Many commencement speeches are forgettable. A lot are filled with the same cliché advice. But some are so good — so inspiring and poignant — that they stick with us forever.
While certainly there’s room for debate (was Stephen Colbert’s speech at Northwestern really better than the one he gave at Knox College?), we’ve culled the best-of lists to put together a guide to our favorites.
From Steve Jobs to Toni Morrison, Kurt Vonnegut to John F. Kennedy, here are the speeches you wish you’d heard on your graduation day.
Rachel Sugar contributed to an earlier version of this article.
‘Ditch the dream and be a doer, not a dreamer’ — Shonda Rhimes’s 2014 speech at Dartmouth College
The world’s most powerful showrunner told grads to stop dreaming and start doing.
The world has plenty of dreamers, she said. “And while they are busy dreaming, the really happy people, the really successful people, the really interesting, engaged, powerful people, are busy doing.” She pushed grads to be those people.
“Ditch the dream and be a doer, not a dreamer,” she advised — whether or not you know what your “passion” might be. “The truth is, it doesn’t matter. You don’t have to know. You just have to keep moving forward. You just have to keep doing something, seizing the next opportunity, staying open to trying something new. It doesn’t have to fit your vision of the perfect job or the perfect life. Perfect is boring and dreams are not real,” she said.
‘If you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options’ — David Foster Wallace’s 2005 speech at Kenyon College
In his now-legendary “This Is Water” speech, the author urged grads to be a little less arrogant and a little less certain about their beliefs.
“This is not a matter of virtue,” Wallace said. “It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.”
Doing that will be hard, he said. “It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat won’t want to.”
But breaking free of that lens can allow you to truly experience life, to consider possibilities beyond your default reactions.
“If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable,” he said. “But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.”
‘Not everything that happens to us happens because of us’ — Sheryl Sandberg’s 2016 speech at UC Berkeley
During the Facebook COO’s deeply personal commencement speech about resilience at UC Berkeley, she spoke on how understanding the three Ps that largely determine our ability to deal with setbacks is helping her cope with the loss of her husband, Dave Goldberg, just over a year ago.
She outlined the three Ps as:
· Personalization: Whether you believe an event is your fault.
· Pervasiveness: Whether you believe an event will affect all areas of your life.
· Permanence: How long you think the negative feelings will last.
“This is the lesson that not everything that happens to us happens because of us,” Sandberg said about personalization. It took understanding this for Sandberg to accept that she couldn’t have prevented her husband’s death. “His doctors had not identified his coronary artery disease. I was an economics major; how could I have?”
‘Err in the direction of kindness’ — George Saunders’s 2013 speech at Syracuse University
Saunders stressed what turns out to be a deceptively simple idea: the importance of kindness. “What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness,” he said. “Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded . . . sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.”
But kindness is hard, the writer said. It’s not necessarily our default. In part, he explained, kindness comes with age. “It might be a simple matter of attrition: as we get older, we come to see how useless it is to be selfish — how illogical, really.” The challenge he laid out: don’t wait. “Speed it along,” he urged. “Start right now.”
“There’s a confusion in each of us, a sickness, really: selfishness,” Saunders said. “But there’s also a cure. So be a good and proactive and even somewhat desperate patient on your own behalf — seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicines, energetically, for the rest of your life.”
“Do all the other things, the ambitious things — travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers (after first having it tested for monkey poop) – but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness.”
‘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.’ — Stephen Colbert’s 2011 speech at Northwestern University
The comedian and host of the “Late Show” told grads they should never feel like they have it all figured out.
“[W]hatever 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,” Colbert said.
It’s a lesson he learned from his improv days. When actors are working together properly, he explained, they’re all serving each other, playing off each other on a common idea. “And 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. And like improv, you cannot win your life,” he said.
‘Be the heroine of your life, not the victim’ — Nora Ephron’s 1996 speech at Wellesley College
Addressing her fellow alums with trademark wit, Ephron reflected on all the things that have changed since her days at Wellesley — and all the things that haven’t.
