Top 10 Graduation Speeches of All Time
And some good places to start if you need to write one…
It was a about year ago that I got a deal for YouTube Red that gave me 6 months of subscription for $1, so I decided to try it out. I had never been a big watcher of YouTube before because I believed it was like watching TV which I always considered a waste of time. BUT, I had recently (at the time) been told that Sheryl Sandberg’s graduation speech was really good and that I should go watch it. It was May/June and all the graduations were taking place and so the first thing I did was look up “best graduation speeches” and my life was changed forever.
Having written a graduation speeches for both my elementary school and college ceremonies (which I will share at the end), I had an idea of what made a good speech and what contributes to a horrible speech.
There’s something just amazing about graduation speeches because they literally are the world’s best knowledge summed up in like 10–15 minutes. The life experience and wisdom of a single person combined with hours of their own research putting it together is something of a sight to hear.
TED talks today are really almost a streamlined fancy version of a graduation speech, given by a leading expert in their field. However, there’s just something magical about a graduation speech because you have a captive (possibly drunk, non-attentive) group of accomplished students who are about to embark on the next chapter of their lives.
Graduation (otherwise known as Commencement) speeches are more about imparting life lessons and life journeys of a person rather than informing or demonstrating their latest research. They’re meant to be aspirational while TED talks are more inspirational.
They are about someone who has already walked the path providing insight, and possible steps to get there, but most of all, proof that it’s possible (and that everything will be OK!)
While the reports are still coming in from this past month’s round of commencements for 2017, there is still a very large database of existing ones to look back on! Though, if you’ve seen Will Ferrell’s USC speech, you won’t be disappointed. Mark Zuckerberg’s Harvard speech is pretty good too along with Tim Cook’s for MIT. The irony being that Harvard gave Zuckerberg an honorary degree years after he dropped out.
With that said, here are my top 10 graduation speeches of all time:
(I tried to make it as gender balanced as possible and as diverse as possible with people from all different backgrounds and given at different schools!)
1. Steve Jobs (Stanford, 2005)
Favorite Quote: “Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish”
This one is an instant classic because Steve Jobs literally just tells it like it is. It’s very straightforward and to the point. There’s a great interview where he says that life changeable and moldable to how you want it to be.
His approach to his commencement speech is simple, it’s just 3 stories from his life, “No big deal, just three stories.”
- Connecting the Dots — “You can’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backwards.”
- Love and Loss — “Keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.”
- Death — “For the past 33 years, I have looked in the morning and asked myself, ‘If the today was the last day of my life, would I want to do what I’m about to do today?’”
2. J.K. Rowling (Harvard, 2008)
Favorite Quote: “Achievable goals, the 1st step to self-improvement.”
J.K. Rowling’s speech appeals to the young graduates by admitting that the weeks and weeks of nausea have helped her to lose weight and that when recalling her own graduation day speaker, she can’t remember a thing that the famous British speaker said, so that gave her the ease knowing that the wisdom she imparted that day would most likely not influence them in any way to become a “gay wizard!”
She then goes into the two main points of her talk:
- The Fringe Benefits of Failure (aka tests of adversity)
- The Crucial Importance of Imagination
She talks about her childhood upbringing and how much heartbreak and heartache she went through in poverty. Failure helped her strip away the inessential and concentrate on the only work that ever mattered to her, which is now what we all know and love as Harry Potter, a now billion-dollar industry that has inspired billions of people around the world.
We touch other people’s lives simply by existing.
We do not need magic to transform our world, we carry everything we need inside ourselves already, we have the power to imagine better.
She actually turned her speech into a book for everyone to read and enjoy.
3. Sheryl Sandberg (UC Berkeley, 2016)
Favorite Quote: “When life sucks you under, you can kick against the bottom, find the surface and breathe again.”
Lean into the suck.
This was the graduation speech that got me into this whole obsession. What really grabbed me was that this was the first time she had spoken since the death of her husband and the raw emotion you can feel from her words is so authentic and awe-inspiring that it just grips you in your seat as you hang on every word describing her road to recovery and resilience.
A graduation speech is meant to be a dance between youth and wisdom.
She said that this speech would be a little bit different. She was not going to talk about what she learned in life, but what she learned in Death. The death of her husband, Dave and how the grief had changed her in very profound ways.
In the face of the void, or any challenge, you can choose joy and meaning.
It is the hard days, the days that challenge you to your very core that will determine who you are.
Your life is not determined by what you achieve but how you survive.
Sometimes Option A will not be available, so you just got to “kick the shit out of Option B”.
