These Unforgettable Graduation Speeches Are STILL Changing Lives
It’s been a year since I completed my undergrad program and graduated film school, and I can’t say that I remember the graduation speeches from the ceremony or who even spoke.
That’s not a jab at the speaker though. Here’s why…
My mind was reeling and and my thoughts definitely floated somewhere else during my graduation ceremony.
In the pit of my stomach stirred feelings of anxiety mixed with relief, and a side of anger.
My anger came from the fact that I somehow led myself to believe this: Graduating film school was going to make things easier, and then it hit, reality… like the crevasses of my mind had erupted and I was about to see the world differently for the first time.
I said to myself, Rob, your safety net is gone and life is only going to get harder.
What do you say to a graduate to ease their fears and open their hearts and minds to optimism about the future that lies ahead?
Do you lighten the mood by telling jokes, or do you draw from personal experience to let them know somebody understands them because you once stood in their shoes.
Maybe it’s all of the above.
While looking back and reflecting on these bouts of uncertainty, I suddenly felt uninspired and in desperate need of some words of wisdom to guide me back on track.
Luckily, my shoes did indeed hit the track and that’s why you’re reading this blog. In my search for motivation throughout my life, I’ve come across some of the best graduation speeches from some of the most notable entertainers and iconic figures in America. I also believe that in each and every one of these speeches there most definitely is MoreMentum, which is the core value of this blog.
MoreMentum, simply put, is, the grounding principle in changing your life’s trajectory. MoreMentum is a mindset, allowing one to remain level headed, focused, driven, passionate and kind despite life’s many obstacles, summed up by the will and refusal to quit. And each one of these speeches embraces MoreMentum.
So, here are the top 15 inspiring graduation speeches that will make you re-live graduation day and re-ignite the fires of creativity.
15 Inspiring Graduation Speeches
Speaker: Denzel Washington (Actor)
School: University of Pennsylvania (2011)
MoreMentum Mindset: In Denzel’s words, “have the guts to fail”, as failure propels you closer to where you should be heading in life.
Words of Wisdom: “In picking your major, in deciding what you want to do with life, people have told you to make sure you have something to “fall back on.” But I’ve never understood that concept, having something to fall back on. If I’m going to fall, I don’t want to fall back on anything except my faith. I want to fall forward. This is what I mean; Reggie Jackson struck out 2,600 times in his career, the most in the history of baseball. But you don’t hear about the strikeouts. People remember the home runs. Fall forward. Thomas Edison conducted 1,000 failed experiments… the 1,001st was the light bulb. Fall forward. Every failed experiment is one step closer to success… I’m telling you, embrace it because it’s inevitable. And I should know, in the acting business, you fail all the time.”
Speaker: J.K. Rowling (Author)
School: Harvard University (2008)
MoreMentum Mindset: The benefits of failure will plant the seeds for success.
Words of Wisdom: “I cannot criticize my parents for hoping I would never experience poverty. They had been poor themselves and I have since been poor. And I quite agree with them that it is not a ennobling experience. Poverty entails fear and stress and sometimes depression. It means a thousand petty humiliations and hardships. Climbing out of poverty by your own effort that is something to which to pride yourselves. … What I feared most for myself at your age is poverty, not failure… Failure means 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 have never found the determination to succeed in the one arena where I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized and I was still alive. And I still had ad daughter that I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. So rock bottom, became the solid foundation for which I re-built my life… 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. (Click here for full transcript)“
Speaker: Jim Carrey (Actor)
School: Maharishi University of Management (2014)
MoreMentum Mindset: “Look deeper within yourself to achieve real meaning and fulfillment.
Words of Wisdom: My soul is not contained within the limits of my body. My body is contained within the limitlessness of my soul — one unified field of nothing dancing for no particular reason, except maybe to comfort and entertain itself. As that shift happens in you, you won’t be feeling the world you’ll be felt by it — you will be embraced by it.” (Click here for full transcript)
Speaker: Whoopi Goldberg (Actress)
School: Savannah College of Art and Design (2011)
MoreMentum Mindset: “Never hide your talents, even if you feel alone for it is a sign of extraordinary artistic growth.
Words of Wisdom: Believe and be you. Be you. Be unique. Be prepared to be alone sometimes when you’re unique. It’s not a bad thing. You could travel with the sheep, follow everybody else’s stuff but then you’re not you. I guess if I want to say anything it’s “be you.” Be true to you and that should make the ride a little more interesting.”
Speaker: Anderson Cooper (Journalist)
School: Tulane University (2010)
MoreMentum Mindset: “Success is unpredictable, but inevitable by just moving forward.
