Memorable Commencement Speeches

Times are weird and tumultuous for all of us, but for a certain group of seniors that are set to graduate this month, 2020 hindsight may have them looking back and feeling somewhat robbed of this right of passage. For those of us who have graduated from colleges and universities around the world, we may or may not be able to remember the night before and or day of graduation (for better or for worse). However, we can almost certainly remember the graduation speaker who was selected to open the pearly gates to a world of what seemed like endless possibilities. 

For me and my graduating class of Bates ‘16,  we were so fortunate to have John Lewis, the civil rights leader, to speak during that final day of our undergraduate career. His advice was to make trouble... the good kind of trouble, and not to be fearful when doing so. This has, as it has for many of my class I’m sure, resonated with me throughout the years. (can watch the speech here). 

So in the vein of May—the month of turning a new chapter, here are a few of the most memorable, and thought-provoking commencement speeches that will have you nostalgic but also are more than applicable today more than ever. 

Alan Alda’s Graduation Speech to Carnegie Mellon University

(hits home, especially today)

Memorable Lesson: “If I’m going to pass anything on to you today, it has to be real to me,” he said.

“Uncertainty is not always a bad thing. I kind of welcome uncertainty. I think, instead of resisting it, you can surf uncertainty. Keep your balance, stay agile, but expect the unexpected bumps. Every one of you here today is going to face uncertainty. It’s going to hit you.” 

David Foster Wallace’s Commencement Speech to Kenyon College class of 2005

(AKA This is Water)

Memorable Lesson: “If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.”

Jim Carey’s Address To The Maharishi University of Management

Memorable Lesson: “My father could have been a great comedian, but he didn’t believe that was possible for him, and so he made a conservative choice,” Carey said. “Instead, he got a safe job as an accountant, and when I was 12 years old, he was let go from that safe job and our family had to do whatever we could to survive. I learned many great lessons from my father, not the least of which was that you can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love.”

Amy Poehler’s 2011 Graduation Speech To Harvard

Memorable Lesson: “Continue to share your heart with people even if it’s been broken,” she implored. “Don’t treat your heart like an action figure wrapped in plastic and never used. And don’t try to give me that nerd argument that your heart is a Batman with a limited-edition silver battering and therefore if it stays in its original package it increases in value.” 

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Graduation Speech To Wellesley

Memorable Lesson: “I knew that men were not inherently bad, or evil, but merely privileged. I knew that privilege blinds, because it is the nature of privilege to blind. I knew this from personal experience, from the class privilege I had from growing up in an educated family… And you, because you now have your beautiful Wellesley degree, have become privileged, no matter what your background is… Don’t let it blind you too often,” she said. “Sometimes, you will need to push it aside in order to see clearly.”

J.K. Rowling’s Graduation Speech to Harvard

Memorable Lesson: “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 realized, 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.”

Will Ferrell’s Address To The University of Southern California 

Memorable Lesson: “After my first show, one reviewer referred to me as ‘the most annoying newcomer of the new cast.’ Someone showed this to me and I promptly put it up on the wall in my office, reminding myself that to some people I will be annoying. Some people will not think I’m funny, and that that’s okay.”

Aaron Sorkin’s Speech to Syracuse University

Memorable Lesson: “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.”