The Best Commencement Speeches, Ever

Looking for some new words of wisdom? Check out our hand-picked selection of commencement addresses, going back to 1774. Search over 350 speeches by name, school, date or theme — and find out what they have in common with pop songs — on our blog: n.pr/ed .

By Jeremy Bowers, Emily Davis, Danny DeBelius, Christopher Groskopf, Anya Kamenetz, Meredith Rizzo, Sami Yenigun

Thanks to Cristina Negrut, the creator of http://graduationwisdom.com/ where many of these speeches were first collected.

May 19, 2014, Last updated: July 2, 2015

  • Inner voice
  • Embrace failure
  • Remember history
  • Don't give up
  • Fight for equality
  • Change the world

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Aaron Sorkin

Syracuse University

Abigail Washburn

Colorado College

Adam Savage

Sarah Lawrence College

Adrienne Rich

Douglass College

Ahmed Zewail

University of Tennessee

Connecticut College

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Harvard University

Alexis Ohanian

Carthage College

Alice Greenwald

Amy poehler, anderson cooper.

Tulane University

Andrew Young

Andy samberg, angela ahrendts.

Ball State University

Angela Davis

Pitzer College

Anita L. DeFrantz

Anna quindlen.

Villanova University

Anne Lamott

University of California, Berkeley

Anne-Marie Slaughter

Tufts University

Anthony Corvino

Binghamton University

Ari Weinzweig and Paul Saginaw

University of Michigan

Arianna Huffington

Smith College

Vassar College

Arnold Schwarzenegger

University of Southern California

Art Buchwald

Atul gawande.

Williams College

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Barack Obama

Arizona State University

Barbara Bush

Wellesley College

Barbara Kingsolver

Duke University

Barnabas Binney

Rhode Island College (Brown University)

Barney Frank

Ben bernanke.

Princeton University

Benjamin Carson Jr.

Niagara University

Benno Schmidt Sr.

University of Missouri

Bernard Harris

Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Bill Clinton

Yale University

New York University

Bill Watterson

Kenyon College

Billie Jean King

University of Massachusetts

Billy Collins

Berklee College of Music

Babson College

Auburn University

Bobby Knight

Trine University

University of Pennsylvania

Bradley Whitford

University of Wisconsin

Brian J. Dyson

Georgia Tech

Brian Kenny

Ohio Northern University

Callie Khouri

Sweet Briar College

Candy Crowley

Maharishi University

Drexel University

Carl Schramm

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Carly Fiorina

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Carrie Chapman Catt

Charles w. colson.

Geneva College

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chris gardner, chris matthews.

Fordham University

Chris Sacca

University of Minnesota

Chris Waddell

Middlebury College

Chuck Norris

Liberty University

Clayborne Carson

Colin powell.

Northeastern University

Conan O’Brien

Dartmouth College

Cornel West

Wesleyan University

Cory Booker

Cynthia enloe.

Stanford University

Daniel S. Goldin

David broder.

Kalamazoo College

David Brooks

Wake Forest University

Rice University

Sewanee: The University of the South

David Byrne

Columbia University

University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism

University of New Hampshire

David Foster Wallace

David l. calhoun.

Virginia Tech

David McCullough Jr.

Wellesley High School

David Remnick

David woodle, dennis lehane.

Eckerd College

Denzel Washington

Dillard University

Dolly Parton

Doug marlette.

Durham Academy

Douglas Smith

DeVry University

Loyola University

Drew Houston

Dwight eisenhower, earl bakken.

University of Hawaii

Knox College

Cornell University

University of Virginia

Edward O. Wilson

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Edward W. Brooke

Elias a. zerhouni, elie wiesel, ellen degeneres, emir kamenica.

University of Chicago, Booth School of Business

Eric Greitens

Whitman College

Estelle Parsons

Eugene mirman.

Lexington High School

Fareed Zakaria

Bates College

Francine du Plessix Gray

Barnard College

Frank McCourt

Franklin d. roosevelt.

Oglethorpe University

Fred Armisen

Oregon Episcopal School

Fred Rogers

Gabrielle giffords.

Scripps College

Gary Malkowski

Gallaudet University

George C. Marshall

George plimpton, george saunders, george w. bush.

Calvin College

Gerald Ford

Chicago State University

Gloria Steinem

Greil marcus.

School of Visual Arts

Guido Calabresi

Guy kawasaki, gwendolyn brooks.

University of Vermont

Marquette University

Henry A. Wallace

Howard gordon.

