8 Pieces of Advice About the Creative Life From 2022 Commencement Speeches by Taylor Swift, Thelma Golden, and More

Here are some words of wisdom for the next generation of artists, writers, and curators.

Members of the class of 2022 at Otis College of Art and Design, Los Angeles, learn that their student loans will be repaid courtesy of Snapchat cofounder Evan Spiegel and model Miranda Kerr. Photo courtesy of Otis College of Art and Design, Los Angeles.

It’s that time of year again. Students are graduating and commencement speeches have been written to inspire a new generation of artists, academics, curators and writers. At many schools, these are the first in-person commencement events to be held in at least two years, and guest speakers hope to congratulate and celebrate a graduating class that have risen to meet unparalleled challenges, including a global pandemic and fast-paced social change.

Perhaps the most notable commencement speaker this year was pop star Taylor Swift, who started her music career at the age of 15 and did not attend college, but was given an honorary doctorate in fine arts by New York University. In a speech that went viral, she encouraged the 2022 graduation class to embrace “cringe.”

The writer Roxane Gay also received an honorary doctorate from the School of Visual Arts in New York, where she drew on an installation she saw at the Frieze New York art fair in her speech. She told students about Trigger Planting, which featured a garden wall of plants that can induce an abortion, placed on a map of the U.S. where the medical procedure is at risk. “And when you look, you realize just how many people in this country are on the verge of losing one of their most essential human rights,” Gay said. “These artists see what’s coming, they see what’s happening, and they are responding with power.”

And in an extremely generous gesture, Snapchat founder Evan Spiegel and his wife, model Miranda Kerr, paid off the student debt of the graduating class at the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, where he attended summer school when he was 15 years old. The total amount is thought to have exceeded $10 million.

Here are eight pieces of life advice from the most memorable, creative commencement speeches of 2022:


Taylor Swift at New York University

Taylor Swift delivers the New York University 2022 commencement address at Yankee Stadium on May 18, 2022. Photo: Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images.

“I became a young adult while being fed the message that if I didn’t make any mistakes, all the children of America would grow up to be perfect angels. However, if I did slip up, the entire earth would fall off its axis and it would be entirely my fault and I would go to pop star jail forever and ever. It was all centered around the idea that mistakes equal failure and ultimately, the loss of any chance at a happy or rewarding life. This has not been my experience.

My experience has been that my mistakes led to the best things in my life. And being embarrassed when you mess up is part of the human experience. Getting back up, dusting yourself off and seeing who still wants to hang out with you afterward and laugh about it? That’s a gift.”

—Taylor Swift, singer and songwriter


Thelma Golden at the New School, New York 

Thelma Golden speaking at the New School commencement ceremonies. Photo: courtesy the New School.

“You are stepping into an uncertain world in the midst of so many attacks on much of what we all hold dear and true, but you know all of this as you all have been living and studying through this all and this is the world you have inherited. It’s what you have been learning about, what you have absorbed and what you have been thinking about artistically and intellectually and what you have experienced and now it is up to you to lend your voice and your vision to change.”

—Thelma Golden, director and chief curator at The Studio Museum in Harlem


Roxane Gay at the School of Visual Arts, New York

Writer and 2022 SVA commencement keynote speaker Roxane Gay. Photo: Joseph Sinnott.

“Normally, with a commencement speech, you give some sort of uplifting and inspirational advice, and I think that’s important. But I think there is also a lot going on in the world… And you may wonder what the politics of abortion has to do with this significant moment in your lives. What I’m trying to talk to you about is the importance of seeing. Lately, when I go online to read the news or browse social media, I feel like we are teetering on the verge of dystopia. This kind of nightmarish future that we tend to see in science-fiction novels and bad movies. Only the state of the world is not fiction. The confluence of crises that we are facing is very real.”

—Roxane Gay, writer, editor and educator


Jelani Cobb, at Cooper Union, New York

Jelani Cobb speaking at the Cooper Union commencement ceremonies. Photo: courtesy of Cooper Union.

Today also marks the second anniversary of the social storms that emerged in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, a defining moment not only in our college years but in our society at large. You have all seen a great deal… Resilience is the durability that sustains us in difficult times, allowing us to navigate life despite the tempests swirling around us, we have increasingly come to recognize the value of this quality in recent years.”

—Jelani Cobb, staff writer at New Yorker magazine


Evan Spiegel, at the Otis College of Art and Design, Los Angeles

Snapchat co-founder Evan Spiegel and wife Miranda Kerr receive an honorary Doctorate at the Otis College of Art and Design commencement ceremonies. Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times, via Getty Images.

“Learning how to give and receive feedback is the foundation of personal growth and, as Otis quickly taught me, as Linus Pauling said the best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas… You have everything you need to pursue your dreams.”

—Evan Spiegel, founder of Snapchat


Joan Semmel, at the New York Academy of Art

Joan Semmel speaking at the New York Academy of Art commencement ceremonies. Photo: courtesy of the New York Academy of Art.

“I looked for an artist community with whom I could identify, art-worker coalition groups were open to all and met regularly so one could get a feel of the current art scene there. I met many artists, writers and many women artists. The women’s movement in the art world was just beginning and my time living in a dictatorship made me sensitive to the personal consequences of authoritarian systems and the restrictive position of women within that society… We would gather each week at different studios where we could see each other’s work. Very few women were able to get visibility in the gallery and museum world…”

—Joan Semmel, artist


Wayne Shorter at Calarts, Los Angeles

Wayne Shorter speaking to graduating students at Calarts via Zoom. Photo: courtesy of Calarts.

“Did you ever notice that when we had change—dimes, nickels and pennies—and you had some change on the table, it would fall off the table and nine times out of ten you could get the nickel, even the dime, although it was small, but the penny would always roll all the way underneath some table or something like that in the corner, and you had to get down on your knees to retrieve the penny. Nine times out of ten you’d think: ‘Well a penny is not worth anything.’ But to me, that’s a dialogue that we have with nature and the dialogue is always trying to tell us that real truth about something that we think has no value.” 

—Wayne Shorter, saxophonist


Adam Sandler at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, New York

Actor and comedian Adam Sandler speaking at NYU Tisch School of the Arts 2022 commencement. Photo: Adam Sandler via Instagram.

“I’ll tell you why we Tisch graduates chose to not play it safe and dedicate ourselves to the arts, Dad, and all the rest of you doubters out there. We Tischies chose this life because deep in our souls we have this burning urge to move people. It cannot be denied. We want to make people laugh, make people cry, make people think, make people feel, inspire people…

We just want to give our fellow humans an escape from this increasingly psychotic world we live in.  And if you’re like me, the biggest reason we Tischies chose the arts is because we literally can’t do anything else. What was I gonna do, become an investment banker? I can’t even find my wallet three times a week.”

—Adam Sandler, actor and comedian


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