Graduation is the relieved sigh after college, and graduation speeches are the last nudge to get graduates out the door into what they call "the real world." Every year, influential thinkers, designers, leaders, and entertainers are invited to the top colleges around the world to give a speech that will shed some insight into how they personally reached success in hopes of inspiring the latest graduating class. From the bad to the outstanding, we've combed through decades of speeches to round up the best of the best. Here are some of the ones that inspire us, after graduation and beyond.
"How do you know what is the right path to choose to get the result that you desire? And the honest answer is this. You won’t." - The College of William & Mary, 2004
Much like other commencement speakers, Stewart explains the broken world that graduates are entering into, and he apologizes for it. But unlike others, Stewart goes from funny to profound in 0.038 seconds. From his self-deprecation comes honesty that is unlike any other speech out there and his humor does not evade truth, but unveils it in a way all that makes it digestible to all.
"Nobody has the exact memory that you have. What is now known is not all what you are capable of knowing. 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. And although you don’t have complete control over the narrative (no author does, I can tell you), you could nevertheless create it." - Wellesley College, 2004
Morrison offers up another look at graduating besides turning to the typical topics most commencement speakers pull from: the past, the present, the future, and their ultimate happiness in life. Instead, Morrison insists that graduates look upon themselves as owners of their own narratives, as opposed to something predestined or out of their control. The Nobel laureate wishes for all to be the storytellers of their own stories and to take ownership of them as they do their youth, their pasts, and their careers.
"Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience." - Kenyon College, 2005
How fitting it is that from one of the most inward and thoughtful writers of the 20th century comes a commencement speech that does not bring a call to action, but rather an inflection on our thought process. His speech is long and scattered with a couple of "didactic little parable-ish stories" that he notes many commencement speeches have, before he delves into the darker side of everyday human life and how we can alter our perception of it, only to come back to the first parable, of being aware, not just of oneself, but of one's environment.
"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." - Harvard University, 2008
By no one's surprise, the famous fantasy author urged graduates to use imagination in their lives, something most commencement speeches lacked. Rowling's life had a foundation built upon her own personal failure, something that enabled her to work dutifully on the one thing that she ultimately wanted (and achieved). Rowling emphasizes the use of imagination in order to understand and gain empathy for others in hopes of bettering other's lives and not just our own.
"Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose." - Stanford University, 2005
With already a legacy in tech like no other, Jobs gave a commencement speech not about innovation, but about self-realization. He urges graduates to connect the dots by looking at our past events in life, to love and accept loss when it comes, and to think of death often not as an ending, but as a motivator to live. It is a cruel coincidence that Jobs gave his speech a mere six years before his own untimely death but up until the very end, he practiced what he encouraged those graduates to do.
"The work itself is the reward, and if I choose challenging work, it’ll pay me back with interest. At least I’ll be interested, even if nobody else is." - Vassar College, 1983
Although not Streep's only commencement speech, it is arguably her best. The newly acclaimed star laid out the timeline of rapidly gaining success and what that meant to the work she chose, the people she encountered, and the innumerable things she had to give up in the process. Her urgency was for graduating students to hold onto everything they believed in, no matter the setting. 27 years before her second speech at Barnard where she spoke about feminism in the workplace and throughout the world, Streep had outlined that our political views were an integral part of ourselves and could not be separated from our work or lives.
"It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique. 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." - Dartmouth College, 2011
In what has to be hands down one of the funniest commencement speeches in history, O'Brien starts from nicknaming the university president "Stinky Pete" to insulting the college's motto to congratulating it on graduating a multitude of fictitious alumni who star in shows like Grey's Anatomy and Mad Men. After all of this, the comedian grows serious and recounts his own recent public failure (of not getting The Tonight Show spot) as a learning experience that he ushers graduates to learn from, and to not fear, for it led to his own re-invention.
"Be the heroine of your life, not the victim... Your education is a dress rehearsal for a life that is yours to lead." - Wellesley College, 1996
With a nod to the past and a look at the present, Ephron juxtaposes the things that have changed since she graduated in 1962, and the things that hadn't. From abortion to "playing nice," Ephron speaks about the ever-persisting glass ceiling, the autonomy we have as individuals, and the necessity to move forward in life as well as politics. As much a speech about empowerment, it is an honest address to the power we all hold upon our future decisions.
"...err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial." - Syracuse University, 2013
Perhaps on the more fluffy side of commencement speeches, Saunders hits upon a note that few others do: the importance of kindness. He says that the older we get, the more full of love and kindness we become since we grow to realize this is the underlying single most important factor in human interactions, and these interactions make up a life's worth. He tells students to start early now that they know what awaits them in old age, and that they can do this by just nurturing and sharing their kindness as often as they possibly can.
"I hope you will judge yourselves not on your professional accomplishments alone, but also on how well you have addressed the world’s deepest inequities … on how well you treated people a world away who have nothing in common with you but their humanity." - Harvard University, 2007
Bill Gates has become the Mother Theresa of the tech world. From founding the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation with his wife to signing the Gates-Buffet Giving Pledge, Bill Gates has set a precedent of how it is possible to not just think of the inequality in the world, but to actively act on it. Gates argues that we can all be activists, and that the main reason we are not already is because of the muddle of steps in between what is the reality and what is the ideal outcome seem too difficult to decipher. His call to action is for graduates to pick one aspect of inequality that empassions them and to devote a few hours a week, if not their entire lives, towards changing it. With the help of technology, he urges graduates to take their good fortune and not just better their own lives, but utilize it to do the same for others who are less fortunate than them.
The last hurdle between finals and receiving that diploma is sitting through a graduation speech, the poignant address intended to inspire and motivate young graduates. Many reached this mark, and surpassed it, and we rounded up the best of the best that show insight, truth, and humor into the world graduates are about to enter.
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