You just have to remember Martin Seligman’s 3 P’s (or keys) for how to bounce back from setbacks and hardship:
- Personalization — the belief we are at fault but it’s important to remember “don’t take failures personally”
- Pervasiveness — the belief that an event will affect all areas of your life
- Permanence — the belief that the sorrow will last forever
If you can overcome the traps of the 3 P’s then your entire paradigm will shift and you’ll be well on your way to healing. Your “psychological immune system” will kick into gear.
The seeds of resilience are planted in how we process negative events… Finding gratitude and appreciation is key to resilience.
4. Will Ferrell (Harvard, 2003)
Favorite Quote: I graduated from the university of LIFE. I received a degree from the school of hard knocks.
This is one of the BEST commencement speeches EVER GIVEN. But unless you have a degree in comedy and have done standup for years and years and years, then this method of graduation speech should probably be left to the professionals. It’s the best example of using story and imagination to set the fun tone for the entire speech. He says, “Today’s speech is going to be a little bit different, a little unorthodox.”
This is not the Wooster Mass boat show is it?!…
He tells what it’s really like outside the safe and comfy walls of Harvard and that he has no idea what they’ve gone through since he never graduated college, but what he can give are examples of the tough life they’re about to endure over the next few years (albeit hilariously ridiculous examples).
At the time, the President was George W. Bush, so he does a famous impersonation of a letter that the president supposedly wrote to the graduates congratulating them on their achievements. It’s funny now seeing it 2 presidents later and seeing how we always make fun of our presidents for any reason possible.
His comedic techniques are spot on, and he plants a joke early on and then uses it again in the George W. Bush letter, it’s pure brilliance.
Now that he’s given his 2017 speech, I think they might have had to take the Harvard one down or at least change it in some way, so the only good quality one I could find was the above playlist of 3 videos.
Compared with his 2017 speech, this one might not have as great a structure in terms of overall writing, but it’s a classic that one should just watch in your lifetime since it’s sets such a precedent of what comedic graduation speeches CAN BE if done right.
And then, it seems that his signature way to end his speeches is with a song, so he chooses “Dust in the Wind,” finishes with great custom lyrics and ends to a standing ovation.
5. Natalie Portman (Harvard, 2015)
Favorite Quote: Achievement is wonderful when you know why you’re doing it, and when you don’t know, it can be a terrible trap.
Guess what? Natalie Portman graduated IN 2003 and you know who gave the Harvard speech in 2003? That’s right. Will Ferrell.
It’s CRAZY to watch this speech directly after Will Ferrell’s because you can see how far a person’s life can come since the days of graduation, and it’s really cool to hear her story of her life following those days.
She knows she’s not a comedian, but knows she can be poignant, so she embraces that.
[Your university] is giving you all diplomas tomorrow. You are here for a reason.
She’s graceful, beautiful, and eloquent, and discusses her insecurities at being an actor in a world of academics and how she had to deal with that in her own family life as well as when she first attended Harvard.
She goes on to say, “There was a reason I was an actor, I love what I do.” And that she didn’t need any more explanation to her reason. She describes, “I wanted to tell stories, imagine the lives of others and help others do the same.”
What’s great about this speech is it’s done by an actor, but a non-comedic one and shows how you don’t need comedy to make a great speech.
Her motto for her time at university and through the dark times was, “Done. Not good.” and how restaurants in Japan like Jiro’s sushi restaurant that she want to with her husband only focused on ONE thing, making something “Good and Never Done” and taking pleasure in the beauty and particular.
She emphasizes the importance of doing things only that you’re passionate about simply for the experience making them and the opportunity to meet people that could later become your best friends.
Dive into your own obliviousness.
Embrace your inexperience and your not knowing how to do things because you’ll try more things than you ever thought or imagined.
It’s true: “Helping others ends up helping you more than anyone.”
6. Neil Gaiman (University of the Arts, 2012)
Favorite Quote (of course!): “Make Good Art”
This time, we hear from the perspective from a science fiction writer, Neil Gaiman, who has written episodes for Dr. Who and most recently known for his novel, American Gods. This is a great speech for anyone who is pursuing a Creative Career or a career path in the Arts.
Though he goes into how he didn’t really have a career plan or a straight path that he took. He just had a list of things he knew what he wanted to do (i.e. like write a novel, do a comic, maybe an episode of Dr. Who, etc.)
I didn’t have a career, I just did the next thing on the list.
He has some good rules of thumb for people entering the arts:
- Embrace the fact that you have no idea what you’re doing (because you don’t know what possible or impossible) [similar to Natalie Portman’s message towards the end of her 2015 talk]
- Don’t do things just for the money. If you didn’t get the money, then you wouldn’t have anything. But if you do work that you’re proud of and don’t get the money, then at least you’ll have the work.
