7 Of The Most Inspirational Commencement Speeches Of All Time

by Lauren Martin

I’m a sucker for few things in life: inspirational sports movies, babies with glasses, guitar solos and commencement speeches.

As a kid, I always saw them as one of those ironic staples of our society, wondering why they would name something that signified the end of a chapter with a word that meant beginning. Why weren’t commencement speeches given at the beginning of college? Shouldn’t it be a farewell address?

I eventually figured out that it was called a commencement speech because that’s exactly what it is: an introduction to the next chapter, a welcoming to the other side. A guide to the new world we are about to enter.

Even a year after college I still find myself Googling my favorite ones, just to add some inspiration to my increasingly dull life. I remember when I first became dependent on the familiar speeches, feeling alone and lost after graduation.

I would sit in my room wondering how the hell I was going to go out there and be a professional. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, who I wanted to be or how I would do any of it once I figured it out.

I realized my best sources for advice were from people who have achieved their dreams, the people who lead by example.

They are the speeches that aren’t just the most popular or iconic, but the ones that bestow the best advice. They are the ones who talk to graduates with a sense of wisdom and understanding.

They are the ones who recall their own journeys and their fears along the way. They are honest, humble and inspiring. So if you have some time, take a moment to listen to these inspiring and utterly moving speeches that will make you reevaluate your life, whether you’re ready to or not.

J.K. Rowling, Harvard University 2008

"You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. 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."

You don’t need to be a “Harry Potter” fan (although, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be) to appreciate the beautifully written speech about the benefits of failure from the most financially successful author of our time.

Speaking to Harvard University’s 2008 graduating class, J.K. Rowling delves into her past and the fears that accompanied her undetermined future in a manner only an author can deliver.

Eloquently written and presented, Rowling talks of the hardships attached with following her dream, ones that many of us will never face.

Living in poverty as a single mother, Rowling was forced to give up everything in attempt to achieve everything.

Through her failures and determination, she was able to create a book series that would go on to live a life of its own and provide her wealth beyond her wildest dreams.

Steve Jobs, Stanford University 2005

“You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

While I hate to be clichéd, this speech from Steve Jobs is iconic for many noteworthy reasons. Speaking at Stanford in 2005, Jobs delivers his story of the college dropout who went on to create one of the most profitable and important tech companies of all time, not to mention the importance of dropping acid once in a while.

Jobs preaches the importance of getting to know yourself and finding your passions. He begs for students to keep their creativity and pursue the many roads not taken, so they will never wake up in a life they didn’t ask for.

David Foster Wallace, Kenyon College 2005

“The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.”

The late David Foster Wallace may be best known for his 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech “This Is Water,” the transcript of which has been sent around in chain emails, inspirational websites and liberal arts syllabi years after his death.

The profound author spares nothing as he eloquently and intelligently advises graduates that “it isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about.”

Though the author and philosopher took his own life at 46, one can infer that this riveting speech full of harsh truths and dark insights were things he found out only too late.

Ellen DeGeneres, Tulane University 2009

“By the time I was your age, I thought I knew who I was, but I had no idea. For example, when I was your age I was dating men. So what I’m saying is, when you’re older, most of you will be gay.”

We’d expect nothing more than a hilariously heartfelt commencement address from the only woman aside from Oprah and Madonna who is known on a global basis by her first name.

DeGeneres’ 2009 commencement speech at Tulane is full of all the wit and humor you’d expect from the comedian turned talk show host who never received a college education, herself. But that doesn’t mean she isn’t full of wisdom and advice.

She advises graduates to live life with integrity, and to live as honestly and compassionately as possible.

Follow your passion, stay true to yourself and follow your own path, but most importantly, “life is like one big Mardi Gras and instead showing people your boobs, show them your brain.” And in true Ellen fashion, she does manage to get her dance on.

Conan O’Brien, Dartmouth College 2011

"There are few things more liberating in this life than having your worst fear realized."

Conan O'Brien delivers Dartmouth's 2011 commencement speech with the humor and wit we've come to expect from the gangly redhead.

While the comedian is barely ever taken seriously, anyone who understands comedy knows that it comes from deep place of pain and intelligence.

Thus, Conan delivers a hilarious but also moving speech about the uncertainty of life and success after graduation, while also giving some real-world advice about adult acne, ironed shirts and patience.

Stephen Colbert, Knox College 2006

“When you go to apply for your first job, don’t wear these robes. Midevil garb does not instill confidence in future employers. And if someone does offer you a job, say yes. You can always quit later."

Whether you’re a fan of “The Colbert Report” or not, you cannot deny the genius of Stephen Colbert’s 2006 commencement speech at Knox College.

The political satirist gives the graduating class anecdotes from the first testament and his own graduation from Northwestern University. He then goes on to explain the perils of the “real world” and the many challenges that come after graduation.

However bleak he starts his speech, he manages to end it on an inspiring note. Telling graduates to always say, “yes,” something he learned in his improv days at Second City.

Life is much like those improv scenes, “with no script, no idea what’s going to happen, with people and places you’ve never been before, and you are not in control. So say yes, and if you’re lucky, find people who will say yes back.”

Bono, University of Pennsylvania 2004

"Sing the melody line you hear in your own head, remember, you don't owe anybody any explanations, you don't owe your parents any explanations, you don't owe your professors any explanations. You know I used to think the future was solid or fixed, something you inherited like an old building that you move into when the previous generation moves out or gets chased out."

He’s not just an Irishman with the voice of a rockstar, but a profound and eloquent speaker, whose words the graduates of University of Pennsylvania’s graduating class were lucky enough to hear in 2004.

The poet, activist and U2 front man delivers his speech like a true artist, imparting lessons from age-old Irish poems and life lessons he learned growing up with music.

A man who never attended college, he spent his youth chasing music and found his purpose and ability to enact change through it.