Every year, college graduates get the opportunity to enjoy commencement speeches from some of the biggest names in art, religion, sports, business, and every other conceivable niche. Over the years, lucky graduates have been able to hear impassioned calls to action by Gloria Steinem, encouragement to be original from Ralph Waldo Emerson, and even a plea for world peace from president John F. Kennedy.
This year is no different, as there are tremendous speakers making appearances at campuses all across the country.
I’m particularly jealous of the graduating class at Virginia Tech, where Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg will be delivering the commencement address on May 12. Sandberg recently released a new book, Option B, in which she opens up about coping with the sudden death of her husband, who was only 48 years old.
As someone on the precipice of marriage, I can’t imagine what it would be like to lose my spouse at such a young age. To be able to go through that, pull yourself together, and write a book aiming to help others going through trauma, is courageous and inspiring.
Graduating college means facing a scary, uncertain future. Sandberg’s speech is sure to bring a unique perspective on how to deal with all the curveballs life throws, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it joins the pantheon of classic college commencement addresses.
Here are 10 more recent graduation speeches that are in turns inspiring, powerful, thought-provoking, and funny. They’re essential viewing for people of all ages who want to reframe how they think about their careers, their passions, and their future. And thanks to the magic of the internet, you don’t have to shell out thousands of dollars or pass Econ 101 to hear them — we can all relive these speeches and soak up their wisdom.
Steve Jobs (Stanford University, 2005)
This is the original viral speech of the modern age, and still the most viewed commencement address on YouTube. The tech magnate’s speech resonates because of its touching subject matter and its deep, raw honesty. Jobs opens up about his career, his dreams, and even his struggle with cancer. He encourages the graduates to face death with courage and to never let anyone stomp out their dreams.
Key quote: “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
Admiral William H. McRaven (University of Texas Austin, 2014)
William H. McRaven is a former U.S. Navy Admiral, as well as a master speaker and motivator. In this speech, he goes over some of the most profound things he learned in his military career. He captivates the audience with anecdote after anecdote of ordinary people who work up the courage to do extraordinary things. He makes the point that there are few obstacles that can stand in your way if you harness the power of routine and discipline.
Key quote: “If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.”
Sal Khan (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2012)
Sal Khan implores the MIT grads to not be cynical and to dream big. Those are cliches common to many graduation speeches, but Khan’s words carry weight because he walks the walk. As the creator of Khan Academy, an extremely popular website dedicated to providing free education to the entire world, Khan shows that it’s possible to make waves that would have been impossible at any other time in history.
As a former hedge fund employee who cast out on his own to make a difference in the world, he has an inspiring story to tell.
Key quote: “Be as delusionally positive as possible. It’s a very cynical place out there sometimes and that cynicism will eat at your energy and your potential.”
J.K. Rowling (Harvard University, 2011)
The author of the Harry Potter series gives a heartfelt, emotional speech centered on embracing both failure and your inner creative spirit.
This speech is chock full of great quotes, which is to be expected from one of the most successful writers of all time. She gives a rousing talk about the power of using setbacks to your advantage, and she emphasizes the importance of accepting personal responsibility for the state of your life. All too often I hear people, sometimes into their 30s, complaining about how a problem they’re having is entirely their parent’s fault. Ms. Rowling reminds graduates not to do that, and it’s glorious.
Key quote: “There is an expiration date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction.”
David Foster Wallace (Kenyon College, 2005)
This famous commencement speech came just three years before the author took his own life, lending it a special poignancy. It’s the ultimate example of how a brilliant mind can use metaphor to get you to think about familiar situations in a new, more compassionate light. He advises the graduates to always try to put themselves in the shoes of others before judging them.
Key quote: “Traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me.”
Randy Pausch (Carnegie Mellon, 2008)
Randy Pausch is a former computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon who rose to fame after an inspirational lecture he gave went viral. That talk, “The Last Lecture,” was given after he was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer.
His commencement address covers many of the same themes as his famous lecture, and is a powerful reminder that life is short and we have to make the most of it. His definition of a life well lived has resonated with listeners for almost 20 years.
Key quote: “We don’t beat the reaper by living longer. We beat the reaper by living more fully.”
Conan O’Brien (Dartmouth College, 2011)
In this speech, the late-night talk show host touches on the immense struggles he faced making it in show business, showing that with perseverance and tenacity anything is possible. Of course he finds time to make jokes as well, such as when he hilariously pokes fun at the famous philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.
Key quote: “Work hard, be kind, and amazing things will happen.”
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Wellesley College, 2015)
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a best-selling author at the forefront of the feminist movement and a former recipient of the MacArthur Genius Grant. In her address to the Wellesley student body, she repeatedly hammers home the importance of making sure women are treated equally. She is particularly interested in making sure women feel secure in the professional world, and her anecdote about her mother contains priceless wisdom.
Key quote: “Hire more women where there are few. But remember that a woman you hire doesn’t have to be exceptionally good. Like a majority of the men who get hired, she just needs to be good enough.”
David Brooks (Sewanee: The University of the South, 2013)
This speech by longtime New York Times columnist David Brooks is notable in that he does his best to avoid the tropes and cliches that often plague graduation addresses. The heart of his talk involves practical, research-based tips on how to live a better life. While it’s always nice to get the warm and fuzzies while listening to a fantastic orator, it’s just as beneficial to get quality, practical advice.
Key quote: “The daily activity that contributes most to happiness is having dinner with friends. The daily activity that detracts most from happiness is commuting. Eat more. Commute less.”
George Saunders (Syracuse University, 2013)
Saunders is the acclaimed writer of works such as The Tenth of December and In Persuasion Nation. In this talk, he eloquently asks the Syracuse graduates to navigate the world with a deep sense of empathy for their fellow human beings. He discusses how everyone is going to fail, often spectacularly. That is out of our control. What we can always control is our ability to be nice to each other.
Key quote: “What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.”
Barack Obama (University of Michigan, 2012)
Former President Barack Obama used his speech at the University of Michigan to reflect on the entire history of American democracy. It is balanced, informative, and humorous. Throughout, he encourages the graduates to question everything while still maintaining faith that people are, at their core, good.
Key quote: “We can and should debate the role of government in our lives, but remember, as you are asked to meet the challenges of our time, that the ability for us to adapt our government to the needs of the age has helped make our democracy work since its inception.”
A classic commencement speech can bring much-needed perspective and make the world seem a little less daunting. Whether you’re a college graduate about to enter the “real world” or just an average person looking for a pick-me-up or dose of inspiration, these speeches can be great resources. We can all benefit from hearing the struggles that others have overcome, and learning the tools they’ve used for success.