You don’t have to go to a college graduation to be inspired by the nationwide commencement speakers invited by colleges. Speakers may range from exemplary graduates of that specific college to successful careers in business, medicine, politicians, celebrities, writers, authors, and professors.
Commencement speakers brush up on their final words to speak, inspire, and enlighten graduates on making the best use of their degrees, living their lives with ambition, being model citizens, and giving back to society. Their words can inspire the young and the old all year round and remind us of what is essential in our lives.
While not every speech will be memorable, many commencement speeches will resonate with us in times of challenges on college campuses like we’ve seen this year, and not for the first time. Let’s capture the positive vibes to lift our hearts with some of the best commencement speeches ever.
1. Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche – Wellesley College, 2015
Adiche is a Nigerian writer whose second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), gained international acclaim for its depiction of the devastation caused by the Nigerian Civil War.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s words:
2. Chadwick Boseman – Howard University, 2018
Boseman had early success as a stage actor, writer, and director before landing gigs on TV shows like Lincoln Heights. Boseman broke through with his big screen portrayals of two African American icons: baseball player Jackie Robinson in 42 and soul singer James Brown in Get on Up. He passed away in 2020.
Chadwick Boseman’s words:
“I don’t know what your future is, but if you are willing to take the harder way, the more complicated one, the one with more failures at first than successes, the one that’s ultimately proven to have more victory, more glory, then you will not regret it. This is your time.”
“You would rather find purpose than a job or a career. Purpose crosses disciplines. Purpose is an essential element of you. It is the reason you are on the planet at this particular time in history. Your very existence is wrapped up in the things you are here to fulfill. Whatever you choose in your career path, remember the struggles along the way are only meant to shape you for your purpose.”
“When I dared to challenge the system that would relegate us to victims and stereotypes with no clear historical backgrounds, no hopes or talents, when I questioned that method of portrayal, a different path opened up for me. The path to my destiny. When God has something for you, it doesn’t matter who stands against it. God will move someone who is holding you back away from a door and put someone there who will open it for you, if it’s meant for you.”
3. Jim Carrey – Maharishi International University, 2014
Carrey is a Canadian-American comedian who established himself as a leading comedic actor with a series of over-the-top performances and who won plaudits for his more serious portrayals as his career progressed.
Jim Carrey’s words:
“Now 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 the 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 on either love or fear.”
“Because everything you gain in life will rot and fall apart, and all that will be left of you is what was in your heart. My choosing to free people from concern got me to the top of a mountain. Look where I am — look what I get to do! Everywhere I go – and I’m going to get emotional because when I tap into this, it really is extraordinary to me — I did something that makes people present their best selves to me wherever I go. I am at the top of the mountain and the only one I hadn’t freed was myself and that’s when my search for identity deepened.”
4. Will Ferrell – University of Southern California, 2017
Ferrell is an American comedy actor, writer, and producer known for his impersonations and his portrayal of dim-witted but endearing characters.
Will Farrell’s words:
“No matter how cliché it may sound, you will never truly be successful until you learn to give beyond yourself. Empathy and kindness are the true signs of emotional intelligence. And that’s what Viv [his wife] and I try to teach our boys.”
5. Steve Jobs Stanford University, 2005
Jobs was co-founder of Apple Computer, Inc. (now Apple Inc.), and a charismatic pioneer of the personal computer and smartphone era. he passed away in 2011.
Steve Job’s words:
On getting fired:
“We worked hard, and in 10 years, Apple had grown from just the two of us in a garage into a $2 billion company with over 4,000 employees. We had just released our finest creation — the Macintosh — a year earlier, and I had just turned 30. And then I got fired. How can you get fired from a company you started?”
“I was a very public failure, and I even thought about running away from the valley. But something slowly began to dawn on me — I still loved what I did. The turn of events at Apple had not changed that one bit. I had been rejected, but I was still in love. And so I decided to start over.”
“… 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.”
“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.”
6. 35th President of the US, John F. Kennedy American University, 1963
President Kennedy’s words:
“What kind of peace do I mean? What kind of peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children–not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women–not merely peace in our time but peace for all time.”
7. Stephen King – Vassar College, 2001
King is an American novelist and short-story writer whose books are credited with reviving the genre of horror fiction in the late 20th century.