Goucher College

J.K. Rowling

Jaclyn rossi, james b. angell, james bryce, james carville.

Hobart and William Smith Colleges

Jamie Hyneman

Janet napolitano, janet yellen.

USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism

Jason Kilar

Emerson College

Jean Andrews

University of Texas, Austin

Jefferson Smith

University of Oregon

Jeffrey Sachs

Jennie cyran, jennifer lee, jerry zucker, jessica lange, jill abramson.

Maharishi University of Management

Jimmy Iovine

Jimmy tingle, joan didion.

University of California, Riverside

Jodie Foster

Joe plumeri.

College of William and Mary

John F. Kennedy

American University

John F. Kerry

Butler University

John Jacob Scherer

Roanoke College

John Legend

Kean University

John Mackey

Bentley College

John McCain

John roberts, john seely brown.

Wheaton College

Jon Stewart

Jonathan safran foer, jonathon youshaei.

Deerfield High School

Joseph Brodsky

Joss whedon, julia keller.

Dominican University

Julianna Margulies

Los Angeles Trade Technical College

Kati Marton

Central European University

Katie Couric

Georgetown University

Kermit the Frog

Southampton College

Kirk Schneider

San Francisco State University

Kurt Vonnegut

Agnes Scott College

Larry Lucchino

Boston University

Florida State University

Leonard A. Lauder

Lewis black.

University of California, San Diego

Lewis Lapham

St. John’s College

Lisa Kudrow

Louis b. susman, lyndon baines johnson.

University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

Madeleine Albright

Madeleine l’engle, makoto fujimura.

Belhaven University

Margaret Atwood

University of Toronto

Margaret J. Geller

Margaret spellings.

Montgomery College

Maria Shriver

Marian fontana.

Massachusetts School of Law

Marissa Mayer

Illinois Institute of Technology

Mark S. Lewis

Marlee matlin.

Wilkes University

Martha Nussbaum

Martin marty.

Eastern Mennonite University

Martin Scorsese

New York University Tisch School of the Arts

Marvin Bell

Northwest Institute of Literary Arts

Mary Robinson

Maya rudolph, meg greenfield.

West Chester University of Pennsylvania

Melissa Harris-Perry

Meredith monk, meredith vieira, meryl streep, michael bloomberg.

University of North Carolina

Michael Dell

Michael ignatieff, michael j. burry.

University of California, Los Angeles

Michael Lewis

Michael oren.

Brandeis University

Michael Uslan

Indiana University

Michelle Obama

Spelman College

Mike Tomlin

Saint Vincent College

Mindy Kaling

Harvard Law School

Mother Teresa

Muriel siebert.

Case Western Reserve University

Natalie Portman

Neil gaiman.

The University of the Arts

University of Mary Washington

Neil deGrasse Tyson

University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Njabulo S. Ndebele

Nora ephron, omid kordestani.

San Jose State University

Oprah Winfrey

Howard University

Patricia McGowan Wald

Paul glaser, paul hawken.

University of Portland

Peter Dinklage

Bennington College

Phil Rosenthal

Hofstra University

Porochista Khakpour

Desert Academy

Rachel Maddow

Rahm emanuel.

George Washington University

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Randy pausch.

Carnegie Mellon University

Ray Bradbury

Edwin O. Smith High School

Rev. David O’Connell

Rev. dennis h. holtschneider, rev. joseph l. levesque, richard costolo, richard feynman, richard russo.

Colby College

Robert Ballard

Robert krulwich, robert m. gates.

University of Georgia

Robert Pinsky

Robert rodriguez, roger goodell.

University of Massachusetts Lowell

Roger Rosenblatt

Brigham Young University

Ron Suskind

Lewis & Clark College

Ronald Reagan

Eureka College

Ronan Farrow

Dominican University of California

Russell Baker

Ruth westheimer.

Trinity College

Salman Rushdie

Bard College

Sandra Soto

University of Arizona

Sanjay Gupta

Seamus heaney, sean lebowitz, sergio marchionne.

University of Toledo

Seth MacFarlane

Sharyn alfonsi.

University of Mississippi

Sheryl Sandberg

City Colleges of Chicago

Soledad O’Brien

University of Delaware

Stephen Colbert

Northwestern University

Stephen King

Stephen r. kellert.

University of Western Sydney, Australia

Steve Ballmer

Steve blank.