“My class went to college in the era when you got a masters degrees in teaching because it was ‘something to fall back on’ in the worst case scenario, the worst case scenario being that no one married you and you actually had to go to work,” she said. But while by 1996, things had changed drastically, Ephron warned grads not to “delude yourself that the powerful cultural values that wrecked the lives of so many of my classmates have vanished from the earth.”
“Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim,” she said. “Maybe young women don’t wonder whether they can have it all any longer, but in case any of you are wondering, of course you can have it all. What are you going to do? Everything, is my guess. It will be a little messy, but embrace the mess. It will be complicated, but rejoice in the complications.”
‘Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose’ — Steve Jobs’s 2005 speech at Stanford University
In a remarkably personal address, the Apple founder and CEO advised graduates to live each day as if it were their last.
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life,” he said. He’d been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a year earlier.
“Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important,” he continued. “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.”
Jobs said this mindset will make you understand the importance of your work. “And the only way to do great work is to love what you do,” he said. “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.”
Settling means giving in to someone else’s vision of your life — a temptation Jobs warned against. “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.”
‘We can learn to live without the sick excitement, without the kick of having scores to settle’ — Kurt Vonnegut’s 1999 speech at Agnes Scott College
The famed author became one of the most sought after commencement speakers in the United States for many years, thanks to his insights on morality and cooperation. At Agnes Scott, he asked graduates to make the world a better place by respecting humanity — and living without hate. Hammurabi lived 4,000 years ago, he pointed out. We can stop living by his code.
“We may never dissuade leaders of our nation or any other nation from responding vengefully, violently, to every insult or injury. In this, the Age of Television, they will continue to find irresistible the temptation to become entertainers, to compete with movies by blowing up bridges and police stations and factories and so on,” he said.
“But in our personal lives, our inner lives, at least, we can learn to live without the sick excitement, without the kick of having scores to settle with this particular person, or that bunch of people, or that particular institution or race or nation. And we can then reasonably ask forgiveness for our trespasses, since we forgive those who trespass against us.”
The result, he said, would be a happier, more peaceful, and more complete existence.
‘If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it’ — Oprah Winfrey’s 2008 speech at Stanford
The media mogul told Stanford’s class of 2008 that they can’t sacrifice happiness for money. “When you’re doing the work you’re meant to do, it feels right and every day is a bonus, regardless of what you’re getting paid,” she said.
She said you can feel when you’re doing the right thing in your gut. “What I know now is that feelings are really your GPS system for life. When you’re supposed to do something or not supposed to do something, your emotional guidance system lets you know,” she said.
She explained that doing what your instincts tells you to do will make you more successful because it will drive you to work harder and will save you from debilitating stress.
“If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. That’s the lesson. And that lesson alone will save you, my friends, a lot of grief,” Winfrey said. “Even doubt means don’t. This is what I’ve learned. There are many times when you don’t know what to do. When you don’t know what to do, get still, get very still, until you do know what to do.”
‘The difference between triumph and defeat, you’ll find, isnt about willingness to take risks — it’s about mastery of rescue’ — Atul Gawande’s 2012 speech at Williams College
Pushing beyond the tired “take risks!” commencement cliché, the surgeon, writer, and activist took a more nuanced approach: what matters isn’t just that you take risks, he said. It’s how you take them.
To explain, he turned to medicine.”Scientists have given a new name to the deaths that occur in surgery after something goes wrong—whether it is an infection or some bizarre twist of the stomach,” said Gawande. “They call them a ‘Failure to Rescue.’ More than anything, this is what distinguished the great from the mediocre. They didn’t fail less. They rescued more.”
What matters, he said, isn’t the failure — that’s inevitable — but what happens next. “A failure often does not have to be a failure at all. However, you have to be ready for it — Will you admit when things go wrong? Will you take steps to set them right? — because the difference between triumph and defeat, you’ll find, isn’t about willingness to take risks. It’s about mastery of rescue.”
‘Your job is to create a world that lasts forever’ — Stephen Spielberg’s 2016 speech at Harvard
“This world is full of monsters,” director Steven Spielberg told Harvard graduates, and it’s the next generation’s job to vanquish them.
