Some commencement addresses stand way above all others, offering inspirational graduation quotes that live on and on, and with good reason; the advice is timeless.
Do you remember your graduation? I remember my graduation from college. Do you remember the commencement address at your graduation? I must confess, I’m a little foggier there.
The year was 1983 and I sat in a hot church in Columbia, Missouri listening to award-winning journalist and best-selling author, Linda Ellerbee gave the commencement address to my Journalism School’s graduating class. Yes, I’d made the cut. I was thrilled. My parents were more thrilled.
Though a famous journalist was addressing the crowd, I don’t remember a single piece of advice she offered. That’s the thing about graduations: the graduates’ minds are focused on just about everything else except on the advice the speaker is offering up that day.
Anyway, since that time, I’ve sat through many, many graduation ceremonies for nieces, nephews, other relatives, and various friends. What strikes me is that the messages conveyed in the commencement addresses are usually pretty dang awesome. Potentially life-changing, in fact, so why do we just applaud them at the ceremony and then go on living our lives as though we didn’t possess the secrets for how to live our lives more fully?
I think it’s wise to revisit the very best themes and messages offered in graduation speeches. That’s why I looked at some of the best-of-the-best commencement addresses around to see what wisdom could be gained.
So, without further ado, here are …
My 15 Favorite Inspirational Graduation Quotes From the Most Awesome Commencement Speeches of All Time …
1. Steve Jobs – 2005 Stanford Commencement Address
Jobs’ address to the 2005 graduating class of Stanford is considered by many to be one of the most profound graduation speeches ever delivered (read full text here).
Let’s face it, when one of the most innovative and successful businessmen of all time stands up to talk, people listen. Knowing that Jobs was taking to the podium after receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis was yet another reason to pay sharp attention … it was a reminder that our days on this planet are both precious and limited and one must make the most of whatever time we do have. Everyone was all ears.
In his 15-minute address, Jobs discusses: trusting that the dots will somehow connect in your future; why the only way to be satisfied with your work is doing work you believe is great; the reasons why you should never settle; and, why remembering that you won’t live forever is such an important tool.
This message from Jobs’ address is the one that resonated with me the most:
“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. 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. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” ~ Steve Jobs
2. Bono – 2004 University of Pennsylvania Commencement Address
Who doesn’t love U2’s Bono, right? Whether you admire him as a musician, or for his global charity work, or for his advocacy for social change, it doesn’t matter. Bottom line, Bono is change-maker … a man with big ideas who has the courage, conviction, and tenacity to work towards making his vision come to fruition. Which is why I love this message Bono shared with the lucky University of Pennsylvania graduates who got to hear his speech back in 2004:
“Your pockets are full, even if your parents’ are empty, and now you’ve got to figure out what to spend it on. … So, my question I suppose is: What’s the big idea? What’s your big idea? What are you willing to spend your moral capital, your intellectual capital, your cash, your sweat equity in pursuing outside of the walls of the University of Pennsylvania?
My point is that the world is more malleable than you think and it’s waiting for you to hammer it into shape.” ~ Bono
3. Mark S. Lewis. Ph.D. – 2000 University of Texas at Austin Commencement Address
I’m bummed that I couldn’t find a full video to share for Lewis’ address to the 2000 graduates of the University of Texas at Austin, because it contains one of the best messages around about developing a great relationship with yourself. I think more people need to both hear and heed this advice.
The transcript of Lewis’ graduation speech is available on the University of Texas Psychology website … I encourage to read check it out when you have the time. Here are a few of my favorite lines from his address:
“The way to be happy is to like yourself. That’s the real reason not to lie or cheat or turn away in fear. There’s that old joke, not very funny, that goes ‘no matter where you go, there you are.’ That’s true. The person who you’re with most in life is yourself and if you don’t like yourself you’re always with somebody you don’t like.” ~ Mark Lewis
4. Stephen King – 2001 Vassar College Commencement Address
Stephen King takes to the stage jesting about what a strange choice it was for Vassar to have America’s “boogey man” deliver the commencement address. Then, he launches into a number of thoughts that at first can seem terrifying, but yet also offer inspiration for the graduates.
