The 21 greatest graduation speeches of the last 50 years

by German Lopez on May 15, 2014

Graduation speeches are the last opportunity for a high school or college to educate its students. It's unsurprising, then, that these institutions often pull in some of the world's most powerful people to leave an equally powerful impression on their students. Here are the best of those speeches and some of the sections that resonate the most.


  1. David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College, 2005

    Jamie Sullivan

    David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College, 2005

    “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, 'Morning, boys. How's the water?' And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, 'What the hell is water?' This is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches: the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories. The story thing turns out to be one of the better, less bulshitty conventions of the genre, but if you're worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise, older fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don't be. I am not the wise old fish.”

  2. Steve Jobs at Stanford University, 2005

    Stanford University

    Steve Jobs at Stanford University, 2005

    “No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It’s life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it’s quite true. 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.”

  3. Ellen Degeneres at Tulane University, 2009

    Tulane University

    Ellen Degeneres at Tulane University, 2009

    “I know that a lot of you are concerned about your future, but there’s no need to worry. The economy is booming, the job market is wide open, the planet is just fine. It’s gonna be great. You’ve already survived a hurricane. What else can happen to you? And as I mentioned before, some of the most devastating things that happen to you will teach you the most. And now you know the right questions to ask for your first job interview — like, ‘Is it above sea level?’ So to conclude my conclusion that I’ve previously concluded in the common cement speech, I guess what I’m trying to say is life is like one big Mardi Gras. But instead of showing your boobs, show people your brain. And if they like what they see, you’ll have more beads than you know what to do with. And you’ll be drunk most of the time.”

  4. Conan O'Brien at Dartmouth College, 2011

    Team Coco

    Conan O'Brien at Dartmouth College, 2011

    “Way back in the 1940s there was a very, very funny man named Jack Benny. He was a giant star and easily one of the greatest comedians of his generation. And a much younger man named Johnny Carson wanted very much to be Jack Benny. In some ways he was, but in many ways he wasn’t. He emulated Jack Benny, but his own quirks and mannerisms, along with a changing medium, pulled him in a different direction. And yet his failure to completely become his hero made him the funniest person of his generation. David Letterman wanted to be Johnny Carson, and was not, and as a result my generation of comedians wanted to be David Letterman. And none of us are — my peers and I have all missed that mark in a thousand different ways. But the point is this: 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 reinvention.”

  5. Carol Bartz at University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2012

    University of Wisconsin-Madison

    Carol Bartz at University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2012

    “Accept failure and learn from it. Failure is part of life, it’s part of every career, and you have to know how to take advantage of it. The single greatest strength that this country has via Silicon Valley is that failure is seen as a sign of experience. Failure is part of work, it’s part of life. People are willing to take risks on the way to innovation. One of my fondest sayings is fail, fast, forward. Recognize you’ve failed, try to do it fast, learn from it, build on it, and move forward. Embrace failure, have it be part of your persona. You’re going to have long careers, as I’ve already told you, you’re going to have many failures — personal, business, professional. I’ve had my share. But just use this as a building block to your next success.”

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

    C-SPAN

    President John F. Kennedy at American University, 1963

    “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. With such a peace, there will still be quarrels and conflicting interests, as there are within families and nations. World peace, like community peace, does not require that each man love his neighbor — it requires only that they live together in mutual tolerance, submitting their disputes to a just and peaceful settlement.”

  7. David McCullough Jr. at Wellesley High School, 2012

    Wellesley High School

    David McCullough Jr. at Wellesley High School, 2012

    “Like accolades ought to be, the fulfilled life is a consequence — a gratifying byproduct. It’s what happens when you’re thinking about more important things. Climb the mountain not to plant your flag but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air, and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you. Go to Paris to be in Paris, not to cross it off your list and congratulate yourself for being worldly. Exercise free will and creative independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you but for the good they will do others — the rest of the 6.8 billion and those who will follow them. And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special, because everyone is.”