Philadelphia University

Sue Monk Kidd

Sumner redstone, susan sontag, sutton foster, suzan-lori parks.

Mount Holyoke College

Terry Gross

Bryn Mawr College

Terry Teachout

Hamilton Holt School

Theodor ‘Dr. Seuss’ Geisel

Lake Forest College

Thomas L. Friedman

Tiffany shlain, tim minchin.

University of Western Australia

Tim Russert

The Art Institute of California, Sunnyvale

Toni Morrison

The Catholic University of America

Tracy Chevalier

Oberlin College

Ursula K. Le Guin

Mills College

Vaclav Havel

Vernice armour.

Ashford University

Vernon Jordan

Victor hwang.

Austin Community College

Wangari Maathai

Warren burger.

Pace University

Wesley Chan

Whoopi goldberg.

Savannah College of Art and Design

Will Ferrell

William allen white, william chiu.

Halsey Junior High School

William H. Gass

Washington University

William Kunstler

State University of New York, Buffalo

Woody Hayes

Ohio State University

Wynton Marsalis

Maine College of Art

Yvonne Thornton

Tuskegee University

Zadie Smith

Zubin damania.

University of California, San Francisco

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The 21 greatest graduation speeches of the last 60 years

By german lopez on may 11, 2016.

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.

David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College, 2005

Jamie Sullivan

“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.”

Steve Jobs at Stanford University, 2005

Stanford University

“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.”

Ellen Degeneres at Tulane University, 2009

Tulane University

“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.”

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.”

Carol Bartz at University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2012

University of Wisconsin-Madison

“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.”

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.”

David McCullough Jr. at Wellesley High School, 2012

Wellesley High School

“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.”

Stephen Colbert at Northwestern University, 2011

Joshua Sherman

“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.”

Sheryl Sandberg at Harvard Business School, 2012

Harvard Business School

“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.’”

Michael Lewis at Princeton University, 2012

Princeton University

“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.”

Jon Stewart at the College of William & Mary, 2004

College of William & Mary

“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.”

Oprah Winfrey at Spelman College, 2012

Spelman College

“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.”

Neil Gaiman at the University of the Arts, 2012

Lennie Alzate

“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.”

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

Syracuse University's College of Arts and Sciences

“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.”

Nora Ephron at Wellesley College, 1996

Wellesley College

“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.”

Aaron Sorkin at Syracuse University, 2012

Syracuse University

“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.”

Barbara Kingsolver at DePauw University, 1994

DePauw University

“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.”

Jane Lynch at Smith College, 2012

Smith College

“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.”

Bill Gates at Harvard University, 2007

Harvard University

“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.”

Eugene Mirman at Lexington High School, 2009

Eugene Mirman

“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.”

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.”

  • The formula for a good life after college
  • Girls have gotten better grades than boys for 100 years
  • The job market for 2014 grads: still awful
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  • Special Thanks Chao Li

16 Best Graduation Speeches That Leave a Lasting Impression

By Kristi Kellogg and Noor Brara

Listen to words of wisdom from the best graduation speeches.

Some of the most impactful and inspiring sentiments are shared during graduation speeches delivered by the leaders we look up to. Graduation speeches from celebrities , entrepreneurs, authors and other influential thinkers are motivational, inspiring, thought-provoking and just might make you reach for the nearest tissue. After four years of hard work, stress, and exhausting self-discovery, lucky graduates are privy to a life-changing speech to top it all off.

Here, we rounded up up 16 of the best graduation speeches of all time, including words of wisdom from Natalie Portman, Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and more.

1. Steve Jobs: Stanford, 2005

"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."

2. Michelle Obama: Tuskegee University, 2015

"I've found that this journey has been incredibly freeing. Because no matter what happened, I had the piece of mind knowing that all of the chatter, the name-calling, the doubting...all of it was just noise. It did not define me, it didn't change who I was, and most importantly, it couldn't hold me back."

3. Natalie Portman: Harvard, 2015

"I just directed my first film. I was completely unprepared, but my own ignorance to my own limitations looked like confidence and got me into the director's chair. Once there, I had to figure it all out, and my belief that I could handle these things, contrary to all evidence of my ability to do so was half the battle. The other half was very hard work. The experience was the deepest and most meaningful one of my career."

4. Amy Poehler: Harvard University, 2011

Ella Rubin Was Destined to Play Anne Hathaway’s Daughter in The Idea of You

By Ilana Kaplan

Joe Biden's Commencement Address Draws Protests, Walk-Outs at Morehouse College

By Ashleigh Carter

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By Sara Delgado

"What I have discovered is this: You can't do it alone … Listen. Say 'yes.' Live in the moment. Make sure you play with people who have your back. Make big choices early and often."

