Best Commencement Speeches: Advice for Grads

Use these pearls of wisdom given at graduations across the last decade by influential and talented people.

By Ashley Henshaw | February 17, 2017

In today’s tech-savvy world, great commencement addresses go viral in the blink of an eye. We’ve gathered some of the top speeches from college graduations over the past decade. Watch and learn as some of the most successful and interesting people serve up inspiring advice for college graduates (and anyone else looking for some career tips).

"Education gives us a good preparation, but it is by actually putting it to use in the service of others that we make our lives meaningful.”

1. Steve Jobs at Stanford University, 2005

Apple founder and tech genius Steve Jobs focused on the importance of pursuing your passions for his commencement address. His words have been especially treasured since his death in 2011:

“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.”

2. J. K. Rowling at Harvard University, 2008

The author of the famous “Harry Potter” series had some interesting advice to share with graduates. J.K. Rowling’s commencement address touched on the positive aspects of failure – specifically, that the failure you experience can lead you to do something that really matters to you:

“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 for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.”

3. Conan O’Brien at Dartmouth College, 2011

In a similar vein as Rowling, Conan O’Brien focused his speech on the good that can come from unexpected obstacles in life. His speech came right after his show had been knocked off network television, giving his words deeper meaning to the graduating class:

“So that’s what I wish for all of you—the bad as well as the good. Fall down. Make a mess. Break something occasionally. Know that your mistakes are your own unique way of getting to where you need to be. And remember that the story is never over.”

4. Ellen DeGeneres at Tulane University, 2009

While Ellen DeGeneres had some great punch lines in her commencement address, she also shared some very wise words about finding your own passions and values:

“For me, the most important thing in your life is to live your life with integrity and not to give into peer pressure to try to be something that you’re not, to live your life as an honest and compassionate person, to contribute in some way. So to conclude my conclusion, follow your passion, stay true to yourself.”

5. Stephen Colbert at Knox College, 2006

Unlike his on-air persona, Stephen Colbert took a sincere, inspiring tone for his commencement address. Just as he learned in improv comedy, Colbert’s main advice for graduates was to always say “yes”:

“Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don't learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying ‘yes’ begins things. Saying ‘yes’ is how things grow. Saying ‘yes’ leads to knowledge. ‘Yes’ is for young people. So for as long as you have the strength to, say ‘yes.’”

6. Jon Stewart at The College of William and Mary, 2004

The transition from school to the real world can be startling, but Jon Stewart encouraged students to embrace the freedom of choosing their own path:

“But the unfortunate, yet truly exciting thing about your life, is that there is no core curriculum. The entire place is an elective. The paths are infinite and the results uncertain. And it can be maddening to those that go here, especially here, because your strength has always been achievement. So if there’s any real advice I can give you it’s this. College is something you complete. Life is something you experience. So don’t worry about your grade, or the results or success. Success is defined in myriad ways, and you will find it…”

7. Sheryl Sandberg at Harvard Business School, 2012

Take it from someone who helped shape companies like Google and Facebook – it’s important to recognize a great opportunity when it comes along. Sheryl Sandberg believes success is tied to joining the right mission:

“Get on a rocket ship. When companies are growing quickly and they are having a lot of impact, careers take care of themselves. And when companies aren’t growing quickly or their missions don’t matter as much, that’s when stagnation and politics come in. If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat. Just get on.”

8. Oprah Winfrey at Harvard University, 2013

During her commencement address, Oprah Winfrey touched on something that every graduate needs to hear: the importance of creating your own story. Her words inspire grads to focus on the bigger picture and their purpose in life:

“The challenge of life, I have found, is to build a resume that doesn’t simply tell a story about what you want to be, but it’s a story about who you want to be. It doesn’t just tell a story about what you want to be but why. A story that’s not just a collection of titles, and positions, but a story that’s really about your purpose. When you inevitably stumble and find yourself stuck in a hole, that is the story that will get you out. What is your true calling, what is your dharma, your true purpose.”

9. Barack Obama at Morehouse College, 2013

The POTUS inspired Morehouse’s freshest batch of graduates with some tough love that reminds them that even the most difficult obstacles don’t have to set them back. President Obama ended with strong words of encouragement:

“Nobody cares how tough your upbringing was. Nobody cares if you suffered some discrimination. And moreover, you have to remember that whatever you’ve gone through, it pales in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured — and they overcame them. And if they overcame them, you can overcome them, too.”

10. Dalai Lama at Tulane University, 2013

The Dalai Lama spoke at Tulane’s 2013 graduation ceremony and shared one simple truth that all grads should keep in mind – getting an education is just one step. The next challenge is to decide how to utilize that education for the greater good:

“You might have lost sleep over your exams, but now you have achieved the result. I am impressed to note that while you studied many of you have also made efforts to help others. Education gives us a good preparation, but it is by actually putting it to use in the service of others that we make our lives meaningful.”

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