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Top 10 Commencement Speeches of All Time

April 2, 2021 - Dom Barnard

In need of some inspiration or motivation? We’ve compiled five of the best commencement speeches on overcoming doubt, fear, failure, hardship, and tackling the working world with confidence.

Our greatest writers, philanthropists, and business leaders tell great stories and give very good advice, which is relevant no matter what stage you are in life, so read on.

1. Chadwick Boseman – Howard University (2018)

Howard University alumnus Chadwick Boseman provides words of inspiration to the Class of 2018 during Howard University’s 150th Commencement Ceremony on Saturday, May 12 in Washington, D.C.

Chadwick Boseman was an American actor and playwright, who achieved international fame for playing superhero Black Panther in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He appeared in four MCU films, including an eponymous 2018 film that earned him an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actor in a Motion Picture and a Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance. As the first black actor to headline an MCU film, he was also named in the 2018 Time 100.

In 2016, Boseman was diagnosed with colon cancer. Boseman kept his condition private, continuing to act while also extensively supporting cancer charities until his death in 2020 from the illness.

2. J.K. Rowling – Harvard University (2008)

J.K.Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, gave this incredible commencement speech about never fearing failure and learning to embrace it in order to achieve success.

She told the students about her rejections and the dark period she went through, “I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless” before going on to become a best-selling author (Rowling recently released her rejection letters from her recent Robert Galbraith series).

Top Quote

“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.”

3. Steve Jobs – Stanford University (2005)

Steve Jobs, CEO and co-founder of Apple Computer and acquirer of Pixar Animation Studios, urges graduates to pursue their dreams, not settle down and live each day as if it is their last. Much like J.K. Rowling, Steve highlights the opportunities in life’s setbacks during this commencement address.

He talks about how he used to cope with important life choices, by remembering that he’ll be dead soon and that his decisions don’t really matter in the long run.

Top Quote

“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.”

4. Barack Obama – Class of 2020 (2020)

President Obama shares a message of optimism with the Class of 2020 as a part of “Dear Class of 2020,” a virtual commencement to celebrate graduates, their families, and their communities.

As uncertain as these times may be, President Obama calls on the Class of 2020 to seize the opportunity to create a new normal, one that is fairer, gives everyone opportunity, treats everyone equally, and builds bridges between people instead of dividing them.

5. Oprah Winfrey – Stanford University (2008)

Oprah Winfrey, global media leader and philanthropist, spoke to the Class of 2008 at Stanford’s 117th Commencement.

In this inspirational speech, she talks about trusting your gut and following it fearlessly throughout life, “If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. That’s the lesson. And that lesson alone will save you, my friends, a lot of grief.” She also highlights an important point about not sacrificing satisfaction and happiness for money.

Top Quote

“And how do you know when you’re doing something right? How do you know that? It feels so… When you’re supposed to do something or not supposed to do something, your emotional guidance system lets you know. The trick is to learn to check your ego at the door and start checking your gut instead.”

6. Jeff Bezos – Princeton University (2010)

Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder and CEO gave the Baccalaureate address to Princeton University’s Class of 2010. Bezos graduated from Princeton in 1986 with a degree in computer science and electrical engineering, so this commencement speech was particularly poignant and meaningful.

Bezos highlights the importance of being kind in life, mentioning his belief in its importance over intellectual ability. One’s character, he suggested, is reflected not in the gifts they are endowed with at birth but rather by the choices they make over the course of a lifetime.

Top Quote

“There’s a difference between gifts and choices. Cleverness is a gift, kindness is a choice.”

7. Bill Gates – Harvard University (2007)

Bill Gates, business magnate and co-founder of Microsoft, addresses the Harvard Alumni Association in Tecentenary Theater at Harvard University’s 2007 Commencement.

In classic Gates style, he starts with some humor, stating that he was a bad influence on students, in particular Steve Ballmer, to drop out of college and join him.

He dropped out of Harvard in the mid-1970’s and went on to co-found Microsoft with Paul Allen. He subsequently has committed huge amounts of money to Philanthropy causes, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This commencement speech is definitely worth watching from start to finish.

Top Quote

“Dad, I always told you I’d come back and get my degree. I want to thank Harvard for this honor. I’ll be changing my job next year and it will be nice to finally have a college degree on my resume.”

8. Beyoncé – Class Of 2020 (2020)

Top Quote

“Your blackness is beautiful. Your compassion, your understanding, your fight for people who may be different from you is beautiful. I hope you continue to go into the world and show them that you will never stop being yourself. That it’s your time now, make them see you.”

9. Elon Musk – Caltech (2012)

Top Quote

“If you go back say, 300 years, the things we take for granted today, you’d be burned at stake for. Being able to fly. That’s crazy. Being able to see over long distances, being able to communicate, having effectively with the Internet as a group mind of sorts, and having access to all the world’s information instantly from almost anywhere on the earth. This stuff that really would be magic – that would be considered magic in times past.”

10. Natalie Portman – Harvard University (2015)

Academy Award-winning actress Natalie Portman ’03 addresses graduating seniors at Harvard’s Senior Class Day ceremony on May 27, 2015 at Tercentenary Theatre.