Many commencement speeches are forgettable. A lot are filled with the same cliché advice. But some are so good — so inspiring and poignant — that they stick with us forever.
While certainly there’s room for debate (was Stephen Colbert’s speech at Northwestern really better than the one he gave at Knox College?), we’ve culled the best-of lists to put together a guide to our favorites.
From Steve Jobs to Toni Morrison, Kurt Vonnegut to John F. Kennedy, here are the speeches you wish you’d heard on your graduation day.
Shonda Rhimes’s 2014 speech at Dartmouth College
The world’s most powerful showrunner told grads to stop dreaming and start doing.
The world has plenty of dreamers, she said. “And while they are busy dreaming, the really happy people, the really successful people, the really interesting, engaged, powerful people, are busy doing.” She pushed grads to be those people.
“Ditch the dream and be a doer, not a dreamer,” she advised — whether or not you know what your “passion” might be. “The truth is, it doesn’t matter. You don’t have to know. You just have to keep moving forward. You just have to keep doing something, seizing the next opportunity, staying open to trying something new. It doesn’t have to fit your vision of the perfect job or the perfect life. Perfect is boring and dreams are not real,” she said.
David Foster Wallace’s 2005 speech at Kenyon College
In his now-legendary “This Is Water” speech, the author urged grads to be a little less arrogant and a little less certain about their beliefs.
“This is not a matter of virtue,” Wallace said. “It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.”
Doing that will be hard, he said. “It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat won’t want to.” But breaking free of that lens can allow you to truly experience life, to consider possibilities beyond your default reactions. “It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down,” he said.
Robert Krulwich’s 2011 speech to the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism
The acclaimed science journalist and “Radiolab” host steered clear of inspirational vagaries to offer a concretely useful speech — whether you’re in media or not.
“You can’t trust big companies to keep you safe,” he warned. You could once, maybe — there was a time when getting in the door at the right place meant they’d “take you in, teach you, protect you,” he said. At least in journalism, though, those days are gone.
But that doesn’t mean doom for new grads. It just means a change of strategy. “Think about entrepeneuring,” he urged. “Think about NOT waiting for a company to call you up. Think about not giving your heart to a bunch of adults you don’t know. Think about horizontal loyalty. Think about turning to people you already know, who are your friends, or friends of their friends, and making something that makes sense to you together, that is as beautiful or as true as you can make it,” he said. It won’t lead to instant success, he cautioned. But the people “who stay at it, who stay stubborn, very often win.”