beyond your easiest conceptions, the temptation to pare back your ambitions will be strong, especially when there are those who don’t share them. 

“Here me clearly: Do not edit your desires. You are here in this space, you are entering this world to want what you want, regardless of how big the dream. You may have to get there in stages, you may stumble along the way, but the journey is worth the work. And do not allow logic to be an excuse for setting low expectations. 

“You know, this occurs when we allow ourselves to be less because we think, ‘If it were possible, someone would have done this before.’ But the fact is no one can tell you who you are.” – American University School of Public Affairs commencement address 

Missy Elliott, rapper and songwriter: “As long as you are breathing, it is never too late.” 

Missy Elliott (Photo: Paul Marotta via Getty Images)

“I had 12 [awards] nominations one night and I had my speech written out. I was in the mirror the night before saying, ‘I wanna thank this person, I wanna thank Janet Jackson’... I ain’t never get to say that speech because I walked away with nothing. 

”... I became ill where I couldn’t even write. My nervous system shut down on me. I thought, ‘This was it, there is no need for me to keep going,’ but something in my spirit, the drive and the patience, because you have to have patience -– as long as you are breathing, it is never too late. People will tell you, ‘You are too old.’ People will tell you, ‘It will never work.’ But don’t believe that. Because I’m standing here today.” – Berklee College of Music commencement address

Ken Jeong, actor: “What is your Act 2?”

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Ken Jeong (Photo: NBC via Getty Images)

“You guys are all at the start of your story, of your film. And you guys are finishing up act one of your film and your story. Just asking you guys an open ended question: what is your Act 2? Everyone here has a different timeline. Everyone here has a unique story. Figure out what your Act 2 is and embrace the change, embrace the twists and the unexpected turns. There will be good and there will be bad, but embrace that, because you never know what happens.” – University North Carolina Greensboro commencement address

Bill Nye, science educator, television host: “Everyone you’ll ever meet knows something you don’t.” 

Bill Nye (Photo: Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

“Everyone you’ll ever meet knows something you don’t. Everyone. Farmers know things about plants that most of us, even botanists, never will. Bricklayers have an intimate knowledge of what it takes to lay bricks. Cooks know how to use copper bowls to control egg proteins, and that’s cool. Respect that knowledge and learn from others. It will bring out the best in them, and it will bring out the best in you.” ― Goucher College commencement address

Sonia Sotomayor, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court: “Education has a more important value than money.”

Sonia Sotomayor (Photo: ASSOCIATED PRESS)

“Education has a more important value than money. It is deeply important to our growth as people and as a community. I am often asked if I ever imagined as a child being on the Supreme Court, the highest court in the United States. ‘No,’ I say, ’When I was a child, my family was poor. No lawyer or judges lived in my neighborhood. I knew nothing about the Supreme Court. ... You cannot dream of becoming something you do not know about. You have to learn to dream big. Education exposes you to what the world has to offer, to the possibilities open to you.” – Manhattan College commencement address

Tim Cook, Apple CEO: “Don’t try to emulate the people who came before you to the exclusion of everything else.” 

Tim Cook (Photo: China News Service via Getty Images)

“When Steve [Jobs, Apple co-founder] got sick, I had hardwired my thinking to the belief that he would get better. I not only thought he would hold on, I was convinced, down to my core, that he’d still be guiding Apple long after I, myself, was gone.

“Then, one day, he called me over to his house and told me that it wasn’t going to be that way. Even then, I was convinced he would stay on as chairman. That he’d step back from the day to day but always be there as a sounding board. But there was no reason to believe that. I never should have thought it. The facts were all there. And when he was gone, truly gone, I learned the real, visceral difference between preparation and readiness.

“It was the loneliest I’ve ever felt in my life. ... All I knew was that I was going to have to be the best version of myself that I could be. I knew that if you got out of bed every morning and set your watch by what other people expect or demand, it’ll drive you crazy.

“So what was true then is true now. Don’t waste your time living someone else’s life. Don’t try to emulate the people who came before you to the exclusion of everything else, contorting into a shape that doesn’t fit.