5. Meryl Streep: Barnard College, 2010

"This is your time and it feels normal to you but really there is no normal. There's only change, and resistance to it and then more change."

6. David Foster Wallace: Kenyon College, 2005

"Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master."

7. Barack Obama: Howard University, 2016

"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."

8. Kerry Washington: George Washington University, 2013

"You and you alone are the only person who can live the life that can write the story that you were meant to tell."

9. Conan O'Brien: Dartmouth College, 2011

"There are few things more liberating in this life than having your worst fear realized. Today I tell you that whether you fear it or not, disappointment will come. The beauty is that through disappointment you can gain clarity, and with clarity comes conviction and true originality … Work hard, be kind, and amazing things will happen."

10. J.K. Rowling: Harvard, 2008

"I stopped pretending to be anything than what I was. My greatest fear had been realized. I had an old typewriter and a big idea. Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life."

11. Oprah Winfrey: Harvard University, 2013

"Learn from every mistake because every experience, encounter, and particularly your mistakes are there to teach you and force you into being more who you are. And then figure out what is the next right move. And the key to life is to develop an internal moral, emotional G.P.S. that can tell you which way to go."

12. Joss Whedon: Wesleyan University, 2013

"You have, which is a rare thing, that ability and the responsibility to listen to the dissent in yourself, to at least give it the floor, because it is the key—not only to consciousness–but to real growth. To accept duality is to earn identity. And identity is something that you are constantly earning. It is not just who you are. It is a process that you must be active in. It's not just parroting your parents or the thoughts of your learned teachers. It is now more than ever about understanding yourself so you can become yourself."

13. George Saunders: Syracuse University, 2013

"Do all the other things, the ambitious things … Travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers (after first having it tested for monkey poop)—but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness."

14. Nora Ephron: Wellesley College, 1996

"Be the heroine of your life, not the victim."

15. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Wellesley College, 2015

"As you graduate, as you deal with your excitement and your doubts today, I urge you to try and create the world you want to live in. Minister to the world in a way that can change it. Minister radically in a real, active, practical, get your hands dirty way."

16. Admiral William H. McRaven: University of Texas at Austin, 2014

"If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter. If you can't do the little things right, you will never do the big things right."

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This writer analyzed 100 graduation speeches — here are the 4 tips they all share

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best commencement speeches of all time

Steve Jobs has been credited over the years with popularizing any number of other people’s inventions, from the personal computer to the tablet to the mobile phone. But none of these gifts may be as enduring as one of his rarely credited contributions to contemporary life — popularizing the viral commencement address.

On June 12, 2005, Jobs stood before the graduating class of Stanford University and reminded them that he had never graduated from college. “Truth be told, this is the closest I’ve ever gotten to a college graduation.” He then told three stories about his life. “That’s it. No big deal. Just three stories.”

That speech , coinciding as it did with the rise of internet virality (the first TED Talk would be posted on TED.com exactly 12 months later; the iPhone was introduced exactly 12 months after that), launched a global obsession with pithy, inspirational talks. Jobs’s speech has since been viewed more than 40 million times on YouTube.

Graduation speeches, long viewed as the burdensome interruption before diplomas were granted and mortar boards were tossed, have since become big business. Kurt Vonnegut, Ann Patchett, Carl Hiaasen, J.K. Rowling, Mary Karr, David Foster Wallace and many others have all had their commencement speeches published as books.

I’ve been fortunate to give a handful of commencement addresses over the years, and I confess to a fascination with the genre. The internet has been a boon this hobby. There are thousands of commencement speeches on the web. Can we learn anything from their messages?

I’ve spent the last few years gathering and coding hundreds of life stories, looking for patterns and takeaways that could help all of us live with more meaning, purpose and joy. I decided to put some of my coding tools to work, analyzing 100 of the most popular recent commencement speeches.

