My 5 Favorite Commencement Speeches

best commencement speeches

The ladies and gentlemen of the class of ’99 were given many words of advice. Among them: Wear Sunscreen. While the ‘lyrics’ were actually from an advice column written by Mary Schmich for the Chicago Tribune in 1997 and were not part of a commencement speech, there is some really great advice contained within.

  • Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts. Don’t put up with people who are reckless with yours.
  • Don’t waste your time on jealousy. Sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind. The race is long and, in the end, it’s only with yourself.
  • Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what you want to do with your life. The most interesting people I know didn’t know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives. Some of the most interesting 40-year-olds I know still don’t.
  • Whatever you do, don’t congratulate yourself too much, or berate yourself either. Your choices are half chance. So are everybody else’s.
  • Enjoy your body. Use it every way you can. Don’t be afraid of it or of what other people think of it. It’s the greatest instrument you’ll ever own.

While the short snippets of advice are easy to remember, most commencement speeches don’t offer such a luxury. Hundreds of speeches are given every year around the globe, and while many of the words may fade easily from the memories of graduates and families alike, there are always a few that stand out from the crowd. Here are a few of our all time favorite commencement speeches.

Steve Jobs, Stanford University 2011

This one shows up on a lot of ‘best commencement speeches ever’ lists. It’s that good. With over 17 million YouTube views, its hard to argue with the fact that it has been popular. But is it good?

“I’m pretty sure none of this would have happened if I hadn’t been fired from Apple. It was awful tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it. Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith. I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.”


Bono, University of Pennsylvania, 2004

“The future is not fixed, it’s fluid. You can build your own building, or hut or condo, whatever; this is the metaphor part of the speech by the way. But my point is that the world is more malleable than you think and it’s waiting for you to hammer it into shape. Now if I were a folksinger I’d immediately launch into “If I Had a Hammer” right now get you all singing and swaying. But as I say I come from punk rock, so I’d rather have the bloody hammer right here in my fist.”

Ellen DeGeneres, Tulane University, 2009

“For me, the most important thing in your life is to live your life with integrity and not to give into peer pressure to try to be something that you’re not, to live your life as an honest and compassionate person, to contribute in some way. So to conclude my conclusion, follow your passion, stay true to yourself. Never follow anyone else’s path, unless you’re in the woods and you’re lost and you see a path and by all means you should follow that. Don’t give advice, it will come back and bite you in the ass. Don’t take anyone’s advice. So my advice to you is to be true to yourself and everything will be fine.”

J.K. Rowling, Harvard University, 2008

“I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears that my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew. Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution. I had no idea then how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.”

Dick Costolo, Univeristy of Michigan, 2013

“Be in this moment.  Now, be here in this moment.  Now, be here in this moment… When I was your age, we didn’t have the Internet in our pants… You cannot draw any of your paths looking forward.  You have to figure out what you love to do, what you have conviction about, and go do that…”

1 Comment

  1. Tom

    May 29, 2013 at 8:42 am

    Although not officially a Commencement speech I love Neil Postman’s.

    I read it every year to my students. Powerful.