Stephen King’s words:
“Of all the power which will shortly come into your hands-gradually at first, but then with a speed that will take your breath away-the greatest is undoubtedly the power of compassion, the ability to give. We have enormous resources in this country-resources you yourselves will soon command-but they are only yours on loan. Only yours to give for a short while. You’ll die broke. In the end, it’s the blink of an eye. I came here to talk about charity, and I want you to think about it on a large scale.”
“Should you give away what you have? Of course you should. I want you to consider making your lives one long gift to others, and why not? All you have is on loan, anyway. All you want to get at the getting place, from the Maserati you may dream about to the retirement fund some broker will try to sell you on, none of that is real. All that lasts is what you pass on. The rest is smoke and mirrors.”
8. Toni Morrison – Wellesley College, 2004
Morrison was an American writer noted for her examination of the Black experience (particularly the Black female experience) within the Black community. She received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. She passed away in 2019.
Toni Morrison’s words:
“Nobody has the exact memory that you have. What is now known is not all what you are capable of knowing. You are your own stories and therefore free to imagine and experience what it means to be human without wealth. What it feels like to be human without domination over others, without reckless arrogance, without fear of others unlike you, without rotating, rehearsing and reinventing the hatreds you learned in the sandbox. And although you don’t have complete control over the narrative (no author does, I can tell you), you could nevertheless create it.”
9. Michelle Obama -Tuskegee University, 2015
Obama was the first African American first lady (2009–17), the wife of Barack Obama, the 44th president of the US, and a philanthropist.
Michelle Obama’s words:
On the historical importance of Alabama’s Tuskegee University, the first black college to be designated as a Registered National Historical Landmark (1966) and a National Historic Site (1974):
“Generation after generation, students here have shown that same grit, that same resilience to soar past obstacles and outrages — past the threat of countryside lynchings; past the humiliation of Jim Crow; past the turmoil of the Civil Rights era. And then they went on to become scientists, engineers, nurses and teachers in communities all across the country — and continued to lift others up along the way.”
“So, graduates, that’s what I want for all of you. I want you all to stay true to the most real, most sincere, most authentic parts of yourselves. I want you to ask those basic questions: Who do you want to be? What inspires you? How do you want to give back? And then I want you to take a deep breath and trust yourselves to chart your own course and make your mark on the world.”
10. Conan O’Brien – Dartmouth University, 2011
O’Brien was an American late-night talk-show personality and comedian best known as the host of Late Night with Conan O’Brien (1993–2009), The Tonight Show (2009–10), and Conan (2010–21).
Conan O’Brien’s words:
“I went from being in the center of the grid to not only off the grid, but underneath the coffee table that the grid sits on, lost in the shag carpeting that is underneath the coffee table supporting the grid. It was the making of a career disaster, and a terrible analogy.”
“Ultimately, I abandoned all preconceived perceptions of my career path and stature and took a job on basic cable with a network most famous for showing re-runs, along with sitcoms created by a tall, black man who dresses like an old, black woman. I did a lot of silly, unconventional, spontaneous and seemingly irrational things and guess what —- with the exception of the blue leather suit, it was the most satisfying and fascinating year of my professional life.”
“To this day I still don’t understand exactly what happened, but I have never had more fun, been more challenged, and this is important —- had more conviction about what I was doing.”
11. George Saunders – Syracuse University, 2013
Saunders is the author of twelve books, including Lincoln in the Bardo, which won the 2017 Man Booker Prize for best work of fiction in English, and was a finalist for the Golden Man Booker.
George Saunder’s words:
“One thing in our favor: some of this “becoming kinder” happens naturally, with age. It might be a simple matter of attrition: as we get older, we come to see how useless it is to be selfish–how illogical, really.
“We come to love other people and are thereby counter-instructed in our own centrality. We get our butts kicked by real life, and people come to our defense, and help us, and we learn that we’re not separate and don’t want to be. .. Most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving. I think this is true.”
12. Taylor Swift – New York University, 2022
Swift is an American pop and country music singer-songwriter whose tales of young heartache achieved widespread success in the early 21st century.
Taylor Swift’s words:
“Decide what is yours to hold, and let the rest go. Oftentimes, the good things in your life are lighter anyway — so there’s more room for them. One toxic relationship can outweigh so many wonderful, simply joys. You get to pick what your life has time and room for. Be discerning.”
