The Best Advice From Famous Commencement SpeechesApril 28, 2021
Graduation day is a momentous occasion for most college students: It’s a time for reflection, a cause for celebration, and of course, an opportunity to soak in words of wisdom from family, friends, and A-list celebrities. Each year, numerous movie stars, late-night hosts, politicians, authors, and tech entrepreneurs lend their voices to university commencement speeches around the country, helping to set the tone for that year’s graduates.
Some commencement speeches, such as David Foster Wallace’s famous 2005 “This Is Water” address at Kenyon College, have been memorialized in the form of a published book; others, such as former First Lady Michelle Obama’s 2015 speech at Tuskegee University, have been looked to as a marker of the times. And still others, such as Steve Jobs’ 2005 commencement speech at Stanford University, are admired as a standard bearer for their poignant emotional core years after the fact.
What binds all these memorable speeches together is their distinct messages, delivered with a personal anecdote or two, and a dash of humor to keep things light. Those messages have ranged from telling grads to brace for uncertainty, to do what they’re most passionate about, or, in the case of Oprah Winfrey’s 2013 Harvard University speech, to keep going in the face of adversity. “There is no such thing as failure,” she said at the time. “Failure is just life trying to move us in another direction.” Here, we’ve rounded up 13 of the most famous commencement speeches of all time, which have messages just as inspirational to long-graduated adults today as they were to their young audiences then.
STEVE JOBS AT STANFORD, 2005
You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.
Steve Jobs’ commencement speech is still regarded as one of the most memorable of all time for its simplicity and structure — fittingly, not too dissimilar from the Apple cofounder’s own tech aesthetic. In his address, he spoke about everything from the importance of death to trusting your gut, with the big takeaway being that all graduates should “stay hungry” and “stay foolish” as they navigate adulthood.
MERYL STREEP AT BARNARD COLLEGE, 2010
I can assure that awards have very little bearing on my own personal happiness. My own sense of well-being and purpose in the world. That comes from studying the world feelingly, with empathy in my work. It comes from staying alert and alive and involved in the lives of the people that I love and the people in the wider world who need my help. No matter what you see me or hear me saying when I’m on your TV holding a statuette spewing, that’s acting.
When Meryl Streep showed up to deliver her commencement speech at Barnard College in 2010, she was everything she appears to be onscreen: poised, hilarious, personable, and iconic. But in her speech, the Oscar winner revealed that the most important marker of success for her has been her relationship with loved ones, and she encouraged graduates to seek the same.
DAVID FOSTER WALLACE AT KENYON COLLEGE, 2005
Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.
David Foster Wallace’s legacy as a writer and thinker are undeniable, but it was perhaps his 2005 commencement speech to graduates of Kenyon College that cemented his status as a voice of both his and subsequent generations. The writer reminded graduates to be mindful of others and to stay alert to the choices they would need to make as adults. His matter-of-fact speech is still one of the most widely circulated to date.
AMY POEHLER AT HARVARD UNIVERSITY, 2011
All I can tell you today is what I have learned. What I have discovered as a person in this world. And that is this: you can’t do it alone. As you navigate through the rest of your life, be open to collaboration. Other people and other people’s ideas are often better than your own. Find a group of people who challenge and inspire you, spend a lot of time with them, and it will change your life. No one is here today because they did it on their own. Okay, maybe Josh, but he’s just a straight up weirdo.
Even though Amy Poehler’s Harvard University commencement speech was full of jokes and one-liners, the heart of her speech was earnest and endearing: Remember to rely on others; find a group of supportive, creative people to learn from; and, of course, “don’t forget to tip your waitress.”
MICHELLE OBAMA AT TUSKEGEE UNIVERSITY, 2015
And at the end of the day, by staying true to the me I’ve always known, I found that this journey has been incredibly freeing. Because no matter what happened, I had the peace of mind of knowing that all of the chatter, the name calling, the doubting — all of it was just noise. (Applause.) It did not define me. It didn’t change who I was. And most importantly, it couldn’t hold me back. I have learned that as long as I hold fast to my beliefs and values — and follow my own moral compass — then the only expectations I need to live up to are my own.
When Michelle Obama gave her commencement speech at Tuskegee University in 2015, she and her husband, Barack Obama, were coming off a long eight years in the White House, during which she faced a good amount of criticism. Still, she told the graduates, she realized that the most important lesson she took away from the experience was staying true to herself and blocking out the noise.
ROBERT DE NIRO AT NYU TISCH SCHOOL OF THE ARTS, 2015
You discovered a talent, recognized your ambition and developed a passion. When you feel that you can’t fight it, you just go with it. When it comes to the arts, passion should always trump common sense. You aren’t just following dreams, you’re reaching for your destiny. You’re a dancer, a singer, a choreographer, a musician, a filmmaker, a writer, a photographer, a director, a producer, an actor, an artist. Yeah, you’re fucked!