King offers a compelling reminder for graduates about the perils of self-absorption and materialism, and the great gift of sharing with those who don’t have the same advantages that the graduates are blessed to have. King reminds us all:
“What will you do? Well, I’ll tell you one thing you’re not going to do, and that’s take it with you.” ~ Stephen King
5. Ellen DeGeneres – 2009 Tulane University Commencement Address
If you know anything about Emmy-winning, talk-show host Ellen Degeneres, you know that the price she’s had to pay for being authentic was at times quite high. In 1997 she made history when she revealed she was a lesbian, which sparked a huge stir and oftentimes hurtful discussion, not to mention career and financial strain as her sitcom was cancelled the following season.
To many, it appeared that her career was over, but yet Ellen came back … not by trying to please everyone, but rather by showing the world what a tremendously loving, kind, and compassionate person she really was. And, oh yeah, talented …Ellen is wickedly talented, which is why millions watch The Ellen DeGeneres Show every day.
Ellen’s advice, delivered with her trademark blend of both heart and humor, is:
“Follow your passion, stay true to yourself, never follow someone else’s path unless you’re in the woods and you’re lost and you see a path then by all means you should follow that.” ~ Ellen Degeneres
6. George Saunders – 2013 Syracuse University Commencement Address
In his often light-hearted commencement address, George Saunders, author of the New York Times best-seller the Tenth of December, delivered a poignant speech that was packed with valuable thoughts for graduates and everyone else, too. I’m particularly touched by this thought on the importance of kindness:
“What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. Those moments when another human being was right there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded … sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly. … As a goal in life, you could do worse than try to be kinder.” ~ George Saunders
7. Randy Pausch – 2008 Carnegie Mellon Commencement Address
Professor Randy Pausch is best known for his amazing book and lecture: The Last Lecture. Yet he made another amazing speech on May 19, 2008, just a few months before losing his battle to pancreatic cancer on July 25, 2008.
This time, his lecture was a short speech to Carnegie Mellon’s graduating class of 2008. Frankly, I’d like to place the entire text of the short speech here … I simply find Randy Pausch that inspiring. My strong recommendation: read this quote now, but go watch the entire speech when you have 6:32 minutes to spare.
“We don’t beat the Grim Reaper by living longer, we beat the Reaper by living well and living fully, for the Reaper will come for all of us. The question is what do we do between the time we are born and the time he shows up.
It’s too late to do all the things that you’re gonna kinda get around to. You will need to find your passion. Don’t give up on finding it because then all you’re doing is waiting for the Reaper. You will not find your passion in things and you will not find your passion in money … Your passion must come from the things that fuel you from the inside.” ~ Randy Pausch
8. Jim Carrey – 2014 Maharishi University of Management Commencement Address
Who’da thunk it: Jim Carrey is deep … much deeper than I would have expected from the man who became famous for playing Ace Ventura. (Shame on me for judging, right? I agree!).
When addressing the graduates of MUM, Carrey delivers one mind-blowingly amazing speech, wrapped up in his trademark hilarious manner. In Carrey’s emotional talk, he touches on subjects such as: how the graduates will change the world; the search for identity; lessons learned from his dad; how to deal with fear; finding real peace; the need for acceptance; daring to be seen, and more.
As with many of these commencement addresses I’m including on this list, choosing just one gem to pull out of the speech was difficult. Below is the gem I decided to share, yet I emphatically encourage you watch the entire 26.08 minute speech … it’ll touch you at your very core.
“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.” ~ Jim Carrey
9. Sue Monk Kidd – 2010 Scripps College Commencement Address
Sue Monk Kidd’s address to the 2010 graduates of Scripps College goes down in the books as one of my favorites because she marries a couple of important points that hit home for me, namely: “…One of the more powerful outbreaks of happiness and meaning in your life will occur when you pair your passion and the world’s need.” Don’t you just love that?
By the way, Kidd gives a nod in her speech to Frederik Beatner who was her inspiration for that message, his famous quote being “You are called to a place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
Kidd ends her address with a rousing call to action that is just as valid for the 2010 graduates back then as it is for us today:
“Go make your big beautiful dent, and as you do so come down on the side of boldness. If you err, may it be for too much audacity, and not too little. For you really are enough. You have untold strengths and resources inside. You have your glorious self.” ~ Sue Monk Kidd
12. Bradley Witford – 2004 University of Wisconsin Commencement Address
Actor Bradley Witford is best known for his performance as Josh Lyman in the television series, The West Wing. I’ve always enjoyed him as an actor, but yet never really thought of turning to him for advice on dealing with adversity. That is, until I saw this quote from his address to the 2004 graduates of the University of Wisconsin: “Life is too challenging for external rewards to sustain us. The joy is in the journey.”