  8. Stephen Colbert at Northwestern University, 2011

    Joshua Sherman

    Stephen Colbert at Northwestern University, 2011

    “You have been told to follow your dreams, but what if it’s a stupid dream? For instance, Stephen Colbert of 25 years ago lived at 2015 North Ridge with two men and three women in what I now know was a brothel. He dreamed of living alone — well, alone with his beard in a large, barren loft apartment, lots of blonde wood, wearing a kimono, with a futon on the floor and a Samovar of tea constantly bubbling in the background, doing Shakespeare in the street for homeless people. Today, I am a beardless, suburban dad who lives in a house, wears no iron khakis, and makes Anthony Weiner jokes for a living. And I love it, because thankfully dreams can change. If we’d all stuck with our first dream, the world would be overrun with cowboys and princesses. So whatever 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.”

  9. Sheryl Sandberg at Harvard Business School, 2012

    Harvard Business School

    Sheryl Sandberg at Harvard Business School, 2012

    “I sat down with Eric Schmidt, who had just become the CEO [of Google], and I showed him the spreadsheet and I said, this job meets none of my criteria. He put his hand on my sheet and he looked at me and said, ‘Don’t be an idiot.’ Excellent career advice. And then he said, ‘Get on a rocketship. When companies are growing quickly and having a lot of impact, careers take care of themselves. And when companies aren’t growing quickly or their missions don’t matter as much, that’s when stagnation and politics come in. If you’re offered a seat on a rocketship, don’t ask what seat. Just get on.’”

  10. Michael Lewis at Princeton University, 2012

    Princeton University

    Michael Lewis at Princeton University, 2012

    “In a general sort of way you’ve been appointed leader of the group. Your appointment may not be entirely arbitrary. But you must sense right now its arbitrary aspect: you are the lucky few. Lucky in your parents, lucky in your country, lucky that a place like Princeton exists that can take in lucky people, introduce them to other lucky people, and increase their chances of becoming even luckier. Lucky that you live in the richest society the world has ever seen, in a time when no one actually expects you to sacrifice your interest to anything. 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 deserve the extra cookie. But you will be happier, and you will be better off, if you at least pretend that you don't.”

  11. Jon Stewart at the College of William & Mary, 2004

    College of William & Mary

    Jon Stewart at the College of William & Mary, 2004

    “Lets talk about the real world for a moment. ... I don’t really know to put this, so I’ll be blunt: we broke it. Please don’t be mad. I know we were supposed to bequeath to the next generation a world better than the one we were handed. So, sorry. I don’t know if you’ve been following the news lately, but it just kinda got away from us. Somewhere between the gold rush of easy internet profits and an arrogant sense of endless empire, we heard kind of a pinging noise, and then the damn thing just died on us. So I apologize. But here’s the good news: you fix this thing, you’re the next greatest generation, people.”

  12. Oprah Winfrey at Spelman College, 2012

    Spelman College

    Oprah Winfrey at Spelman College, 2012

    “You must have some kind of vision for your life, even if you don’t know the plan. You have to have a direction in which you choose to go. I never was the kind of woman who liked to get in a car and just go for a ride. I had a boyfriend that would say, ‘Let’s just go for a ride.’ I want to know where are we going. Do we have a destination? Is there a plan? Are we just riding? What I’ve learned is that’s a great metaphor for life. You want to be in the driver’s seat of your own life, because if you’re not, life will drive you.”

  13. Neil Gaiman at the University of the Arts, 2012

    Lennie Alzate

    Neil Gaiman at the University of the Arts, 2012

    “The moment that you feel that, just possibly, you’re walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself, that’s the moment you may be starting to get it right. The things I’ve done that worked the best were the things I was the least certain about, the stories where I was sure they would either work or more likely be the kinds of embarrassing failures that people would gather together and discuss until the end of time. They always had that in common. Looking back at them, people explain why they were inevitable successes. And while I was doing them, I had no idea. I still don’t. And where would be the fun in making something you knew was going to work? And sometimes the things I did really didn’t work. There are stories of mine that have never been reprinted. Some of them never even left the house. But I learned as much from them as I did from the things that worked.”

  14. George Saunders at Syracuse University's College of Arts and Sciences, 2013

    Syracuse University's College of Arts and Sciences

    George Saunders at Syracuse University's College of Arts and Sciences, 2013

    “Seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicines energetically for the rest of your life. And do all the other things of course, the ambitious things: travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in a wild jungle river — after first testing it for monkey poop. But as you do, to the extent that you can, 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. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality — your soul, if you will — is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Teresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place. Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.”