Robert De Niro had the audience roaring with laughter at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts graduation in 2015, when he congratulated the graduates before telling them, point-blank, “You’re fucked!” The veteran actor went on to dispense some pretty salient advice about the entertainment industry, including the importance of maintaining strong relationships and never giving up.
CONAN O’BRIEN AT DARTMOUTH COLLEGE, 2011
There are few things more liberating in this life than having your worst fear realized. Today I tell you that 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 … Work hard, be kind, and amazing things will happen.
Conan O’Brien’s 2011 commencement speech at Dartmouth College is heralded as one of the most hilarious, original speeches to grace a graduation stage in recent years, perhaps due in part to the fact that he kicked it off by offering to pay someone for a pair of gloves. Over the course of the next 25 minutes, the late-night host encouraged graduates to embrace failure and disappointment as gateways to clarity.
BARACK OBAMA AT HOWARD UNIVERSITY, 2016
There will be times when you shouldn’t compromise your core values, your integrity, and you will have the responsibility to speak up in the face of injustice. But listen. Engage. If the other side has a point, learn from them. If they’re wrong, rebut them. Teach them. Beat them on the battlefield of ideas. And you might as well start practicing now, because one thing I can guarantee you — you will have to deal with ignorance, hatred, racism, foolishness, trifling folks. (Laughter.) I promise you, you will have to deal with all that at every stage of your life. That may not seem fair, but life has never been completely fair. Nobody promised you a crystal stair. And if you want to make life fair, then you’ve got to start with the world as it is.
Barack Obama made thisa historic speech at Howard University in the spring of 2016, just as his second presidential term was winding down and divisivehate-fueled rhetoric was on the rise. In his nearly 50-minute speech, the president spoke to grads about honoring those who paved the way for them, as well as the responsibility they had to actively create the sort of world they wanted to live in.
KERRY WASHINGTON AT GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY, 2013
You and you alone are the only person that can live the life that writes the story that you were meant to tell. And the world needs your story because the world needs your voice. Every single one of you. And because as your story unfolds, you will inspire others to find their stories, and so on. And those are the stories that I can’t wait to watch. In fact, don’t be surprised if you get a call from me wanting to option the really good ones into movies because I’m so Hollywood now.
As a celebrated actress and activist, Kerry Washington brought plenty of experience and advice to the table when she spoke to the 2013 graduates of George Washington University. But perhaps her most salient point was that each of those students had a responsibility and a prerogative to tell their own unique stories.
JOHN F. KENNEDY AT AMERICAN UNIVERSITY, 1963
First, examine our attitude toward peace itself. Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it is unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable, that mankind is doomed, that we are gripped by forces we cannot control. We need not accept that view. Our problems are manmade. Therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man’s reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable and we believe they can do it again.
John F. Kennedy’s speech at American University is often referred to as one of the finest speeches the then-Ppresident delivered during his brief term in the White House. It came just months after the Cuban Missile Crisis and highlighted his lofty hopes for “not merely peace in our time but peace for all time.”
OPRAH WINFREY AT HARVARD UNIVERSITY, 2013
At some point you are bound to stumble because if you’re constantly doing what we do, raising the bar. If you’re constantly pushing yourself higher, higher the law of averages not to mention the Myth of Icarus predicts that you will at some point fall. And when you do I want you to know this, remember this: there is no such thing as failure. Failure is just life trying to move us in another direction.
It might be difficult to imagine someone like Oprah Winfrey ever having to deal with the embarrassment of failure, but during her 2013 commencement address at Harvard University, the veteran talk show host and entrepreneur got candid about the challenges of launching OWN, and how she came to recognize that failure plays an important role on the road to success.
CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE AT WELLESLEY COLLEGE, 2015
My writing might not have ended up being successful. But the point is that I tried. We can not always bend the world into the shapes we want but we can try, we can make a concerted and real and true effort. And you are privileged that, because of your education here, you have already been given many of the tools that you will need to try. Always just try. Because you never know.
Shortly after Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie lent her voice to Beyoncé Knowles’s song “Flawless” (via Adichie’s powerful speech, “We Should All Be Feminists”), she delivered a rousing commencement address echoing her beliefs in sisterhood, pushing back against barriers, and online shopping, at Wellesley College in 2015.
STEPHEN COLBERT AT UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA, 2013
While we may be leaving you with an economy with fewer job opportunities for the new graduate to slip into, and while traditional paths may be harder to find, that also means that you may learn sooner than most generations the hard lesson that you must always make the path for yourself. … Because the true secret is that your life will not be defined by the society that we have left you.
Stephen Colbert alternated between light and heartfelt in his commencement speech at the University of Virginia in 2013, assuring the graduating class that though his generation, the Baby Boomers, had left behind a struggling economy and society, he had every faith they would make their own way and create a new, better future for themselves.
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About the AuthorJoyce ChenJoyce Chen is a writer, editor, and community builder based in Seattle, Washington.