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13 of the best graduation speeches of all time

J.K. Rowling reading Harry Potter at White HouseGetty Images/Chip SomodevillaAuthor J.K. Rowling.

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 favourites.

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.

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.

Read the transcript and watch the video.

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 b
reaking free of that lens can allow you to truly experience life, to consider possibilities beyond your default reactions. '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,' he said.

Read the transcript and watch the video.

Robert Krulwich's 2011 speech to the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism

The acclaimed science journalist and 'Radiolab' host steered clear of inspirational vagaries to offer a concretely useful speech -- whether you're in media or not.

'You can't trust big companies to keep you safe,' he warned. You could once, maybe -- there was a time when getting in the door at the right place meant they'd 'take you in, teach you, protect you,' he said. At least in journalism, though, those days are gone.

But that doesn't mean doom for new grads. It just means a change of strategy. 'Think about entrepeneuring,' he urged. 'Think about NOT waiting for a company to call you up. Think about not giving your heart to a bunch of adults you don't know. Think about horizontal loyalty. Think about turning to people you already know, who are your friends, or friends of their friends, and making something that makes sense to you together, that is as beautiful or as true as you can make it,' he said. It won't lead to instant success, he cautioned. But the people 'who stay at it, who stay stubborn, very often win.'

Read the transcript and watch the video.

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.'

Read the transcript and watch the video.

Stephen Colbert's 2011 speech at Northwestern University

The comedian and soon-to-be 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.

Read the transcript and watch the video.

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.'

Read the transcript and watch the video.

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.

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.'

See the transcript and watch the video.

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.

The result, he said, would be a happier, more peaceful, and more complete existence. '(I)n 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.'

See the partial transcript and watch the video.

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.'

Read the transcript and watch the video.

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 realised 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.

Read the transcript and watch the video.

Joss Whedon's 2013 speech at Wesleyan University

Speaking at his alma mater, the writer/director/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, he said. (F)or 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.'

Read the transcript and watch the video.

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.'

Read the transcript and watch the video.

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 character. '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.'

Read the transcript and watch the video.

Now get more inspiration from those at the top...

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