  15. Nora Ephron at Wellesley College, 1996

    Wellesley College

    Nora Ephron at Wellesley College, 1996

    “So what are you going to do? This is the season when a clutch of successful women who have it all get up and give speeches to women like you and say, ‘To be perfectly honest, you can’t have it all.’ Well, 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. It will not be anything like what you think it’s going to be like, but surprises are good for you. And don't be frightened. You can always change your mind. I know. I've had four careers and three husbands. And this is something else I want to tell you, one of the hundreds of things I didn’t know when I was sitting here so many years ago: you are not going to be you, fixed and immutable you, forever.”

  16. Aaron Sorkin at Syracuse University, 2012

    Syracuse University

    Aaron Sorkin at Syracuse University, 2012

    “Decisions are made by those who show up. Don't ever forget that you're a citizen of this world. Don't ever forget that you’re a citizen of this world, and there are things you can do to lift the human spirit, things that are easy, things that are free, things that you can do every day: civility, respect, kindness, character. You’re too good for schadenfreude, you’re too good for gossip and snark, you’re too good for intolerance — and since you're walking into the middle of a presidential election, it’s worth mentioning that you’re too good to think people who disagree with you are your enemy. … Don’t ever forget that a small group of thoughtful people can change the world. It’s the only thing that ever has.”

  17. Barbara Kingsolver at DePauw University, 1994

    DePauw University

    Barbara Kingsolver at DePauw University, 1994

    “It’s not up to you to save the world. That’s the job of every living person who likes the idea of a future. But I’m going to go out on a limb here and give you one little piece of advice, and that is, like the idea of a future. Believe you have it in you to make the world look better rather than worse seven generations from now. Figure out what that could look like. And then if you’re lucky, you’ll find a way to live inside that hope, running down its hallways, touching the walls on both sides.”

  18. Jane Lynch at Smith College, 2012

    Smith College

    Jane Lynch at Smith College, 2012

    “My counsel to you, women of Smith College: let life surprise you. Don’t have a plan. Plans are for wusses. If my life went according to my plan, I would never ever have the life I have today. Now, you are obviously good planners, or you wouldn’t be here. So stop it! Stop it now! Don’t deprive yourself of the exciting journey your life can be when you relinquish the need to have goals and a blueprint.”

  19. Bill Gates at Harvard University, 2007

    Harvard University

    Bill Gates at Harvard University, 2007

    “In line with the promise of this age, I want to exhort each of the graduates here to take on an issue — a complex problem, a deep inequity, and become a specialist on it. If you make it the focus of your career, that would be phenomenal. But you don’t have to do that to make an impact. For a few hours every week, you can use the growing power of the internet to get informed, find others with the same interests, see the barriers, and find ways to cut through them. Don’t let complexity stop you. Be activists. Take on big inequities. I feel sure it will be one of the great experiences of your lives.”

  20. Eugene Mirman at Lexington High School, 2009

    Eugene Mirman

    Eugene Mirman at Lexington High School, 2009

    “What’s the worst grade you’ve ever gotten? A D? An F? When I was in eighth grade in Diamond Middle School on a homework assignment — this is true — I once got a -8. Sadly very true. I did my assignment worse than not doing it. But did I let getting a grade lower than the lowest possible grade stop me? No. I was put into resource room in special education, and I turned my F into a D. So you see sometimes you can fail, then barely pass, and then become a comedian.”

  21. Michelle Obama at Spelman College, 2011

    Spelman College

    Michelle Obama at Spelman College, 2011

    “Some of you may have grown up like me, in neighborhoods where few had the chance to go to college, where being teased for doing well in school was a fact of life, where well-meaning but misguided folks questioned whether a girl with my background could get into a school like Princeton. Sometimes I’d save them the trouble and raised the questions myself, in my own head, lying awake at night, doubting whether I had what it took to succeed. And the truth is that there will always be folks out there who make assumptions about others. There will always be folks who try to raise themselves up by cutting other people down. That happens to everyone, including me, throughout their lives. But when that happens to you all, here’s what I want you to do: I want you to just stop a minute, take a deep breath — because it’s going to need to be deep — and I want you to think about all those women who came before you.”

Back to top