The 20 Commencement Speeches That Will Change Your Life, Even Now

The jury is still out on whether the best commencement speeches are those that make us cry at the prospects of our very bright futures, or those that make us laugh so hard we forget we're leaving behind one of the most significant eras of our lives. Regardless of who your commencement speaker was, or is, we've rounded up the best speeches of all time to get you on the inspiration train.

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Winston Churchill, Harrow School, 1941
"Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never, never — in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy."


John F. Kennedy, American University, 1963
"Let us examine our attitude toward peace itself. Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable, that mankind is doomed, that we are gripped by forces we cannot control. We need not accept that view. Our problems are man-made. Therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man's reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable, and we believe they can do it again."

Russell Baker, Connecticut College, 1995
"So I will not waste my breath today pleading with you not to go forth. Instead, I limit myself to a simple plea: When you get out there in the world, try not to make it any worse than it already is."

Will Ferrell, Harvard University, 2003
"As you set off into the world, don't be afraid to question your leaders. But don't ask too many questions at one time or that are too hard because your leaders get tired and/or cranky. All of you sitting here have the brightest of futures ahead. Many of you will go on to stellar careers and various pursuits. And four of you — I'm not at liberty to say which four — will go on to star in the porno industry."

Photo: Courtesy of Connecticut College.

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. But, it's not. The future is not fixed — it's fluid...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 in my fist."


Steve Jobs, Stanford University, 2005
"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 other's 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. Stay hungry. Stay foolish."

David Foster Wallace, Kenyon College, 2005
"The only thing that's capital 'T' True is that you get to decide how you're going to try to see it. This, I submit, is the freedom of real education, of how to be well-adjusted. You get to decide what has meaning and what doesn't. That is real freedom. That is being educated and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness."

Seth MacFarlane, Harvard University, 2006
"But you know, looking out there into the audience, I see so many bright faces, poised and ready to thrust themselves into the very hearts of America's political and financial institutions, and seize control of the levers of power at any cost. Some would call you elitist, overprivileged, and preening with a snotty sense of entitlement. I call you my base."

JK Rowling, Harvard University, 2008
"So, given a TimeTurner, I would tell my 21-year-old self that personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a checklist of acquisition or achievement. Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life, though you will meet many people of my age and older who confuse the two. Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone's total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes."


Ellen DeGeneres, Tulane University, 2009
"So, in conclusion, when I was younger, I thought success was something different.....But my idea of success is different today. And as you grow, you'll realize the definition of success changes. For many of you, today, success is being able to hold down 20 shots of tequila. 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..... Don't give advice. Don't take anyone's advice. So my advice to you is to be true to yourself and everything will be fine."

Amy Poehler, Harvard University, 2011
"This is what I want to say. When you feel scared, hold someone's hand and look into their eyes. And when you feel brave, do the same thing. You are all here because you are smart. And you are brave. And if you add kindness and the ability to change a tire, you almost make up the perfect person."

Conan O'Brien, Dartmouth College, 2011
"There are few things more liberating in this life than having your worst fear realized.....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 become a catalyst for profound reinvention."

Denzel Washington, University of Pennsylvania, 2011
“I’ve found that nothing in life is worthwhile unless you take risks. Fall forward. Every failed experiment is one step closer to success. You’ve got to take risks. You will fail at some point in your life. Accept it. You will lose. You will embarrass yourself. You will suck at something. There is no doubt about it. Never be discouraged. Never look back. Give everything you’ve got. And when you fall throughout life, fall forward.”

Toni Morrison, Rutgers University, 2011
"You are your own stories, and therefore, free to imagine what it takes to remain human with no resources. What it feels like to be a human without domination over others; without fear of others unlike you; without rehearsing and reinventing the hatred learned in the sandbox. Although you don't have complete control of the story of your life, you can still create that story. Although you will never fully know or successfully manipulate all of the characters who surface or disrupt your plot, you can respect the ones you can't avoid by paying them close attention and doing them justice. The plot you choose may change or even elude you, but being your own story means you can control the theme. It also means you can invent the language to say who you are and how you mean in this world."
"I am myself a storyteller, and therefore, an optimist — a firm believer in the ethical bend of the human heart; a believer in the mind's appetite for truth and its disgust with fraud and selfishness. From my point of view, your life is already a miracle of chance waiting for you to shape its destiny. From my point of view, your life is already artful —waiting, just waiting, for you to make it art."
Photo: Maggie Hardie/Rex USA.

Jane Lynch, Smith College, 2012
"As you travel through life, in these many years ahead, I guarantee that you will come upon countless times in which the last thing you're gonna want to say is "Yes, and." You will experience loss, heartache, the death of a loved one, you'll probably have to say goodbye to a lover, you'll experience rejection, maybe have to deal with a bad diagnosis. You'll age. The trick isn't to avoid these times or pretend they're not happening; you can't. What you'll need to do is step up to them courageously and embrace them. Allow these experiences to permeate your being and weave them all into the fabric of your life. They will not only soften you and strengthen you, and you will open your heart to compassion. You will not be powerless in this. If you embrace what is happening, instead of denying it, you can make it your own. If life gives you lemons, grab it by the horns and drive."

Steve Carrell, Princeton University, 2012
"When I was about to graduate from college, I was preparing to enter law school. I remember that I was filling out my application to Stanford, and I came to the essay question, which was: "Why do you want to be an attorney?" I really had no idea. It sounded good. My parents had worked extraordinarily hard to give me a great education, and I felt that I owed them some sort of valid career choice. So I sat down with my folks, and asked them what they thought, and they proceeded to give me the best advice that I had ever received, or would ever receive. Their words were profound, wise, and they completely altered the rest of my life. They said...something like "blah, blah blah, follow your dreams, blah blah blah." I don't remember exactly what it was, but I didn't go to law school."


Robert DeNiro, Bates College, 2012
"When a director gives you a line reading that doesn't feel right to for your character, nod and agree with him or her, then do it the way you know your character would do it. If you're an actor, always be true to your character. If you're not an actor, have character, and always be true to yourself."

Jamaica Kincaid, Grinnell College, 2012
"You must bite the hand that feeds you. You are perhaps always told the opposite of this. The opposite of this is often said to you, 'Do not bite the hand that feeds you.' But from time to time I tell you, you must."

Aaron Sorkin, Syracuse University, 2012
"Make no mistake about it: you are dumb. You're a group of incredibly well-educated dumb people. I was there. We all were there. You're barely functional. There are some screw-ups headed your way. I wish I could tell you that there was a trick to avoiding the screw-ups, but the screw-ups, they're a-coming for ya."

Barack Obama, Barnard College, 2012
"Because as tough as things have been, I am convinced you are tougher. I've seen your passion and I've seen your service. I've seen a generation eager -- impatient even -- to step into the rushing waters of history and change its course."

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