What’s the best part of a graduation ceremony? While a lot of people might say, “The end!” because so many seem to go on forever, the speeches are usually the crowd favorites.
Whether it’s a high school or a college commencement, speakers are chosen carefully. Student speakers are distinguished graduates who are often overflowing with emotion and gratitude for their fellow students. You can feel their pride and anxious anticipation for the future.
Guest speakers, especially the well-known public figures invited to talk at college graduations, aim to be inspiring, and often humorous, with their advice for the graduates. Some reach the mark, and others miss it by a long shot. (Exhibit A: Ceremony video of Grandpa, chin to chest, snoring beneath his boater hat.)
But an added benefit of great graduation speeches is how they inspire the rest of us – the folks who may have graduated 30 years ago, or who never went to college at all; those of us who may be looking to change careers or start a new, creative chapter in life- at age 40, or at age 70. Opportunities to change lanes and transform outlooks come at us frequently throughout our lifetime. When nuggets of wisdom are tossed out freely from people who have succeeded in some notable way, we should all open our minds to the inspiration, and to the laughter.
10 Best Graduation Speeches
Here are outstanding quotes from 10 of the best recent commencement addresses, along with links to view them in their entirety.
Denzel Washington at University of Pennsylvania (2011): “Fall forward. This is what I mean: Reggie Jackson struck out 2,600 times in his career, the most in the history of baseball. But you don’t hear about the strikeouts. People remember the home runs. Fall forward. Thomas Edison conducted 1,000 failed experiments. Did you know that? I didn’t know that because the 1,001st was the light bulb. Fall forward. Every failed experiment is one step closer to success.”
Ellen Degeneres at Tulane University (2009): “Really when I look back on it, I wouldn’t change a thing. I mean, it was so important for me to lose everything because I found out what the most important thing is, is to be true to yourself. Ultimately, that’s what’s gotten me to this place. I don’t live in fear, I’m free; I have no secrets and I know I’ll always be OK, because no matter what, I know who I am.”
Jon Stewart at The College of William and Mary (2004): “See college is not necessarily predictive of your future success. And it’s the kind of thing where the path that I chose obviously wouldn’t work for you. For one, you’re not very funny. So how do you know what is the right path to choose to get the result that you desire? And the honest answer is this. You won’t. And accepting that greatly eases the anxiety of your life experience.”
Zadie Smith at The New School (NYC) (2014): “Walk down these crowded streets with a smile on your face. Be thankful you get to walk so close to other humans. It’s a privilege. Don’t let your fellow humans be alien to you, and as you get older and perhaps a little less open than you are now, don’t assume that exclusive always and everywhere means better. It may only mean lonelier. There will always be folks hard selling you the life of the few: the private schools, private plans, private islands, private life. They are trying to convince you that hell is other people. Don’t believe it. We are far more frequently each other’s shelter and correction, the antidote to solipsism, and so many windows on this world.”
Amy Poehler at Harvard College Class Day (2011): “I cannot stress enough that the answer to a lot of your life’s questions is often in someone else’s face. Try putting your iPhones down every once in a while and look at people’s faces. People’s faces will tell you amazing things. Like if they are angry or nauseous, or asleep.”
Stephen Colbert at Northwestern (2011): “OK: you have been told to follow your dreams. But – what if it’s a stupid dream? …If we’d all stuck with our first dream, the world would be overrun with cowboys and princesses. So whatever your dream is right now, if you don’t achieve it, you haven’t failed, and you’re not some loser. But just as importantly–and this is the part I may not get right and you may not listen to–if you do get your dream, you are not a winner…So no more winning. Instead, try to love others and serve others, and hopefully find those who love and serve you in return.
Steve Jobs at Stanford (2005): “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
Admiral William H. McRaven at University of Texas at Austin (2014): “If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right. And, if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made—that you made—and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better. If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.”
Shonda Rhimes at Dartmouth (2014): “Find a cause you love…But a hashtag is not a movement. A hashtag does not make you Dr. King. A hashtag does not change anything. It’s a hashtag. It’s you, sitting on your butt, typing on your computer and then going back to binge-watching your favorite show…Volunteer some hours. Focus on something outside yourself. Devote a slice of your energies towards making the world suck less every week.”
Will Ferrell at the University of Southern California (2017): “You’re never not afraid. I’m still afraid. I was afraid to write this speech. And now, I’m just realizing how many people are watching me right now, and it’s scary. Can you please look away while I deliver the rest of the speech? But my fear of failure never approached in magnitude my fear of ‘what if.’ What if I never tried at all? … To those of you graduates sitting out there who have a pretty good idea of what you’d like to do with your life, Congratulations. For many of you who maybe don’t have it all figured out, it’s okay. That’s the same chair that I sat in. Enjoy the process of your search without succumbing to the pressure of the result. Trust your gut, keep throwing darts at the dartboard. Don’t listen to the critics and you will figure it out.”
So, to all of us this commencement season – graduating or not – remember, there’s still time to make a dream come true!
Moms of Graduates, Here’s The Commencement Speech You Really Need