Even if you’re not a college senior, you’ll still appreciate the wisdom, humor and truth in these uplifting speeches. Here are 11 of the most powerful quotes and excerpts from famous commencement speeches that will inspire you.
1. Amy Poehler Havard 2011 Speech
All I can tell you today is what I have learned. What I have discovered as a person in this world. And that is this: you can’t do it alone. As you navigate through the rest of your life, be open to collaboration. Other people and other people’s ideas are often better than your own.
Find a group of people who challenge and inspire you, spend a lot of time with them, and it will change your life.
2. Shonda Rhimes Dartmouth 2014 Commencement Address
“Dreams do not come true just because you dream them. It’s hard work that makes things happen, it’s hard work that creates change… Ditch the dream and be a doer, not a dreamer… My dreams did not come true. But I worked really hard. And I ended up building an empire out of my imagination. So my dreams? Can suck it.”
3. Mindy Kaling, Dartmouth 2018 Address
“I was not someone who should have the life I have now, and yet I do. I was sitting in the chair you are literally sitting in right now, and I just whispered, “Why not me?” And I kept whispering it for seventeen years; and here I am, someone that this school deemed worthy enough to speak to you at your commencement. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something, but especially not yourself. Go conquer the world. Just remember this: Why not you? You made it this far.”
4. Larry Page’s 2009 University of Michigan commencement Speech
I have a story about following dreams. Or maybe more accurately, it’s a story about finding a path to make those dreams real.
You know what it’s like to wake up in the middle of the night with a vivid dream? And you know how, if you don’t have a pencil and pad by the bed to write it down, it will be completely gone the next morning?
Well, I had one of those dreams when I was 23. When I suddenly woke up, I was thinking: what if we could download the whole web, and just keep the links and… I grabbed a pen and started writing! Sometimes it is important to wake up and stop dreaming. I spent the middle of that night scribbling out the details and convincing myself it would work…
…When I was here at Michigan, I had actually been taught how to make dreams real! I know it sounds funny, but that is what I learned in a summer camp converted into a training program called Leadershape. Their slogan is to have a “healthy disregard for the impossible”. That program encouraged me to pursue a crazy idea at the time…
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.
5. Michelle Obama, Tuskegee University 2015
“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.”
6. Laurene Powell Jobs 2021 Commencement Address at the University of Pennsylvania
“Change in ourselves and change in the world happens similarly: It comes slowly, slowly, and then all at once. What matters is your readiness for the moment of revelation, of challenge, of opportunity. We have to be prepared to walk through the door when it opens, or, by our own power and purpose, to open it ourselves. And sometimes we need to tear down walls, the ones within and the ones without.”
7. Denzel Washington 2011 Address at the University of Pennsylvania
“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.”
8. Steve Jobs 2005 Stanford Commencement Address
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. 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.”
9. J.K. Rowling’s 2011 Harvard Commencement Speech
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.
…So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.
You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.
Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies
The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.
10. Oprah Winfrey 2008 Havard Speech
The world has so many lessons to teach you. I consider the world, this Earth, to be like a school and our life the classrooms. And sometimes here in this Planet Earth school the lessons often come dressed up as detours or roadblocks. And sometimes as full-blown crises. And the secret I’ve learned to getting ahead is being open to the lessons, lessons from the grandest university of all, that is, the universe itself.
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.
I think about one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received: I interviewed with a reporter when I was first starting out in Chicago. And then many years later, I saw the same reporter. And she said to me, “You know what? You really haven’t changed. You’ve just become more of yourself.”
And that is really what we’re all trying to do, become more of ourselves. And I believe that there’s a lesson in almost everything that you do and every experience, and getting the lesson is how you move forward. It’s how you enrich your spirit. And, trust me, I know that inner wisdom is more precious than wealth. The more you spend it, the more you gain.
11. President Obama’s 2012 Commencement Address at Barnard College
“My last piece of advice—this is simple, but perhaps most important: Persevere. Persevere. Nothing worthwhile is easy. No one of achievement has avoided failure—sometimes catastrophic failures. But they keep at it. They learn from mistakes. They don’t quit.”