“It takes too much mental effort – effort that should be dedicated to creating and building. You’ll waste precious time trying to rewire your every thought, and, in the meantime, you won’t be fooling anybody.” – Stanford University commencement address

Kristen Bell, actress: “Listen as fiercely as you want to be heard.”

Kristen Bell (Photo: Emma McIntyre via Getty Images)

“When you listen as fiercely as you want to be heard, when you respect the idea that you are sharing the Earth with other humans, and when you lead with your nice foot forward, you will win, every time. It might not be today, it might not be tomorrow, but it comes back to you when you need it. We live in an age of instant gratification, of immediate likes, and it is uncomfortable to have to wait to see the dividends of your kindness, but I promise you it will appear exactly when you need it.” – University of South California School of Dramatic Arts commencement address

Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany: “We need to be prepared to keep bringing things to an end in order to feel the magic of new beginnings.”

Angela Merkel (Photo: ASSOCIATED PRESS)

“The moment when you step out in the open is also a moment of risk taking. Letting go of the old is part of a new beginning. There is no beginning without an end, no day without night, no life without death. Our whole life consists of the difference, the space between beginning and ending. It is what lies in between that we call life and experience.

“I believe that time and time again, we need to be prepared to keep bringing things to an end in order to feel the magic of new beginnings and to make the most of opportunities. That was what I learned as a student, as a scientist, and it is what I experience now in politics. And who knows what life will bring after my time as a politician? That, too, is completely open. Only one thing is clear: It will again be something different and something new.” – Harvard University commencement address


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Downward-Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)

If you only do one yoga pose after a long day at work, make it a downward-facing dog, a holistic pose that stretches and strengthens many parts of the body. To come into the pose, move into an inverted "V' shape. With hands outstretched in front and you, lift the hips and ground the feet (at about hips-width apart) into the floor. Ground all the fingers into the floor and point them forward, bring your attention to the breath as you enjoy the stretch for 30-60 seconds. "It helps you lengthen and strengthen muscles in the body," says Vidya Bielkus, certified yoga teacher and co-founder of Health Yoga Life. "It reduces tension in the shoulders, relaxes the neck, and lets a little more blood flow get to the brain. You're also able to really stretch the legs, so if you're sitting all day, the legs are getting inactive." The pose is also great for stretching out the wrists and hands, which may become sore or tired from hours of typing.

Mountain Pose (Tadasana)

Counter a long day of contracting the back with this powerful back and chest-opening posture. Come to a comfortable standing position with feet hips-width apart, bring your hands up over your head with palms facing forward and thumbs hooked as you bend gently backwards and breathe deeply. "This is a powerful pose to free up tight chest muscles," Bielkus says.

Fish Pose (Matsyasana)

Fish pose is an excellent tension reducer, and can also be therapeutic for fatigue and anxiety, according to Yoga Journal. To come into the pose, sit up on your hips with legs stretched out together in front of you and toes pointed. Bring your hands under your hips and lean back to prop yourself up on your forearms. Then, lift the chest above the shoulders and drop the head back to the ground behind you. Breathe deeply and rest in the pose for 15-30 seconds. Fish pose "releases tension in the neck, throat, and head, helps stretch the chest muscles and opens up the lungs," Bielkus says.

Standing Forward Fold (Uttanasana)

A forward bend provides a soothing feeling of release -- making the pose therapeutic for stress and anxiety -- and with the added arm bind, this standing forward bend variation provides a deep shoulder stretch as well. Stand with your feet at hips-width distance, and slowly bend forward from the hips to come into the forward bend. To take the strain off the lower back, bend the knees slightly. Then, try adding an arm bind to stretch the shoulders: Interlace your hands at the lower back and stretch the arms over your head and hands towards the ground in front of you. For those with tight shoulders, hold a belt between your hands, allowing the shoulders to get a deep but less intense stretch. "By binding the hands, you also allow the arms to stretch and tight shoulders to relax," Bielkus says. "After sitting all day, it's a great idea to turn your world upside down and bring some blood back to the brain while getting a great stretch for the legs."

Cat & Cow Pose (Marjaryasana & Bitilasana)

Cat-cow tilts can be an effective headache reliever, in addition to opening up the back and stretching the spine. Start with hands and knees on the floor in a tabletop position with a neutral spine. On the inhale, round the spine and curve up into your cat pose (pictured above). On the exhale, arch the back and lift the chest to come into a cow pose. Repeat three to five times, focusing on the breath. "It also helps bring the neck back into the position over the spine -- people tend to protrude it forward, and this pose brings the vertebrae back to homeostasis," Bielkus says.

