10 of the most inspirational graduation speeches ever

Charlie Benson
Content Marketing Executive

Graduation season is here. And if you're one of the many grads leaving uni for 'the real world' this year, you're probably having a lot of feelings about it. 

It's a time to celebrate all the amazing memories you've made, people you've met, and things you've learnt over the past few years. It's also a time to look forward and figure out what's next - so we've got some advice and words of wisdom that just might help with that. 

We've rounded up 10 of the most inspirational, entertaining and thought-provoking commencement speeches given by famous figures at universities across America.

Check them out below.


1. Steve Jobs, speaking at Stanford University, 2005


YouTube / Stanford


In this speech, Steve Jobs shares three stories from his life. He talks about dropping out of university, starting Apple, getting fired from Apple, being diagnosed with cancer, and all the lessons he learnt about life and death along the way. 

"When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: 'If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.' It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: 'If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?' And whenever the answer has been 'No' for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

"Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart."



2. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, speaking at Wellesley College, 2015


YouTube / WellesleyCollege 


Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke at women's college, Wellesley, about feminism, changing her career path, and doing what she wanted to do - not what other people thought she should do. 

Adichie explains she went to medical school because it was expected of her, but what she really wanted to do was write stories. After a year, she dropped out and got a scholarship to study communications and political science:

"Later, people told me that it had been very courageous of me, but I did not feel courageous at all. What I felt then was not courage, but a desire to make an effort - to try... My writing might not have ended up being successful. But the point is that I tried." 

"Please do not twist yourself into shapes to please. Don’t do it. If someone likes that version of you, that version of you that is false and holds back, then they actually just like that twisted shape, and not you. And the world is such a gloriously multifaceted, diverse place that there are people in the world who will like you, the real you, as you are."



3. J.K. Rowling, speaking at Harvard University, 2008  


YouTube / Harvard Magazine


J.K. Rowling told Harvard's class of 2008: "I have decided to talk to you about the benefits of failure," explaining that she "had failed on an epic scale" herself. Seven years after her own graduation, Rowling's marriage had "imploded;" she was "jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless." 

"I'm not going to stand here and tell you failure is fun," Rowling said, but failure freed her to pursue what she really wanted to do:

"Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

"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."



4. Jim Carrey, speaking at Maharishi University of Management, 2014 


YouTube / Maharishi University of Management


In this characteristically offbeat and witty speech, Jim Carrey talks about the importance of being present and not living a life ruled by fear. 

"Fear is going to be a player in your life, but you get to decide how much. You can spend your whole life imagining ghosts, worrying about your pathway to the future, but all there will ever be is what’s happening here, and the decisions we make in this moment, which are based in either love or fear.

"So many of us choose our path out of fear disguised as practicality. What we really want seems impossibly out of reach and ridiculous to expect, so we never dare to ask the universe for it."

"You are ready and able to do beautiful things in this world and after you walk through those doors today, you will only ever have two choices: love or fear. Choose love, and don’t ever let fear turn you against your playful heart."



5. Shonda Rhimes, speaking at Dartmouth University, 2014 


YouTube / Dartmouth 


Shonda Rhimes bucked tradition with her speech to Dartmouth's class of 2014, telling grads to ditch dreaming and starting doing.

"When people give these kinds of speeches, they usually tell you all kinds of wise and heartfelt things. They have wisdom to impart. They have lessons to share. They tell you: Follow your dreams. Listen to your spirit. Change the world. Make your mark. Find your inner voice and make it sing. Embrace failure. Dream. Dream and dream big. As a matter of fact, dream and don't stop dreaming until all of your dreams come true.

"I think that's crap.

"I think a lot of people dream. And while they are busy dreaming, the really happy people, the really successful people, the really interesting, engaged, powerful people, are busy doing.

"The dreamers. They stare at the sky and they make plans and they hope and they talk about it endlessly. And they start a lot of sentences with 'I want to be ...' or 'I wish.'

"'I want to be a writer.' 'I wish I could travel around the world.'

"Ditch the dream and be a doer, not a dreamer. Maybe you know exactly what it is you dream of being, or maybe you're paralysed because you have no idea what your passion is. The truth is, it doesn't matter. You don't have to know. You just have to keep moving forward. You just have to keep doing something, seizing the next opportunity, staying open to trying something new."



