Graduation speeches are difficult to nail.. It comes with the territory: The special guest or alumni speaker has a near insurmountable task of trying to distill their knowledge of the world into a few pages of insight that can inspire the thousands of hungover college students and their loved ones in the audience. These speeches often often become rife with stale bits of advice about following dreams or not taking life too seriously. But, every once in a while, a speaker absolutely nails it. They’re able to get important and worthy messages through about fear, failure, and how to live a good life with freshness, humor, and insight. Whether you’re about to don a cap and gown or not, they’re worth listening to. Here are 15 great graduation speeches from the likes of Jim Carey, Michelle Obama, and George Saunders.
1. Jim Carey’s Address To The Maharishi University of Management
When Jim Carey spoke at the Maharishi University of Management commencement ceremony in 2014, he spoke about chasing his dreams and fear. But the most affecting part of Carey’s speech came out from a vignette he shared about his father’s trepidation in following his dreams and how he convinced him to follow his own no matter what. “My father could have been a great comedian, but he didn’t believe that was possible for him, and so he made a conservative choice,” Carey said. “Instead, he got a safe job as an accountant, and when I was 12 years old, he was let go from that safe job and our family had to do whatever we could to survive. I learned many great lessons from my father, not the least of which was that you can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love.”
2. George Saunders’ Address to The Syracuse College Of The Arts and Sciences
Many graduation speeches touch on the virtues of accepting failure or working hard at what you love. But, at the 2013 graduation ceremony for Syracuse’s college of arts and sciences, George Saunders, a Syracuse professor, author of such books as Lincoln in the Bardo, and patron saint of the peculiar, instead chose to speak of an undervalued quality: empathy. Saunders spoke about his biggest regrets in life and how, above all, failures of kindness always rose up to the top. What follows is a brilliant and genuinely funny guide on how to be a better human being and what really matters in life. Saunders’ speech was so popular it was made into a book.
3. Admiral William T. H McRaven’s Address To The University of Texas-Austin
When Admiral William T H McRaven spoke at the 2014 University of Texas Austin commencement, he gave a speech befitting of someone who served for the country. His focus on the smallest things — making your bed every single day — transformed the vague, unhelpful advice in graduation speeches into something exceedingly practical. “If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right,” McRaven said. “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.”
4. Amy Poehler’s 2011 Graduation Speech To Harvard
When Amy Poehler spoke at Harvard’s commencement in 2011, she spent the first part making jokes about hungover students and obscure trade deals. But the meat of her speech focused largely on how to be an open-hearted person in a world that often looks down on kindness. It was practical, inspiring, and very funny. “Continue to share your heart with people even if it’s been broken,” she implored. “Don’t treat your heart like an action figure wrapped in plastic and never used. And don’t try to give me that nerd argument that your heart is a Batman with a limited-edition silver battering and therefore if it stays in its original package it increases in value.”
5. Stephen Colbert’s Address to Northwestern University
Stephen Colbert’s speech to Northwestern’s 2011 graduating class — a school he attended but from which he did not graduate — was full of his trademark wit and snark. But it was also deeply warm, and reminded the graduates that their lives are bigger than just them. “After I ‘graduated’ from here, I moved down to Chicago to do improvisation,” Colbert said. “There are very few rules to improv, but one of the first ones I learned was that you are not the most important person in the scene. If everybody else is more important than you are, you will naturally pay attention to them and serve them. The good news is, you’re in the scene, too. So hopefully, to them, you are the most important person, and they will serve you… Service is love made visible.”
7. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Graduation Speech To Wellesley
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the author of Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah, spoke to Wellesley’s graduating class in 2015 about the privilege of education. Speaking of her own experience growing up in an educated family, she said: “I knew that men were not inherently bad, or evil, but merely privileged. I knew that privilege blinds, because it is the nature of privilege to blind. I knew this from personal experience, from the class privilege I had from growing up in an educated family… And you, because you now have your beautiful Wellesley degree, have become privileged, no matter what your background is… Don’t let it blind you too often,” she said. “Sometimes, you will need to push it aside in order to see clearly.”
8. Ellen Degeneres’s Graduation Speech to Tulane
When speaking to the Tulane class of 2009 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Degeneres focused on her comedy career and coming out as it relates to being true to oneself. It’s a smart, inspiring piece about courage and listening to the voice inside your head. “[Coming out] wasn’t to make a political statement. It wasn’t anything but to free myself up from this heaviness that I was carrying around. I just wanted to be honest. I thought, ‘what’s the worst thing that could happen? I could lose my career,’ I did. I lost my career… The phone didn’t ring for three years. I had no offers… Yet, I was getting letters from kids that almost committed suicide but didn’t, because of what I did,” said Degeneres. “I realized I had a purpose… When I look back on it, I wouldn’t change a thing. It was so important for me to lose everything, because I found out the most important thing is to be true to yourself. I’m free. I have no secrets. I know who I am.”
