Graduation 2013: 8 Best Graduation Speeches Of All Time


Graduation season is once again upon us. All over the country, members of the class of 2013 are finishing senior theses, making future plans, saying tearful goodbyes, and of course, attending graduation ceremonies. There, honored commencement speakers will continue in the age-old tradition of bestowing the graduates with advice about life, relationships, and finding success.

Certain speeches are sure to be crowd-pleasers: Harvard has commissioned none other than Oprah Winfrey, Tulane has his holiness the Dalai Lama, and the U.S. Naval Academy has President Obama. Others may be memorable for different reasons. Already Mitt Romney has received criticism for the advice he gave to graduates of Southern Virginia University earlier this month.

So in celebration of all of the commencement speeches that will happen this year — the good, the bad, and the forgettable — I have comprised a list of some of the most memorable in recent history. The speeches below include messages that everyone can learn from, graduate or not.

1. Randy Pausch - Carnegie Mellon University, 2008

"We don’t beat the reaper by living longer. We beat the reaper by living well and living fully. For the reaper is always going to come for all of us. The question is: What do we do between the time we are born, and the time he shows up? Because when he shows up, it’s too late to do all the things that you’re always gonna, kinda get around to."

Randy Pausch, the beloved Carnegie Mellon professor who garnered international fame for his inspirational speeches, returned to the university to give one final talk to the graduating class of 2008. After being diagnosed with cancer nine months earlier, Pausch gave a lecture called The Last Lecture: Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams that entailed the lessons he had learned and wished to share with others while he still had the chance. His talk inspired people around the world, and was eventually turned into a book with the same name. Here in this talk, Pausch’s message is simple and short: Live life purposefully, pursing your dreams and finding your passion in people.

2. David Foster Wallace - Kenyon College, 2005

"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. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed."

David Foster Wallace’s address to the Kenyon College class or 2005 is a departure from the typically upbeat, inspirational tone of most commencement speeches. With eloquence and thoughtfulness, Wallace tackles some of the darker topics of maturity: the mundane nature of daily life, the ease with which we can get caught up in our own thoughts, etc. But ultimately, Wallace reminds the graduates that we are in control of how we think about the world, and the attitude we choose to live by. Our minds can be our greatest tool or our worst enemy.

Full text can be found here.

3. J.K. Rowling - Harvard University, 2008

"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; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies. The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. 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."

A group of students who had grown reading with J.K. Rowling’s novels came full circle by listening to her as a commencement speaker. In her witty and relatable speech, Rowling recounts for her audience two important lessons life had taught her since her college graduation: the importance of failure, and the importance of imagination.

4. Oprah Winfrey - Spelman College, 2005

"And what do I want? I don't want to just be successful in the world. I don't want to just make a mark, or have a legacy. The answer to that question for me is; I want to fulfill the highest, trues expression of myself as a human being."

No list of commencement speeches would be complete without an entry from Oprah Winfrey. She has given out sage advice at numerous graduations, and this one is no exception. For the women of the Spelman class of 2005, Oprah had three messages: Find who you are, look for ways to serve, and always do the right thing.

5. Michael Lewis - Princeton University, 2012

“All of you have been faced with the extra cookie. All of you will be faced with many more of them. In time you will find it easy to assume that you deserve the extra cookie. For all I know, you may. But you'll be happier, and the world will be better off, if you at least pretend that you don't. Never forget: In the nation's service. In the service of all nations.”

Acclaimed author Michael Lewis (most famous for his book-turned-blockbuster movie Moneyball) returned to his alma mater to offer a bit of “tough love” to the graduating class of 2012.  Instead of praising them for all of the hard work that led to their success, he encouraged the graduates to remember one simple thing: they are lucky. Using anecdotes from his own life, Lewis reminds them that no matter how hard people work in life, some amount of luck is always involved in finding success. While this may not be what successful people want to hear, maintaining perspective of this fact is essential to staying humble.

6. President John F. Kennedy - American University, 1963

"There is no single, simple key to this peace, no grand or magic formula to be adopted by one or two powers. Genuine peace must be the product of many nations, the sum of many acts. It must be dynamic, not static, changing to meet the challenge of each new generation. For peace is a process, a way of solving problems."

President Kennedy delivered this speech at a very tumultuous time in American history. The country was in the throes of the Cold War, relations with the Soviet Union were extremely tense, we had come to the brink of nuclear war with the Bay of Pigs Invasion just two years earlier, and civil unrest was rampant throughout the nation. But in the midst of all of this, President Kennedy chose to speak about peace. Not an idyllic, unattainable idea of absolute peace, but rather the peace that comes when humans work together to consciously undo the wrongs of the past.

Full text can be found here.

7. Bono - University of Pennsylvania, 2004

"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?"

Bringing the charisma that only he can, Bono challenged students to find their own cause to be passionate about. The problems in this world abound, he cautions. But change is possible. It may come about slowly, but change is only brought about by passionate people; people willing to fight for what they believe in. 

8. Toni Morrison

"Well it’s true. I am myself a storyteller, and therefore, an optimist — a firm believer in the ethical bend of the human heart; a believer in the mind’s appetite for truth and its disgust with fraud and selfishness. From my point of view, your life is already a miracle of chance waiting for you to shape its destiny. From my point of view, your life is already artful — waiting, just waiting, for you to make it art."

Toni Morrison shared with Rutgers graduates a vision for the future in which the social justice issue of today are mere memories. She invites them to imagine such a future as well, and empowers them to make the changes she describes. Everyone is the author of his or her own story, Morrison says, and we all have the power to make it something great.

Full text can be found here.