- The problems of success can be difficult because you’ll have “imposter syndrome” and someone will discover you’re a fraud.
- “I hope you’ll make mistakes” — If you make mistakes, it means you’re out there doing something, and making the world more interesting for your having existed.
- Let go and enjoy the ride. You should enjoy the work that you do and the process. Don’t worry about the next thing you have to do.
I really like the analogies he gives where as an artist, you have to be thick-skinned and be accustomed to failure and learn that “not every project will survive”. You have to see the work that you do like putting messages in bottles and throwing them in the ocean and hoping someone will open it and read it and put something in the bottle that will wash its way back to you in the form of appreciation, a commission, money, love or agents asking you to publish. You have to accept that you may have to put hundreds of things for every bottle that finds its way back. But you just have to keep putting bottles in the ocean.
He goes on to describe something that helped him. He imagined that where he wanted to be was a distant Mountain and that anything that got him closer to the mountain he did, and things that took him away from walking towards the mountain.
He tended to do anything as long as it felt like an adventure and to stop when it felt like work which meant that life didn’t feel like work.
Write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can.
7. David Foster Wallace (Kenyon College, 2005)
Favorite quote (of course!): This is water… this is water.
This video is actually only an audio recording of what David Foster Wallace said to the graduating class of a liberal arts college. There have been GREAT visualizations of his speech, condensed and shortened for highest impact. I always play this video at the end of a talk to senior students about to graduate because it’s so poignant and well-stated.
There is also a PDF version of his speech if you would like to read along.
He talks about how to think and how your paradigms can affect your entire experience of the world. How we’ve all grown up in world where we’re at the center of it and how that’s our naturally default state.
It is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head.
His main message is that what you choose to pay attention to matters and you’re ability to be aware of that and control what enters your mind is what will define your reality. And if we default to our easy and automatic natural setting of selfishness, then the rest of the world and the people in it will just seem like they’re just in the way.
If you really learn how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options… You get to decide how you’re going to see it… The trick is keeping truth upfront in daily consciousness.
8. Jim Carrey (Maharishi University of Management, 2014)
Favorite Quote: I have no limits. I cannot be contained because I’m the container. You can’t contain the container, man!
Even though Jim Carrey is a comedic actor, and he uses comedy to enhance his speech, this is a different example than what we’ve previously seen in Will Ferrell’s 2003 address because Jim Carrey actually has a lot of poignant moments instead of just entirely comedy.
Sometimes that’s the only thing that’s important really, is just letting each other know we’re here, reminding each other that we’re part of a larger self.
It’s not just our bodies, which are loaners that have to be returned, but everything outside of ourselves is part of us too.
He actually thanks the parents for paying attention to their children because he has a saying that he keeps with him, “Beware the unloved for the will eventually hurt themselves (or me).”
There’s a world out there starving for new ideas and new leadership. Fear will be a player in your life but you get to decide on how much. (Another allusion to choice like David Foster Wallace’s 2005 talk). The decisions you make in this moment are either made out of love or fear. And many of us choose the path of fear cleverly disguised as “practicality.”
His best story and message really comes from: “Asking the Universe for what you want.” There’s a great clip from the Oprah show (the first bullet point on Evan Carmichael’s Top 10 Rules for Success) that goes into how he wrote a $10 million dollar check to himself and years later it came true.
A lesson he learned from his father is, “You can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love.”
He states that he discovered that the purpose of his life was to “free people from concern”, just like his dad (who used to say that he wasn’t the ham, he was the whole pig. haha!)
What’s yours? How will you serve the world? What do they need that your talent can provide?
That’s all you have to figure out because the effect that you have on others is the most valuable currency there is. “Everything you gain in life will rot and fall apart, and all that will be left of you is what was in your heart.”
There are a TON of golden nuggets in this one, almost every line is one that I would write down. He finishes talking about our egos and how we’ll have a tendency to never be satisfied. “Just relax and dream up a good life.”
9. Valedictorian Carl Aquino (West Hall High School, 2010)
Favorite Quote: “[Proposing to the girl of your dreams] is pretty much what applying to college is like… But what you didn’t tell her was… You proposed to a bunch of backup chicks just in case she didn’t marry you.”
This is such a unique speech that it made the top 10. There’s also another very highly rated speech by Ryan Burtons of La Plata High School.
This is fantastic if you’re just starting out writing your commencement address and want a good starting point for how to structure your speech. He takes people on a journey (and has some great visualizations and soothing music to accompany it!) but it’s really the story he tells that makes the difference.