8. Michelle Obama’s Graduation Speech to Dillard University
When former first lady Michelle Obama spoke to Dillard graduates at their 2014 commencement ceremony, her speech reflected on the university’s status as a historically black college. To the graduates, Obama said: “You all have opportunities and skills and education that so many folks who came before you never could have dreamed of. So just imagine the kind of impact that you’re going to make. Imagine how you can inspire those around you to reach higher and complete their own education.” It’s very much worth a listen.
9. Alan Alda’s Graduation Speech to Carnegie Mellon University
Alan Alda, every uncle’s favorite actor, gave a wonderful speech to Carnegie Mellon’s graduating class of 2015 in which he threw some shade at Admiral McRavens’ aforementioned speech. While it’s nice that someone would want to make their bed every day, Aldsa said, what he has learned is that even making a bed won’t prepare you for the challenges of life. Alda, whose grandson was in the crowd, graduating that day, spun this thesis into a talk about uncertainty. “If I’m going to pass anything on to you today, it has to be real to me,” he said.
“Uncertainty is not always a bad thing. I kind of welcome uncertainty. I think, instead of resisting it, you can surf uncertainty. Keep your balance, stay agile, but expect the unexpected bumps. Every one of you here today is going to face uncertainty. It’s going to hit you.”
11. Ed Helms’s Graduation Speech to Knox College
Ed Helms, known for his goofy roles in The Hangover and The Office, gave a notably not-goofy speech to the graduating class of Knox College in 2013, where he talked about his own struggles breaking into comedy, and how he learned to conquer his fear to achieve success. “If you strike the right relationship with your fear, it can tell you a lot of really exciting things besides just what to be afraid of,” he said. If our ancestors didn’t feel fear, our whole species would have been trampled by mammoths a long time ago. If they didn’t examine their fears? No delicious mammoth burgers. Success lies between the tension of fear and discovery… So long as your desire to explore is greater than your desire is greater than your desire to not screw up, you’re on the right track.”
11. J.K. Rowling’s Graduation Speech to Harvard
In her speech to the graduating class of Harvard in 2008, J.K. Rowling spun some magic about her reckless decision to pursue writing above all else. Her words are essential for anyone who has a dream to pursue but might be too afraid to take that first step. “So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”
12. Neil Gaiman’s Graduation Speech to the University of The Arts
Neil Gaiman, the author of such works as The Sandman, American Gods, and Coraline, made waves with his speech to the 2012 graduating class of The University of the Arts about importance of having one major goal and seeing it through no matter what.“Something that worked for me was imagining that where I wanted to be – an author, primarily of fiction, making good books, making good comics and supporting myself through my words – was a mountain…” he said. “My goal. And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain I would be all right. And when I truly was not sure what to do, I could stop, and think about whether it was taking me towards or away from the mountain. I said no to editorial jobs on magazines, proper jobs that would have paid proper money because I knew that, attractive though they were, for me they would have been walking away from the mountain.”
13. Conan O’Brien’s Speech to Dartmouth College
Conan O’Brien’s speech to Dartmouth’s 2011 class was, for the most part, a reflection upon his own experience having his late night show taken away from him by Jay Leno to illuminate graduates about the realities of life. “In 2000, I told graduates, ‘Don’t be afraid to fail.’ Well now I’m here to tell you that, though you should not fear failure, you should do your very best to avoid it,” he said. “Nietzsche famously said ‘Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ But what he failed to stress is that it almost kills you. Disappointment stings and, for driven, successful people like yourselves, it is disorienting. What Nietzsche should have said is, ‘Whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you watch a lot of Cartoon Network and drink mid-price Chardonnay at 11 in the morning.’” Conan’s advice is blunt, but it doesn’t make it any less true.
14. Will Ferrell’s Address To The University of Southern California
Will Ferrell’s speech at the University of Southern California in 2017, a school from which he graduated, spoke about something many deal with: the unattainability of being universally liked. “After my first show, one reviewer referred to me as ‘the most annoying newcomer of the new cast.’ Someone showed this to me and I promptly put it up on the wall in my office, reminding myself that to some people I will be annoying. Some people will not think I’m funny, and that that’s okay.” Self-awareness is key to a fulfilled life.
15. Aaron Sorkin’s Speech to Syracuse University
During his graduation speech at Syracuse in 2012, the always political Sorkin dropped some prescient advice when he implored students to take an active role in being a citizen and to engage with others despite their political differences. He said: “Decisions are made by those who show up. Don’t ever forget that you’re a citizen of this world. Don’t ever forget that you’re a citizen of this world, and there are things you can do to lift the human spirit, things that are easy, things that are free, things that you can do every day: civility, respect, kindness, character. You’re too good for schadenfreude, you’re too good for gossip and snark, you’re too good for intolerance — and since you’re walking into the middle of a presidential election, it’s worth mentioning that you’re too good to think people who disagree with you are your enemy.”
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