The value of education can hardly be overestimated, although knowledge without experience can only take you so far. Graduating from college may be one of the most important days in your life, but it is also the beginning of the rest of your life, and each piece of advice you can get from those who have already walked the path on which you’re about to embark can get you a step closer to making your dreams come true.
Sometimes we just need a little inspiration to get to where we want to be, and even though the graduation ceremony may seem like the most unlikely place where you can get inspired, some of the greatest minds of our day and age have managed to do just that for generations of young people who were just starting their professional lives. That’s why I selected some of the best graduation speeches ever given that will hopefully provide you with the inspiration you need to achieve your goals.
My Top Ten Graduation Speeches
There is more than just one path that leads to success, and whether or not you will ever reach the end of that path depends on the choices you make along the way. Being happy and being successful are not always the same thing, and each of the graduation speeches I included in this article reflect this sentiment in one way or the other. So, here are my top ten graduation speeches.
1. Steve Jobs (Stanford, 2005)
Favorite Quote: You have to trust in something, your gut, destiny, life, karma or whatever.’
This is arguably one of the most inspirational speeches in history that follows three stories from Steve Jobs’ life. He stresses how important it was for him to find what he loved to do early in life and to continue doing what he believed in even when his goal seemed to be out of his reach.
The speech also emphasizes the importance of being curious, and the words ‘Stay hungry, stay foolish’ perfectly reflect this point. Moreover, Jobs explains that sometimes a bad thing can turn out to be good when viewed in retrospect.
Learn from your mistakes: ‘Sometimes life is going to hit you in the head with a brick, don’t lose faith’.
Everything is you do matters: ‘You can’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backward’.
Work Ethic: ‘The only way to do great work is to love what you do’.
2. Sheryl Sandberg (UC Berkeley, 2016)
Favorite Quote: I’ve learned that in the face of the void or in the face of any challenge you can choose joy’.
This heartfelt graduation speech provides advice on how to deal with hardship in life, as it takes you on an emotional roller-coaster. Experiencing disappointment and adversity should only make you more determined to lead a life filled with love and happiness.
She stresses that the things that challenge us also define us because the way we deal with the problems is what enables us to overcome them. The speech also highlights the importance of looking ahead in life, and to always search for opportunities even when it seems that you are out of options.
Remain an optimist: ‘When life sucks you under, you can kick against the bottom, find the surface and breathe again.’
Don’t be afraid to face the adversity: ‘It is the hard days, the days that challenge you to the very core that will determine who you are.
Allow yourself to grief: ‘The seeds of resilience are planted in the way we process the negative events of our lives.’
3. Will Ferrell (Harvard, 2003)
Favorite quote: ‘For the last four or for some of you five years, you’ve been living in the fantasy land.’
Unlike most graduation speeches that tend to tackle difficult topics, Will Ferrell’s graduation speech brings humor to an otherwise formal event. That is not to say that this speech doesn’t contain bits of wisdom that can be valuable in life, but rather that he delivers them in a humorous way.
He makes a clear distinction between the life Harvard’s students lead over the course of their studies and what awaits them after graduation. This is a lighthearted speech that will put a smile on your face and make you forget your troubles at least for a short while.
Life isn’t always what we want it to be: ‘I didn’t graduate from Harvard, in fact, I never even got a call back from admissions.’
4. Oprah Winfrey (Stanford, 2008)
Favorite quote: ‘The beautiful thing about learning is that nobody can take it from you.’
Oprah’s speech takes you through the three most important events of her life that defined the course of her career. She takes you through the ups and downs of her career and suggests that it is better to follow your instincts than to do something you don’t believe in.
The speech also covers the importance of learning from your mistakes and remaining strong while going through rough patches of the road. She also quotes Eckhart Tolle and says that we shouldn’t react against a bad situation but rather merge with it.
Do what you believe in: ‘If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it.’
Find your place in life: ‘And I don't know, but everybody today seems to want to be famous. But fame is a trip.’
5. David Foster Wallace (Kenyon College, 2005)
Favorite quote: ‘This is water. This is water.’
David Foster Wallace’s ‘This is Water’ speech lacks the inspirational undertone of the commencement speeches and instead examines the true value of education. The speech addresses the necessity of the ability to think for yourself and approach important issues in life from a critical standpoint.