He basically describes the journey they all went through over the past 4 years of high school. It’s just so clever the way he tells the story starting with Freshmen year. Then he changes music through each year and then matches the style of his speech to what the experience was at that time.
Then has a GREAT way of describing the application process to college. That’s my favorite part.
10. Conan O’Brien
Favorite Quote: Before I begin, behind me sits a hired president of the United States and decorated war hero, while I, a cable television talk show host, have been chosen to stand here and impart wisdom. I pray I’ve never witnessed a more damning example of what is wrong with America today.
Conan uses his great TV personality to bring some good jokes and dry wit humor to the stage. He mocks himself and the college he’s speaking at noting all the things he found silly while doing research for his speech.
In the middle of the speech, he says he wanted his speech as memorable as Winston Churchill’s speech at Westminster College in 1963, so he instated the Conan Doctrine which has a bunch of great upgrades.
Then he decides to give real practical advice rather than cliché advice like “Reach for the Stars” to survive the next few years. Thus, his first piece of wisdom is: “Adult acne lasts longer than you think.” & “You cannot iron your shirt while wearing it.”
But the heart of his talk comes almost 15 minutes in when he describes the experiences of his life following the unexpected come-back of Jay Leno and how he recovered after having his dreams crushed.
Though you should not fear failure, you should do your very best to avoid it.
But because of his loss and not getting what he wanted, he started “trying things” which allowed him to bring his comedy to the public in many silly, different, unconventional ways. He said it the most satisfying and fascinating year of his life. Now he’s never had more conviction about what he’s doing.
Your path at 22 will not necessarily be your path at 32 or 42. One’s dream is constantly evolving, rising and falling, changing course… Whatever you think your dream is now, it will probably change, and that’s OK.
The point of his talk is summed up: It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique.
Work hard, be kind, and amazing things will happen.
If you accept and handle your misfortune, you can use your perceived failure for profound reinvention. No specific career goal should define us. Disappointment is inevitable but through those experiences, “you can gain clarity, and with clarity comes conviction and true originality.”
Admiral William H. McRaven (University of Texas, Austin, 2014)
There are some amazing golden nuggets of wisdom that he gives from his Top 10 Lessons he learned from Navy Seal training. They’re incredibly useful and true.
Plus any speech given by Oprah, President Obama, Meryl Streep of course are super eloquent and well-written. So you can look them up too after you’ve started with these.
Tips for Writing Your Own Graduation Speech
People have sung, rapped, done spoken-word poetry, etc. Basically anything under the sun you can think of has probably been done already. So you just have to stay true to yourself.
Tip #1: Don’t ever mention another school in your commencement address. You’ll notice in Will Farrell’s 2017 address, he doesn’t even mention that he spoke at Harvard in 2003. He just pretends that this is the only “real” speech he’s given (which is actually semi-true since his Harvard one was more of a comedy sketch). But you can make fun of them, like in Conan’s speech :)
Tip #2: Most speeches online are around the 20 minute mark. (Though they can range anywhere from 10–25 minutes).
Tip #3: Share personal stories not just simple platitudes. Those are often some of the most memorable.
Tip #4: You can thank people at the beginning or middle of the address and include a funny joke about some of the random people who come to graduations. (Ex: W. Ferrell, Ellen DeGenerous, Meryl S., Conan)
Tip #5: Give people a mental road map of what topics you’re going to hit in your speech or some idea of the number of lessons you’re going to give. It helps people keep track of things in their head.
Tip #6: Maybe take a short speech class or online course for how to structure a speech. Getting the fundamental basics can serve as training wheels. I took a speech class in middle school at the local high school right before I gave my 8th grade speech so I could sound semi-coherent.
Tip #7: If you went to that school, talk about the journey (something the students can all relate to).
Tip #8: If you did NOT go to that school, then talk about the journey of creating your speech. (You’ll find several examples of people describing how anxious they were or that after they got the call they freaked out, etc.) And if you’re famous, you can talk about your own journey.
Tip #9: End with a quote or paraphrase something related to the main message of your talk so it reinforces the one main takeaway you want the students (and world) to remember.
Tip #10: Don’t be afraid to say your main message several times over the course of your speech so they understand why you’re telling them certain stories.
Jonathan Chew (UCLA School of Engineering, 2009)
Finally, here’s the speech that I gave to the UCLA Engineering School in 2009. I wasn’t as polished, eloquent, funny, and unique as some of the ones you’ve seen here today, but I stayed true to myself. I just wanted to inspire everyone to go off and do amazing things. And of course, since I’m a HUGE Star Trek fan, I had to insert a Star Trek quote somewhere.
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