When I see a message that powerful, I figure it’s time to take a closer look at his full speech. I’m glad I did. Here’s my favorite takeaway from his address to the University of Wisconsin graduates:
“You have a choice. You can either be a passive victim of circumstance or you can be the active hero of your own life. Action is the antidote to apathy and cynicism and despair. You will inevitably make mistakes. Learn what you can and move on. At the end of your days, you will be judged by your gallop, not by your stumble.” ~ Bradley Witford
11. Daniel Pink – 2014 Northwestern University Weinberg College Convocation Address
New York Times best-selling author Daniel Pink has made a name for himself with his work on the subjects of persuasion, drive, motivation, the pros of right-braining thinking, and more. In 2013, Thinkers 50 named Pink one of the top 15 business thinkers in the world.
Graduates of the 2014 Class of Northwestern’s Weinberg College were in for a treat when it was decided that Pink would take the podium to give the convocation address. He did not disappoint.
My favorite message from Pink’s address:
“Sometimes, the only way to discover who you are or what life you should lead is to do less PLANNING and more LIVING — to burst the double bubble of comfort and convention and just DO stuff, even if you don’t know precisely where it’s going to lead, BECAUSE you don’t know precisely where it’s going to lead.” ~ Daniel Pink
12. J.K. Rowling – 2008 Harvard University Commencement Address
You may not think of J.K. Rowling, the billionaire author of Harry Potter, as an incredible failure, but in her commencement address to the 2008 graduating class of Harvard, she admitted she had felt like a complete failure at one point in her life. Dirt broke, a single parent, and struggling from a disastrous marriage, Rowling was forced to take it one day at a time, clinging to her dreams of becoming a successful writer. Rowling told the audience “rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”
What did she gain from feeling like a failure? This is what she offered to the graduating class that is still wonderful wisdom for us all today:
“Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected … The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive.” ~ J. K. Rowling
13. Alan Alda – 2011 Commencement Address for The Williston Northhampton School
No doubt Alda took to the stage because his granddaughter was a member of 2011 Williston Class, but what a treat his speech was to all who attended … and it’s a treat for us now.
Alda encouraged graduates to be brave … keep challenging ideas … keep learning, because “learning is probably the only thing you can get high on that actually does you good.”
My favorite quote from Alda’s address:
“You gotta have a dream, but you gotta keep working on it. If you don’t work on it, it’s just a badge you wear and it doesn’t mean anything.” ~ Alan Alda
14. Oprah Winfrey – 2000 Stanford Commencement Address
No surprise that Oprah made this list, right? Her commencement message to the Stanford Class of 2008 (which included Oprah’s goddaughter Kirby Bumpus, Gail King’s daughter) was particularly memorable.
While Oprah’s address was laced with a ton of inspiring messages that are as just as powerful today as they were in 2008, this was my favorite thing she said in her address:
“I believe that there’s a lesson in almost everything that you do and every experience, and getting the lesson is how you move forward. It’s how you enrich your spirit. And, trust me, I know that inner wisdom is more precious than wealth. The more you spend it, the more you gain.” ~ Oprah Winfrey
15. Dalai Lama – 2013 Tulane University Commencement Address
When His Holiness the Dalai Lama delivers a commencement address, you know two things are going to happen: The first is that it’s going to be difficult to understand his message through his broken English and heavy accent. The second is that’s it’s well-worth paying close attention, because the Dalai Lama always delivers messages that matter.
Here’s the thought from his graduation address that touched my heart most deeply:
“Despite difficulties, always keep optimism. ‘I can overcome these difficulties.’ That mental attitude itself will bring inner strength and self-confidence.” ~ Dalai Lama
Other Great Sources of Commencement Inspiration You’ll Want to Check Out:
- The fast clips – 12 Best Commencement Speeches from Millionaires. A 3:59 minute mashup of 12 amazing speeches from famous rich people. It’s definitely worth watching!
- NPR has put together an amazing collection of over 300 commencement addresses that date back to 1774. It’s worth a closer look.