The 9 Best Commencement Speeches Since 2005
It's commencement speech season, which means speechifying from the best and brightest (and not-so-brightest) to graduating classes across the country. Inspiration is being delivered by the bucketload, sage advice by the kilo, charming anecdotes by the gallon; it can be overwhelming. But the best commencement speeches surge ahead of others, whether in terms of overall eloquence, sparkling wit, or lasting impressions on the ceremony-befuddled brains of the audience. And I'm here to lay out nine of them for you, in case your graduating days were disappointing, aren't here yet, or (in my case, at least) are long past.
The commencement speech has been a beacon for eloquence (and, let's be fair, bombast) for notable figures since the 19th century. If you want a dose of serious, lyrical rhetoric about God, the divine, and beauty, for instance, you can check out Ralph Waldo Emerson's effort for Harvard in July 1838. It's not surprising that this list only scratches the surface of this seriously excellent genre, but these nine examples are some of the most famous, the most quoted, the most awesome around.
Get yourself some rip-roaring, crowd-inciting, change-causing rhetoric to push you through.
1. David Foster Wallace, "This Is Water," Kenyon College 2005
"The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the "rat race"-the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing."
Foster Wallace, the prize-winning author who committed suicide in 2008, provided one of the most philosophically insightful short speeches ever delivered to a commencement class, now so famous you can buy it as a novel. His advice? Be aware and attentive. Be a fish constantly reminding yourself of the fact that you are surrounded by water. You can read the full text here.
2. Joyce DiDonato, "The World Needs You," Juilliard 2014
"You are an attendant to the lost one who needs saving through the comforting, probing words you will conjure up from the ether, as well as from your own heroic moments of strife and triumph. You are a steward to the closed and blocked one who needs to feel that vital, electric, joyful pulse of life that eludes them as they witness you stop time as you pirouette and jettè across the stage on your tired legs and bleeding toes. You are a vessel to the angry and confused one who needs a protected place to release their rage as they watch your eyes on the screen silently weep in pain as you relive your own private hell. You are a servant to the eager, naïve, optimistic ones who will come behind you with wide eyes and wild dreams, reminding you of yourself, as you teach and shape and mold them, even though you may be plagued with haunting doubts yourself, just as your teachers likely were – and you will reach out to them and generously invite them to soar and thrive, because we are called to share this thing called Art."
Mezzo-soprano DiDonato's point of view is naturally geared towards people with creative ambitions, because after all, this was the commencement speech at Juilliard. But as a call to arms and a statement of purpose for the young and artistic, it's basically peerless. You can read the full text here.
3. George Saunders, "Failures Of Kindness," Syracuse University 2013
"Do all the other things, the ambitious things — travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers (after first having it tested for monkey poop) – but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality — your soul, if you will — is as bright and shining as any that has ever been."
Innovative novelist Saunders made the focus of his speech the things he had regretted doing, all of which centered on "failures of kindness": chances to be empathetic, generous, or kind that he had neglected, and why those are essential to a well-lived life. You can read the full text here.
4. JK Rowling, "The Benefits Of Failure," Harvard 2008
"If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped change. We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better."
Rowling's speech is probably the most famous on this list purely by dint of the woman it came from, but it also advocated some important truths: that failure is crucial and can give you deep faith in yourself, and that advocacy is personal, political, and lifelong. You can read the full text here.
5. Shonda Rhimes, "Be A Doer," Dartmouth 2014
"Ditch the dream and be a doer, not a dreamer. Maybe you know exactly what it is you dream of being, or maybe you're paralyzed because you have no idea what your passion is. 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. Just ... do."
If you were expecting Shonda Rhimes to stand up and give a speech full of platitudes, you have evidently never watched any of her shows. She delivered a blistering and funny antidote to the idea of dreaming without doing, and created a rallying-cry for action, whatever kind of action was required. You can read the full text here.
6. Neil Gaiman, "Make Glorious And Fantastic Mistakes," University of the Arts Philadelphia, 2012
"The first problem of any kind of even limited success is the unshakable conviction that you are getting away with something, and that any moment now they will discover you. It's Imposter Syndrome, something my wife Amanda christened the Fraud Police. In my case, I was convinced that there would be a knock on the door, and a man with a clipboard (I don't know why he carried a clipboard, in my head, but he did) would be there, to tell me it was all over, and they had caught up with me, and now I would have to go and get a real job, one that didn't consist of making things up and writing them down, and reading books I wanted to read. And then I would go away quietly and get the kind of job where you don't have to make things up any more."
Gaiman's perspective on success is a very well-educated one, given the amount he's encountered in his life. But he let the University of the Arts graduating class into the dark bits, the unexpected difficulties, and the necessity of mistakes. You can read the full text here.
7. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, "Make Feminism Inclusive," Wellesley College 2015
"I thought it was a very good thing that the word ‘feminist’ would be introduced to a new generation. But I was startled by how many people, many of whom were academics, saw something troubling, even menacing, in this. It was as though feminism was supposed to be an elite little cult, with esoteric rites of membership. But it shouldn’t. Feminism should be an inclusive party. Feminism should be a party full of different feminisms. And so, class of 2015, please go out there and make Feminism a big raucous inclusive party."
I mean, if her words were good enough for Beyonce, they should be good enough for you. You can read the full text here.
8. Steve Jobs, "Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish," Stanford 2005
"On the back cover of the final issue [of Whole Earth Catalogue] was a photograph of an early morning country road, the kind you might find yourself hitchhiking on if you were so adventurous. Beneath it were the words: “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.” It was their farewell message as they signed off. Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish. And I have always wished that for myself. And now, as you graduate to begin anew, I wish that for you."
This is one of the most famous commencement speeches of all time — and he only made one. You can read the full text here.
9. Zadie Smith, "That Desire For Human Connection," New School 2015
"Walk down these crowded streets with a smile on your face. Be thankful you get to walk so close to other humans. It's a privilege. Don't let your fellow humans be alien to you, and as you get older and perhaps a little less open than you are now, don’t assume that exclusive always and everywhere means better. It may only mean lonelier. There will always be folks hard selling you the life of the few: the private schools, private plans, private islands, private life. They are trying to convince you that hell is other people. Don't believe it. We are far more frequently each other's shelter and correction, the antidote to solipsism, and so many windows on this world."
One of the most recent entries on this list is also one of the funniest: Smith, with her novelist's eye, skewers her entire college experience's vulnerabilities, hipster-prone ideals, and embarrassing love dramas. But she also makes it a priority to tell us: we are part of a collective, and humanity can come together in amazing ways. You can read the full text here.