A great commencement speech not only inspires graduates, but audience members as well. A speaker may not have all the answers, but one with the right words can light a fire inside of all of us and push us to our potential.
So whether you’re a fresh college grad, someone stuck in a career rut, someone who could use a little direction in life, or simply someone who likes to listen to motivational speeches, we present these popular commencement speeches from various college graduations.
Steve Jobs encourages graduates to find what they love and to not settle. “Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don't lose faith.” There is meaning and reason behind everything; you have to trust that somehow the dots will connect in the future. Find what you love. Follow your curiosity and intuition. Trust in your gut.
In David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech “This is Water,” he is referring to water as what's around us. He encourages listeners to look at things from a different perspective. Be less arrogant. Have more critical awareness for yourself and your surroundings. Be more aware of what is going on around you, especially when doing some of the more mundane tasks in life like picking up groceries after a long day of work. These are times when you can come across the most important realities in life. Use these times to think. "The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU."
Randy Pausch, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon, was told he would only have 3-6 months left to live because of pancreatic cancer. He gave this speech at month nine. Because he knew his time was coming to an end, the focus of his speech was about getting the most out of life. "It is not the things we do in life that we regret on our deathbed, it is the things we do not." So do the things you want to do. Follow your passions and live life to the fullest. Don’t let anything get in your way. (Randy passed away two months after he gave this speech.)
"...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."
Conan injects tons of humor into this speech, cracking jokes at Dartmouth and other Ivy institutions. He tells graduates to be patient because the job market is tough out there. Sometimes life isn’t fair. In the speech he references how things didn't work out with him on The Tonight Show. What he learned is that when things aren’t working out, don’t be afraid to try new things. "It's not easy, but if you accept your misfortune and handle it right, your perceived failure can become a catalyst for profound re-invention." Work hard, be kind, and amazing things will happen.
Oprah encourages graduates to be themselves and not live to other people’s expectations. Learn from your failures: for every bad experience you go through, rather than getting down on yourself, think of what you can learn from the experience. In her speech, she touches on the meaning of life: to be truly happy, you have to give something back.
Begin your life today.
Mitch Thrower advises graduates that life is not a destination, but a journey. “Life doesn’t start now. We’ve been living it all along.” Too many people wait to begin their lives. Don't hesitate, start today, and on this journey, attempt to put back more into life than you take out.
Lisa Kudrow’s commencement speech touches on the uncertainty and crossroads that lie ahead for the graduates. Kudrow is one who believes everything in life happens for a reason, even the bad things. “When one door closes, another always opens.” That’s her way of looking at life. Always follow your inner voice. That's how she went from biology researcher to actress.
The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination.
The Harry Potter author talks of how failure enabled her to become successful. Had she succeeded at anything else, she may not have found the determination to go on and write novels. You will fail at some point, it’s how you pick yourself up and overcome your setbacks that makes you stronger and shows you’re a survivor. "It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default."
In a graduation speech full of humor, Steven Colbert expresses that as your life goes on, your dreams will change. If something doesn’t work out, something else will. “Life is an improvisation. You have no idea what’s going to happen next and you are mostly just making things up as you go along.”
In her commencement speech to Tulane graduates, Ellen tells of how she was completely lost after getting out of school. She had no plan and no idea of what she wanted to do. It wasn't until a tragic event happened in her life where she started asking herself questions and thinking, and there on finding her true path in life.
While she had found her true calling, she found the journey was not easy. When she came out, she lost her career, yet still managed to find a way to pursue her passion. What she learned is as you grow your definition of success changes and you discover more about who you are. It's about finding out who you are and being yourself, not living to other people’s expectations. You need to be true to yourself. Live with integrity, don't try and be something you're not.
Life isn’t worthwhile unless you take risks.
Denzel talks about the idea of having something to fall back on and how he disagrees with the notion. "If I’m going to fall, I don’t want to fall back on anything, except my faith. I want to fall… forward." He encourages graduates to take risks and take chances. “You will fail at some point in your life. Accept it.” Life will never be a straight path. Every failure is a learning experience that gets you one step closer to success. If you don't fail at some point in your life, you’re not pushing yourself hard enough. You may have all the training and talent in the world, but do you have the guts to take risks? Do you have the guts to push yourself as far as you can go?
To see what he means about taking risks and being willing to fail, Denzel recommends watching the character he plays in the movie “Philadelphia”.
In her commencement speech at Barnard, Meryl Streep discusses her experiences in acting and passes on tips and inspiration for graduates to achieve success in the next part of their lives. She encourages graduates to put empathy in their work for greatest success.
13. Bill Cosby’s 2007 Carnegie Mellon Commencement Speech
Donning a gray Carnegie Mellon sweat suit, Bill Cosby shares the story of doing his first major comedy show. It was supposed to be his big break and he totally tanked it. He let the fear of the crowd and the fact that he might not be good enough get to his head. Luckily he was given a second chance and he blew the audience away. His point of the story: “Don’t talk yourself into not being you at any time.” You need to be sure of yourself and be prepared.
"How will you keep our democracy going?"
In his commencement speech to the class of 2010 at the University of Michigan, President Obama encourages graduates to keep an open mind, to actively seek out information that challenges us, and to listen to different viewpoints from various backgrounds to better understand where others are coming from. In doing so, you may learn something new. He encourages participation in democracy: "When we don’t pay close attention to the decisions made by our leaders, when we fail to educate ourselves about the major issues of the day, when we choose not to make our voices and opinions heard, that’s when democracy breaks down."
In his commencement speech at ASU, President Obama congratulates graduates on their journey but warns them the road doesn’t end here. “No matter how much you've done, or how successful you've been, there's always more to do, always more to learn, and always more to achieve.” You'll have to constantly adapt to the changing economy. You have to keep gaining new skills to ensure you are successful. He encourages graduates to follow their passions to success. To do what’s meaningful to you, to help others, to make a difference in this world, and not measure success in the amount of materialistic things you have.