06/26/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Graduating From Our Great Recession: What We Can Learn From Famous Commencement Speakers (VIDEO)

A teacher I know mentioned that he was counting the days until the end of the school year. Already? It was a reminder that as the school year winds down, the season of commencement speeches is about to begin. While I skipped my college graduation ceremony, at midlife I find myself inspired and nourished by the journeys that others dare to share at the commencement podium.

In fact, as we climb out of the Great Recession, we are all commencing, graduating into a new world. What will we make of it and ourselves? A mashup of Steve Jobs, JK Rowling and Paul Hawken's commencement insights help us make better choices for our lives, our economy, and the planet we rely on.

In "How to Live Before You Die," Apple co-founder Steve Jobs tells three stories: Of life, death and the journey in between. Do what you love, he urges the Stanford Class of 2005. Easy, right? Listen, and you'll hear the courage it took to follow his own guidance, dropping out of college when the expectations of society and his loved ones clearly laid out different instructions. Somehow, he turned the volume down on the external signals, and followed his internal navigation system. Even when he had no idea where it would lead.

Much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on. Even though it seemed to have no practical application at the time," he says. "You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something -- your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life."

JK Rowling takes the Harvard class of 2008 on a journey framed by the forbidden F-word: Failure. We're not all destined to be JK Rowling, but we're all destined to fail - at some point. Whether we choose to follow our heart, or ignore our heart. Be cautious or be bold. Any way we approach it, at some point, failure is as sure as taxes and death. Just not as final.

So what do we do with our failures, if we choose to label them as such? That's the reason to watch "The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination."

JK Rowling's failure in her younger years, her descent into poverty, was neither comfortable nor easy. It was desperate. But the future author of the Harry Potter series found herself set free from expectation, hers and others.

I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

During this Great Recession, so many of the illusions of 'safety' and practicality have fallen away. From this time of societal failure, we are learning many lessons, including one of the great principles of nature: We're all interconnected, whether or not we think we are. Toxic assets travel the same route as toxic pollution -- around the world, and back at us.

When we fail to act with respect for others, we create a financial system that fractures. When we act without a respect for nature, we jeopardize our life support system. That's an unacceptable outcome, or as Greenpeace reminds us, Earth is Too Big to Fail.

As we rebuild, Paul Hawken, the eco-visionary and co-author of Natural Capitalism, calls upon us to reach for a different set of rules. He asks us to follow the wisdom of nature to rebuild ourselves, our economy and the health of our life support system. You are Brilliant and the Earth Is Hiring, Hawken tells the University of Portland class of 2009.

You can print money to bail out a bank but you can't print life to bail out a planet. At present we are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it gross domestic product. We can just as easily have an economy that is based on healing the future instead of stealing it.

And, in the process, we get to be aware of the true wealth we have.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars only came out once every thousand years. No one would sleep that night, of course. The world would create new religions overnight. We would be ecstatic, delirious, made rapturous by the glory of God. Instead, the stars come out every night and we watch television ... The first living cell came into being nearly 40 million centuries ago, and its direct descendants are in all of our bloodstreams. Literally you are breathing molecules this very second that were inhaled by Moses, Mother Teresa and Bono. We are vastly interconnected. Our fates are inseparable.

Like Steve Jobs, Paul Hawken knows we can't predict the fruit of our work before we undertake it. We can't connect the dots going forward.

"Here's the deal: Forget that this task of planet-saving is not possible in the time required. Don't be put off by people who know what is not possible. Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it was impossible only after you are done."

There's one other favorite. It's not a graduation speech but a video of Matt Harding dancing around the world, connecting people across continents one awkwardly fun dance step at a time, one smile at a time. Matt is not a world famous entrepreneur, or author or eco-visionary. He is a guy who followed his heart and showed us the exuberance of our interconnectedness.

A friend once said that the opposite of fear is love. It took me awhile to get that. But I believe that once we let go of our unnecessary fears, we are free to act from love -- for ourselves, each other and the profoundly wondrous planet we share. That's how to live before we die.

Diane Dulken is a Portland, Oregon-based communications and marketing strategist who works with public interest organizations and businesses building a sustainable economy.