6. Stephen Colbert, speaking at Northwestern University, 2011


YouTube / Joshua Sherman


In this entertaining speech, Stephen Colbert tells grads not to worry if they don't have it all figured out; if their dreams change or don't work out. He talks about the importance of love, serving others and not try to win at life. 

"You have been told to follow your dreams, but what if it's a stupid dream?"

"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... Life is an improvisation. You have no idea what's going to happen next and you are mostly just yanking ideas out of your ass as you go along. 

"And like improv, you cannot win your life, even when it might look like you're winning."



7. Sheryl Sandberg, speaking at UC Berkeley, 2016 


YouTube / UC Berkeley


This was the first time Sheryl Sandberg spoke about her husband's death publicly. Dave Goldberg died suddenly of cardiac arrhythmia while they were on holiday in Mexico, and Sandberg told UC Berkeley's graduating class of 2016 about how she found resilience after his passing.

"Dave's death changed me in very profound ways. I learned about the depths of sadness and the brutality of loss, but I also learned that when life sucks you under, you can kick against the bottom, find the surface, and breathe again."

Sandberg explains that setbacks and hardships are inevitable, but it's about what you do afterwards and "how you survive" that matters. She talks about the importance of celebrating what you have now, as well as trying to have gratitude even on the hard days. 

"I never knew I could cry so often — or so much. But I am also aware that I am walking without pain. For the first time, I am grateful for each breath in and out — grateful for the gift of life itself. I used to celebrate my birthday every five years and friends’ birthdays sometimes. Now I celebrate always. I used to go to sleep worrying about all the things I messed up that day — and trust me, that list was often quite long. Now I try really hard to focus on each day’s moments of joy."



8. Octavia Spencer, speaking at Kent State University, 2017


YouTube / Kent State University Communications & Marketing


In this speech, Octavia Spencer encourages graduates to forge their own, authentic paths and not to worry about what other people are doing. 

"The journey you take now will be led by you alone - don't let that scare you, oh no, let that liberate you. Remember, no one came here the same way, and you won’t all achieve the success the same way, but because you all have shaped your path to graduation in a way that is uniquely and undeniably yours, I am pretty confident that you will continue to do that.

"But as you move forward, please, please, please, oh please, don’t let yourself get caught up in the trap of comparison. You know what I’m talking about. Ignore the silly 30-Under-30 list that the Internet throws at you before you’ve even had your morning cup of coffee. Those will be the bane of your existence post-graduation, trust me. Trust me. Comparing yourself to other’s success only slows you down from finding your own."



9. President Barrack Obama, Howard University, 2016


YouTube / The Obama White House


President Obama spoke to grads at this historically black university in Washington, D.C. about how to change the world. 

He told the class of 2016 to "be confident in your heritage. Be confident in your blackness," and said they have "plenty of work to do" on injustice and inequality. 

"But as complicated and sometimes intractable as these challenges may seem, the truth is that your generation is better positioned than any before you to meet those challenges, to flip the script.

"Now, how you do that, how you meet these challenges, how you bring about change will ultimately be up to you."

He advised that creating change isn't just about wanting change, but having a strategy: 

"You have to go through life with more than just passion for change; you need a strategy. I'll repeat that. I want you to have passion, but you have to have a strategy. Not just awareness, but action. Not just hashtags, but votes.

"You see, change requires more than righteous anger. It requires a program, and it requires organising."



10. Mark Zuckerberg, Harvard University, 2017


YouTube / Harvard University 


Mark Zuckerburg used his speech to Harvard's class of 2017 to talk about the importance of "creating a world where everyone has a sense of purpose." 

"You're graduating at a time when this is especially important. When our parents graduated, that sense of purpose reliably came from your job, your church, your community. But today, technology and automation are eliminating many jobs. Membership in a lot of communities has been declining. And a lot of people are feeling disconnected and depressed, and are trying to fill a void in their lives."

He advised grads that one of the ways to create a world where everyone has a sense of purpose is to take on big meaningful projects together. 

"Now it's our generation's turn to do great things. I know, maybe you're thinking: I don't know how to build a dam, I don't know how to get a million people involved in anything.

"Well, let me tell you a secret: no one does when they begin. Ideas don't come out fully formed. They only become clear as you work on them. You just have to get started.

"If I had to know everything about connecting people before I got started, I never would have built Facebook."