He tackles the topics of freedom, mankind’s relationship with power and the very nature of the truth. This graduation speech wasn’t written for entertainment purposes, but to challenge the minds of graduates who are supposed to become the most prominent minds of their generation.
Question everything: ‘A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded.’
Seek the truth: ‘The capital-T Truth is about life before death.’
6. J.K Rowling (Harvard, 2008)
Favorite quotes: ‘You might never fail on the scale I did.’
One of the most celebrated writers of our time delivered a memorable graduation speech at Harvard and urged the graduates to be inventive and imaginative. Rowling also highlighted the importance of failure and pointed out that we all fail, whether we want to acknowledge it or not.
Moreover, she states that going through hardships secures our ability to survive forever and that it is impossible to get to know yourself until you are tested by adversity. She then celebrates the power of collective empathy and understanding among all people.
Take the responsibility for your actions: ‘There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction.’
Failure is a part of life: ‘Failure meant stripping away of the inessential.’
7. Neil Gaiman (University of the Arts, 2012)
Favorite quote: ‘The things I did because I was excited and wanted to see them exist in reality have never let me down and I never regretted the time I spent on any of them.’
Art school graduates shouldn’t miss this iconic speech delivered by the author of some of the best comic books ever made. He discusses his decision, not to be guided by the financial gain throughout his career, and the importance of remaining dedicated to the goal you have set for yourself.
He praises the artist’s unique ability to make art and to make a difference in the world through his or her work. Furthermore, he argues that success, like failure, brings its share of problems, and that most of us are not prepared to face these challenges.
Learn to improvise: ‘If you don’t know it is impossible, it is easier to do.’
Make mistakes: ‘Mistakes can be very useful’
8. John F. Kennedy (American University, 1963)
Favorite quote: ‘No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings’
John F. Kennedy is one of the greatest orators of the 20th century and his speeches have inspired entire generations around the globe. In this speech, Kennedy argues that a man is the architect of his own destiny and that all problems can be solved through persistence and determination.
He advocates that the issues that trouble the society cannot be solved by a revolution, but a gradual evolution and the desire to create a better world. Even though Kennedy gave this speech more than half a century ago, its messages are still very much accurate.
We make our own path: ‘Our problems are manmade, therefore they can be solved by men.’
9. Michelle Obama (City College of New York, 2016)
Favorite quote: ‘Talent and ambition know no distinctions of race, nationality, wealth or fame.’
This was the last commencement speech Michele Obama gave as the first lady, in which she encouraged the graduates to follow their dreams and to seek happiness in their lives. She reminds the auditorium that all men are created equal in dignity and rights and that we are all entitled to our civil rights.
She further celebrates diversity in her speech by saying that we should regard diversity as a resource and that being afraid of those who are different is morally wrong. Michele Obama’s speech is a testament to the principles on which democratic societies are built and a strong encouragement to young generations to pursue their dreams regardless of how big or small they are.
Work hard: ‘Graduates, no matter where you started you have all made it here today through the same combination of unyielding determination, sacrifice and a whole lot of hard work.’
10. Shonda Rhimes (Dartmouth College, 2014)
Favorite quotes: ‘Dreams are lovely. But they are just dreams. Fleeting, ephemeral, pretty. But dreams do not come true just because you dream them. It's hard work that makes things happen. It's hard work that creates change.’
Unlike so many graduation speeches, the one delivered by Shonda Rhimes at Dartmouth College back in 2014, doesn’t encourage the graduates to dream but to do. She says that as long as you keep moving forward, it doesn’t matter what your passion or your dream is.
In her speech, Rhimes also stresses that graduating from college is one of the most difficult periods in life because real life can be difficult if you are not prepared for it. She also points out that it is nearly impossible to be successful in all aspects of life.
Do rather than dream of doing: You don't have a job? Get one. Any job.
Nothing is ever perfect: ‘Anyone who tells you they are doing it all perfectly is a liar.’
Starting a new phase of your life is never easy, but that shouldn’t discourage you from finding your true calling. I hope that the graduation speeches I included in this article are going to help you find the strength to make your dreams come true, and accomplish everything you ever wanted. What is your favorite graduation speech? Leave a comment and let us know.
Ollie Mattison is a writer and a lover of all things video.
Follow @Ollie Mattison
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