Bound Angle Pose (Baddha Konasana)

This pose helps to open the hips and ease sciatica discomfort that can be made worse by sitting for long periods. Sit up tall with the soles of the feet touching and knees spreading open, bringing the feet in toward the pelvis and clasping your hands around your feet. Flap the knees up and down several times like butterfly wings, then sit still and focus the weight of the hips and thighs into the floor, easing pain in the sciatic nerve. "The sciatic nerve starts in the lower back and runs down both leg, and sciatic nerve pain can occur when the nerve is somehow compressed," Bielkus says. "Long commutes and sitting for long periods of time exacerbates it."

Slow Neck Stretches

To counter neck discomfort from staring down at a keyboard or phone, Bielkus recommends a few repetitions of yogic slow neck stretches. Sitting in a cross-legged pose, lean the head to the right and extend the left arm and hand toward the ground until you feel a deep stretch on the left side of the neck. Breathe deeply and hold for a few breath cycles, repeating on the other side. You can also try standing in Mountain Pose and stretching the neck to one side, gently pulling with the same hand. "This can also easily be done standing anywhere, even in a cubicle," she says. "It eases neck tension and strain."

Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana)

"This pose is an accessible back bend for most people," Bielkus says. "It lengthens the spine, opens up the chest and counteracts sitting hunched over all day." Lying on the floor, put your hands on the ground slightly in front of you and tuck the elbows into the chest. Push up into your hands, lifting into a slight backbend and drawing the shoulders down. Turn your gaze upwards, and try not to take any tension into the face or jaw.

Half Pigeon Pose (Eka Pada Rajakapotasana)

The hips can get tight from long hours of sitting. To improve flexibility and range of motion in the hips, and open up the chest and shoulders, try a half pigeon pose. Start on your hands and knees in a tabletop position, sliding the right knee forward and left leg back, as pictured above, trying to bend the front leg at a 90-degree angle. Sit up tall, and on the exhale, hinge the chest forward and bring the arms out in front of you to feel a deep stretch. "A half pigeon is great for opening up the hips," Bielkus says. If you're particularly tight in the hips, try rolling up a blanket under the hips and sitting upright, and then gently hinging forward.

Child's Pose (Balasana)

"Child's pose helps us turn inside and slow our minds down," Virayoga founder Elena Brower recently told The Huffington Post. The foundational resting pose in many yoga classes, the soothing Child's Pose can help put the mind at ease while also gently opening up the back, hips and shoulders, according to Bielkus. Sit down with your legs folded beneath you, toes touching and knees spread apart from each other. Drape your chest down between your thighs, bringing your forehead to the floor and either extending the arms out in front of you or resting them by your sides. Breathe deeply and rest in the pose for as long as desired.

Happy Baby Pose (Ananda Balasana)

"This pose opens the hips and groin and is very calming for the mind and body," Bielkus says. Happy Baby Pose is accessible even for beginners, but still provides an excellent stretch for the hip joints, which can get stiff from too much sitting. Lie down on your back, draw the knees into your chest and grab your feet from the inside, pulling them down so the knees extend on either side of your torso. If the stretch is too intense, grab behind your thighs. Try to bring the hips down to the floor. Breathe deeply and rock gently side to side, returning to stillness at your center for 30 seconds.

Sitali Breathing

This cooling breath is the perfect antidote to a long, stressful day. "It releases tension in body and mind, and helps us relieve stress and anger and brings us to a more balanced and clear state," says Bielkus. To perform this refreshing pranayama exercise, sit in a chair or on the floor in an easy crossed-legged position with your eyes closed. Stick your tongue out and curl up its outer edges. (If you're having trouble tongue curling, try your best and form a slight “O” with the mouth). Inhale through the mouth, letting the air pass over the tongue, feeling a cool breath, and then exhale through your nose. "Continue long rhythmic breathing for three minutes," she says. "You'll feel totally refreshed!"

This article originally appeared on HuffPost.