10 most inspiring college commencement speeches

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David Foster Wallace

This commencement speech took on a life of its own; David does here in 22 minutes what some writers spend their whole careers trying to achieve. This speech became a best-selling book (and a record), it’s always worth revisiting. 

John Waters 

Many of us choose careers that make money, which we think will make our lives easier. John Waters says quite the opposite. He’s rich, he says, simply because he doesn’t have to deal with assholes. That’s good advice. 

Barack Obama

Inspirational speeches can be a dime a dozen; it’s fairly easy to string together some positive-sounding words in an order and tell kids to “get out there and change the world”. But Barack Obama’s 45-minute speech to Howard University changes the game entirely. Although already noted as an incredible speaker, Obama lets loose here and works the room, using humor to get attendees to the next speaking point before waxing philosophically — yet never speaking down to the graduates — about life and the world. Make no mistake, this is a fantastic speech: the fact that it’s a commencement speech is secondary. It’s sort of like a great band’s live album: loose, intimate, yet accessible.  

Stephen Colbert

Much like Colbert himself, this errs towards self-actualization through self-deprecation. He talks about being a few credits shy of actually graduating and finding that out while accepting his diploma… which turns out to be just a scrap of yellow paper with the words “see me” written on it. He talks, too, about switching from a philosophy major to “something with more job prospects… a theater major.” But perhaps no line is as good, and as useful to today’s world: “If we’d all stuck with our first dream, the world would be overrun with cowboys and princesses.” 

Neil Gaiman

I’ve seen Neil speak before, and — if you’ll stick with me — you might not expect this mild-mannered and soft-spoken guy to deliver such a rousing speech. But if you’re familiar with the Sandman author’s work, you’ll understand that Gaiman is capable of truly incredible prose. In under 20 minutes, he manages to distill two decades worth of career advice to artists.  

Chance the Rapper

Chance (real name Chancelor Johnathan Bennett) talks to the historically black liberal arts college Dillard University, about, among things like Beyoncé and Michael Jackson, the teachers at his preschool giving him the freedom to perform. It’s more lighthearted than the other inspiring speeches on this list and perhaps heavier on the pop culture riffs, but it’s still magnificent and heartfelt all the same. 

Oprah Winfrey

No commencement speech list would be complete without an appearance by Oprah. This is full of great lines, so it’s hard to pick out just one inspiring nugget of wisdom. But perhaps this is the most universal: “If you can capture the humanity of people, the stories that you are telling, you get that much closer to your own humanity.” 

Naval Admiral William H. McRaven

In the first minute, the Naval Admiral admits to being extremely hungover at his own college graduation. Quite a lot of the speech is told through Navy SEAL stories, and it’s refreshing, to be honest, to hear stories about overcoming trials and hardships in the physical world rather than the mental. Being calm and composed in darkest moments, he says, can help you put your very best self out into the world. 

Steve Jobs

Steve understands that not knowing your way — rather, finding your path through being lost — can be a much more effective way of finding yourself than having some sort of concrete plan. He looks back on his early period of sleeping on friend’s floors and saving up the 5¢ Coke bottle deposits in order to buy food as perhaps his most fruitful. “I loved it,” he says, “Much of what I stumbled into through curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on.” 

Will Ferrell

Humor, when used creatively, can get you through a lot in this wicked world. His speech is poignant, especially when he ends a story about being asked to interrupt a professor’s class with a lesson about the confidence that the professor instilled in him. Ferrell credits this professor with enabling him to see that he could be funny to people he didn’t know. Not all of college is destined to be tough and rigorous, much like life, and when you find someone that lets you shine, it can  – truly, and not in a faux-Silicon-Valley way – make the world a better place. 

J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling never bangs on the podium, never raises her voice, and never talks down the assembled Harvard graduating class. Yet without speaking in hyperbole, with a speech like this, you can close your eyes during parts of this and imagine her as President, or Prime Minister. It’s immensely powerful, delivered in a way that belies the life-altering words and makes them approachable, much like J.K. and her work itself. 

Jim Carrey

Jim has changed a lot since his Ace Ventura days. In fact, with the deep, philosophical, wry, and whimsical take on the world that you see in this speech, you might wonder what happened to him. Well, here, he manages to not only remind you that he’s one of the funniest men in the world but one of the most thoughtful. In the first five minutes, he deconstructs the public image of “Jim Carrey, movie star” and talks at length — still with humor, though — about his discovery of self. It’s full of wisdom, but this stands out: “I used to believe that Jim Carrey ended at my skin. Then I found out that the whole world around me was part of me, too.” 

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