Here are the four tips they all contain:

1. Dream big

“I think it is often easier to make progress on mega-ambitious dreams. I know that sounds completely nuts. But, since no one else is crazy enough to do it, you have little competition. There are so few people this crazy that I feel like I know them all by first name. They all travel as if they are pack dogs and stick to each other like glue. The best people want to work the big challenges.” — Larry Page at University of Michigan , 2009

“We don’t beat the reaper by living longer. We beat the reaper by living well and living fully. For the reaper is always going to come for all of us. The question is: What do we do between the time we are born, and the time he shows up? Because when he shows up, it’s too late to do all the things that you’re always gonna, kinda get around to.” — Randy Pausch at Carnegie Mellon University , 2009

“Graduates, we need you. We need you to run companies and make decisions about who has access to capital. We need you to serve at the highest levels of government and determine our country’s standing in the world. We need you to work in our hospitals and in our courtrooms and in our schools. We need you to shape the future of technology. We need you because your perspective — the sum total of your intellect and your lived experience — will make our country stronger.” — Kamala Harris at Tennessee State University , 2022

2. Work hard

“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.” — Steve Jobs at Stanford University , 2005

“I just directed my first film. I was completely unprepared, but my own ignorance to my own limitations looked like confidence and got me into the director’s chair. Once there, I had to figure it all out, and my belief that I could handle these things, contrary to all evidence of my ability to do so was half the battle. The other half was very hard work. The experience was the deepest and most meaningful one of my career.” — Natalie Portman at Harvard University , 2015

“When you’re doing the work you’re meant to do, it feels right and every day is a bonus, regardless of what you’re getting paid … But make it your life’s work to remake the world because there is nothing more beautiful or more worthwhile than working to leave something better for humanity.” — Oprah Winfrey at Stanford University , 2008

3. Make mistakes

”Fail big. That’s right. Fail big … It’s a new world out there, and it’s a mean world out there, and you only live once. So do what you feel passionate about. Take chances, professionally. Don’t be afraid to fail. There’s an old IQ test with nine dots, and you had to draw five lines with a pencil within these nine dots without lifting the pencil, and the only way to do it was to go outside the box. So don’t be afraid to go outside the box.” — Denzel Washington at University of Pennsylvania , 2011

“The world doesn’t care how many times you fall down, as long as it’s one fewer than the number of times you get back up.” — Aaron Sorkin at Syracuse University , 2013

“My experience has been that my mistakes led to the best thing in my life. Being embarrassed when you mess up is part of the human experience of getting back up dusting yourself off and seeing who still wants to hang out with you afterward and laugh about it. That’s a gift. The times I was told no or wasn’t included wasn’t chosen, didn’t win, didn’t make the cut, looking back it really feels like those moments we’re as important if not more crucial than the moments I was told yes.” — Taylor Swift at NYU , 2022

“Work hard, be kind, and amazing things will happen.” — Conan O’Brien at Dartmouth College , 2011

“Empathy and kindness are the true signs of emotional intelligence.” — Will Ferrell at the University of Southern California , 2017

“So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it: What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded … sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly. Or, to look at it from the other end of the telescope: Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth? Those who were kindest to you, I bet. It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.” — George Saunders at Syracuse University , 2013

So what can we learn from these themes?

Every era in American life has its own standards of what it means to be a success. Shortly after America’s founding, success was all about character. Led by Benjamin Franklin, Americans embraced virtue, industry, and frugality. In the twentieth century, success was all about personality. Led by Dale Carnegie, Americans embraced salesmanship, reinvention and charisma. Today, led by Steve Jobs, Americans are embracing meaning, authenticity and bliss. Or, as Kermit the Frog put it in a 1996 commencement speech at Southampton College , “May success and a smile always be yours … even when you’re knee-deep in the sticky muck of life.”

Dream, work, fail and smile are as good a foursome of American identity today as I know. And if those ideas don’t inspire you, you can always embrace the far more practical advice erroneously attributed to Kurt Vonnegut in a commencement speech that he never gave at MIT, but was instead delivered by Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich in an imaginary speech to graduates she published in an old-fashioned newspaper, “Ladies and gentlemen of the class of ’97: Wear sunscreen.”

This post was adapted from one published on his newsletter The Nonlinear Life; go here to subscribe.

Watch his TEDxIEMadrid Talk now:

About the author

Bruce Feiler is the author of seven New York Times bestsellers, including The Secrets of Happy Families and Council of Dads, both of which became the subject of TED Talks. His latest book, Life Is in the Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age, from which this post and TEDx Talk are adapted, describes his journey across America, collecting hundreds of life stories, exploring how we can navigate life’s growing number of transitions with more meaning, purpose and joy. To learn more, visit brucefeiler.com, follow him on Twitter (@brucefeiler), or sign up for his newsletter The Nonlinear Life. 

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COMMENTS

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