You may think commencement speeches are all about purpose. While that’s certainly a hot topic, there are other themes that we can all apply to our lives regardless of our age or when/if we graduated.
The 3 Themes from the Top Commencement Speeches
- Life is about connecting the dots.
- Choose love and serve others.
- Be you.
Now, let’s take a look at some of the best commencement speeches that highlight these themes beautifully. I’ve pulled out the single best quote (in my opinion) to highlight each speech.
Oprah 2018 Commencement Speech at USC
Note: I chose the most recent Oprah commencement speech. It’s not the most viewed of hers (yet at least), but I’d assume that it has all the wisdom of her other speeches combined. It’s certainly the most timely and culturally relevant.
“The question is: What are you willing to stand for? That question is going to follow you throughout your life…Pick a problem. Any problem. And do something about it. Because to somebody who is hurting, something is everything.” — Oprah
Steve Jobs 2005 Commencement Speech at Stanford
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever — because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well-worn path, and that will make all the difference.” — Steve Jobs
Jim Carrey 2014 Commencement Speech at Maharishi University of Management
“All there will ever be is what’s happening here, and the decisions we make in this moment which are based in either love or fear. So many of us choose our path out of fear disguised as practicality. What we really want seems impossibly out of reach and ridiculous to expect so we never dare to ask the universe for it. I’m saying, I’m the proof, that you can ask the universe for it. Please.” — Jim Carrey
J.K. Rowling 2008 Commencement Speech at Harvard
“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 where I believed I truly belonged. I was set free.” — J.K. Rowling
Stephen Colbert 2011 Commencement Speech at Northwestern
“There are very few rules to improv, but one of the things I was taught early on is that you are not the most important person in the scene — everybody else is. And if everybody else is more important than you are, you will naturally pay attention to them and serve them. But the good news is you’re in the scene too, so hopefully to them you’re the most important person and they will serve you. No one is leading. You’re all following the follower, serving the servant. You cannot win improv. And life is an improvisation. You have no idea what’s going to happen next.” — Stephen Colbert
Denzel Washington 2015 Commencement Speech at Dillard
“There’s an old IQ test with 9 dots and you had to draw 5 lines with a pencil within these 9 dots without lifting the pencil. The only way to do it was to go outside the box. So don’t be afraid to go outside the box. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box.” — Denzel Washington
Admiral William H. McRaven 2014 Commencement Speech at University of Texas
“What starts here changes the world. Tonight there are more than 8,000 students graduating…the average American will meet 10,000 people in their lifetime…if every one of you changed the lives of just 10 people, and each one of those people changed the lives of another 10 people, and another 10…then in 5 generations, 125 years, the class of 2014 will have changed the lives of 800 million people…go one more generation and you can change the entire population of the world, 8 billion people.” — Admiral William H. McRaven
Bill Gates 2007 Commencement Speech at Harvard
“Taking a serious look back, I do have one big regret. I left Harvard with no real awareness of the awful inequities in the world. The appalling disparities of health and wealth, and opportunity that condemned millions of people to lives of despair. I learned a lot here at Harvard about new ideas and economics and politics. I got great exposure to the advances being made in the sciences, but humanity’s greatest advances are not in its discoveries but in how those discoveries are applied to reduce inequity.” — Bill Gates
If you’re just graduating or looking for some new inspiration, there’s no better time than now (after all, it’s science). Or, maybe you’re just looking for a perspective reset. Either way, please leave a comment and let me know what you think!