“My job is to create a world that lasts two hours. Your job is to create a world that lasts forever,” he said.
These monsters manifest themselves as racism, homophobia, and ethnic, class, political, and religious hatred, he said, noting that there is no difference between them: “It is all one big hate.”
Spielberg said that hate is born of an “us versus them” mentality, and thinking instead about people as “we” requires replacing fear with curiosity.
“‘Us’ and ‘them’ will find the ‘we’ by connecting with each other, and by believing that we’re members of the same tribe, and by feeling empathy for every soul,” he said.
‘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’ — J.K. Rowling’s 2008 speech at Harvard University
The author of the “Harry Potter” series told Harvard’s class of 2008 about the dark period she experienced before achieving success. “An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears that my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew,” Rowling said.
But when she was at the bottom, she realized that her life went on, and she decided to press forward. “You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable,” she said. “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.
“You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned,” she said.
‘Identity is something that you are constantly earning’ — Joss Whedon’s 2013 speech at Wesleyan University
Speaking at his alma mater, the writer,director, and producer encouraged graduates to embrace inner conflict. For one thing, it’s inevitable — and it never goes away.
But it’s also useful, he argued. “I believe these contradictions and these tensions are the greatest gift that we have, and hopefully, I can explain that,” he said. Whatever path you take, you’ll always have doubts. “For for your entire life, you will be doing, on some level, the opposite — not only of what you were doing — but of what you think you are.”
Listen to those tensions, he urged. “To accept duality is to earn identity. And identity is something that you are constantly earning. It is not just who you are. It is a process that you must be active in.”
‘Our problems are manmade — therefore, they can be solved by man’ — John F. Kennedy’s 1963 speech at American University
Against the tumult of the early ’60s, Kennedy inspired graduates to strive for what may be the biggest goal of them all: world peace.
“Too many of us think it is impossible,” he said. “Too many think it 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.”
Our job is not to accept that, he urged. “Our problems are manmade — therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants.”
‘You are your own stories’ — Toni Morrison’s 2004 speech at Wellesley College
Instead of the usual commencement platitudes — none of which, Morrison argued, are true anyway — the Nobel Prize winning writer asked grads to create their own narratives.
“What is now known is not all what you are capable of knowing,” she said. “You are your own stories and therefore free to imagine and experience what it means to be human without wealth. What it feels like to be human without domination over others, without reckless arrogance, without fear of others unlike you, without rotating, rehearsing and reinventing the hatreds you learned in the sandbox.”
In your own story, you can’t control all the characters, Morrison said. “The theme you choose may change or simply elude you. But being your own story means you can always choose the tone. It also means that you can invent the language to say who you are and what you mean.” Being a storyteller reflects a deep optimism, she said — and as a storyteller herself, “I see your life as already artful, waiting, just waiting and ready for you to make it art.”
‘There are few things more liberating in this life than having your worst fear realized’ — Conan O’Brien 2011 speech at Dartmouth College
In his hilarious 2011 address to Dartmouth College, the late night talk show host spoke about his brief run on “The Tonight Show” before being replaced by Jay Leno. O’Brien described the fallout as the lowest point in his life, feeling very publicly humiliated and defeated. But once he got back on his feet and went on a comedy tour across the country, he realized something.
“There are few things more liberating in this life than having your worst fear realized,” he said.
He explained that for decades the ultimate goal of every comedian was to host “The Tonight Show,” and like many comedians, he thought achieving that goal would define his success. “But that is not true. No specific job or career goal defines me, and it should not define you,” he said.
He noted that disappointment is a part of life, and the beauty of it is that it can help you gain clarity and conviction.
“It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique,” O’Brien said. “It’s not easy, but if you accept your misfortune and handle it right, your perceived failure can be a catalyst for profound re-invention.”
O’Brien said that dreams contstantly elove, and your ideal career path at 22 years old will not necessarily be the same at 32 or 42 years old.
“I am here to tell you that whatever you think your dream is now, it will probably change. And that’s okay,” he said.