13. David Foster Wallace – “This is Water” Kenyon College, 2005
Wallace was an American novelist, short-story writer, and essayist whose dense works provide a dark, often satirical analysis of American culture. He passed away in 2008.
David Foster Wallace’s words:
““Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence.”
About a liberal arts education:
“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 “the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.”
It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:
“This is water.”
14. Abby Wambach – Barnard College, 2018
Abby Wambach is a two-time Olympic gold medalist, FIFA World Cup Champion, and six-time U.S. Soccer Athlete of the Year award winner.
Abby Wambach’s words:
“Women must champion each other. This can be difficult for us. Women have been pitted against each other since the beginning of time for that one seat at the table. Scarcity has been planted inside of us and among us. This scarcity is not our fault. But it is our problem. And it is within our power to create abundance for women where scarcity used to live.”
“As you go out into the world: Amplify each others’ voices. Demand seats for women, people of color and all marginalized people at every table where decisions are made. Call out each other’s wins and just like we do on the field: claim the success of one woman, as a collective success for all women.”
15. Kurt Vonnegut – Agnes Scott College,1999
Kurt Vonnegut was an American writer and humorist known for his satirical and darkly humorous novels, including Slaughterhouse-Five.
Kurt Vonnegut’s words:
“I give you my word of honor that you graduates are near the very top of the best news I ever hear. By working so hard at becoming wise and reasonable and well-informed, you have made our little planet, our precious little moist, blue-green ball, a saner place than it was before you got here.”
“Don’t give up on books. They feel so good—their friendly heft. The sweet reluctance of their pages when you turn them with your sensitive fingertips. A large part of our brains is devoted to deciding what our hands are touching, is good or bad for us. Any brain worth a nickel knows books are good for us.”
16. Denzel Washington – University of Pennsylvania, 2011
Denzel Washington’s words:
“I’ve found that nothing in life is worthwhile unless you take risks. Nothing. Nelson Mandela said: “There is no passion to be found playing small, in settling for a life that’s less than the one you’re capable of living.” I’m sure in your experiences in school… in applying to college… in picking your major… in deciding what you want to do with life, people have told you to make sure you have something to “fall back on.”
“If I’m going to fall, I don’t want to fall back on anything, except my faith. I want to fall forward. At least I figure that way I’ll see what I’m about to hit. Fall forward. Here’s what I mean: Reggie Jackson struck out twenty-six-hundred times in his career — the most in the history of baseball. But you don’t hear about the strikeouts. People remember the home runs. Fall forward.”
“To not only take risks, but to be open to life. To accept new views and to be open to new opinions. To be willing to speak at commencement at one of the country’s best universities… even though you’re scared stiff. While it may be frightening, it will also be rewarding. Because the chances you take… the people you meet… the people you love…the faith that you have—that’s what’s going to define your life.”
17. Oprah Winfrey – Stanford University,2008
Oprah Winfrey is an Emmy Award–winning talk show host, media executive, Academy Award–nominated actress, and philanthropist.
Oprah Winfrey’s words:
“It’s being able to walk through life eager and open to self-improvement and that which is going to best help you evolve, ‘cause that’s really why we’re here, to evolve as human beings. To grow into more of ourselves, always moving to the next level of understanding, the next level of compassion and growth.”
“It’s true. And how do you know when you’re doing something right? How do you know that? It feels so. Every right decision I’ve made ― every right decision I’ve ever made ― has come from my gut. And every wrong decision I’ve ever made was a result of me not listening to the greater voice of myself.”
So, I say to you, forget about the fast lane. If you really want to fly, just harness your power to your passion. Honor your calling. Everybody has one. Trust your heart and success will come to you.
So, how do I define success? Let me tell you, money’s pretty nice. I’m not going to stand up here and tell you that it’s not about money, ’cause money is very nice. I like money. It’s good for buying things.
But having a lot of money does not automatically make you a successful person. What you want is money and meaning. You want your work to be meaningful. Because meaning is what brings the real richness to your life. What you really want is to be surrounded by people you trust and treasure and by people who cherish you. That’s when you’re really rich.
With a passion for investing and personal finance, I began The Cents of Money to help and teach others. My experience as an equity analyst, professor, and mom provide me with unique insights about money and wealth creation and a desire to share with you.