Words of Wisdom: Everyone I know who is successful, and by successful I mean happy in their professional or personal life, every successful person I know could never have predicted when they graduated from college where they’d actually end up… But as you consider what to do now, you shouldn’t necessarily feel the next step is the most important one you’re going to take, it’s not. You’re going to go down many paths that go nowhere… You’re going to try things on and realize they don’t fit and that’s how it should be. Learning what you don’t want to do is the next best thing to figuring out what you do wanna do.”
Speaker: Stephen Colbert (Host/Journalist)
School: Knox College (2006)
MoreMentum Mindset: Don’t be afraid of what you don’t understand. Cynicism prevents one from appreciating the world around them.
Words of Wisdom: “Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying “yes” begins things. Saying “yes” is how things grow. Saying “yes” leads to knowledge. “Yes” is for young people. So for as long as you have the strength to, say “yes.” Say “yes” is the word.”
Speaker: Shonda Rhimes (Producer/Author)
School: Dartmouth College (2014)
MoreMentum Mindset: Don’t dream, just do.
Words of Wisdom: “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.” (Click here for full transcript)
Speaker: Peter Dinklage (Actor)
School: Bennington College (2012)
MoreMentum Mindset: Embrace life’s failures.
Words of Wisdom: “At 29, walking away from data processing, I was terrified. 10 years in a place without heat, 6 years at a job I felt stuck in. Maybe I was afraid of change. Are you? …The world might say you are not allowed to yet. I waited a long time out in the world before I gave myself to permission to fail. Please, don’t bother telling the world you are ready. Show it. Do it. What did [Samuel] Beckett say? Ever tried, ever failed, no matter, try again, fail again, fail better.”
Speaker: Meryl Streep (Actress)
School: Vassar College (1983)
MoreMentum Mindset: Instill heart into your work and you’ll find truth and purpose.
Words of Wisdom: “That choice, between the devil and the dream, comes up every day in different little disguises. I’m sure it comes up in every field of endeavor and every life. My advice is to look the dilemma in the face and decide what you can live with. If you can live with the devil, Vassar hasn’t sunk her teeth into your leg the way she did mine. But that conscience, that consciousness of quality, and the need to demand it can galvanize your energies, not just in your work, but in a rigorous exercise of mind and heart in every aspect of your life. I firmly believe that this engagement in the attempt for excellence is what sustains the most well lived and satisfying, successful lives… Integrate what you believe into every single area of your life. Take your heart to work, and ask the most and best of everybody else too. Don’t let your special character and values, the secret that you know and no one else does, the truth – don’t let that get swallowed up by the great chewing complacency.”
Speaker: Neil deGrasse Tyson (Astrophysicist/Author)
School: Western New England University (2012)
MoreMentum Mindset: Never stop learning because the day you do, the world will pass you by.
Words of Wisdom: “So many people can’t wait till school ends, can’t wait until the summer holidays. What are you in a hurry to do, to stop learning?…I’m expecting that you’re not saying to yourself “I’m done learning.” because if that’s how you think and feel, you will slide back to the cave because everyone else who keeps learning will pass you by and that’s where you’ll end up even if you didn’t think you are headed there… It’s once been said that there’s no greater pain to the human mind than the prospect of a new idea because old ideas bring comfort. I want every single one of you to lead painful, uncomfortable lives. In that pain and discomfort you’ll make discoveries that can transform this world in all the ways that it desperately needs.”
Speaker: Candy Crowley (Journalist)
School: Maharishi University (2012)
MoreMenteum Mindset: Move through life being unafraid and watch for the ‘undreamed’ for there you will find you.
Words of Wisdom: “One of my favorite song’s refrain is “some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.” When I graduated from college I was 20 years old. I was engaged to a man …he was finishing out college we were going to move to California. I was planning on having five boys with him. I was planning on ironing his shirts while he went to work and then at night when everyone was quiet in bed, I was going to write the great American novel. None of this happened and yet that was my dream. Now what did happen was I can tell you about a night I spent on the rooftop of an Italian restaurant looking out over the city of Marrakesh. I can tell you about the night I slept in the Sahara… on a Hilary Clinton trip. The king was there… I’ve been to China with three different presidents. These things were so outside the framework of my ability to dream, so while I wish your dreams to come true I also want to tell you that your best life may be in the undreamed. So watch for the undreamed…I did end up marrying a man I loved very much and we had two boys… Again it was my ‘undream’ and I am so happy my ‘undream’ came true.”
Speaker: Katie Couric
School: University of Wisconsin (2015)
MoreMentum Mindset: Humility should always be interwoven in the fabric of your work.
Words of Wisdom: “When I was 22, I was working as a desk assistant at ABC News. I knocked on the door of Don Farmer, who was a correspondent for 20/20, and presented him with a list of ten story ideas. …When he later moved to CNN to do a two-hour news show, he tapped me to be his associate producer. Confidence, though, can easily morph into hubris. So make sure that moxie comes with a big dose of humility. Be humble enough to know what you don’t know. Every day you should be learning, observing, asking questions. Like “What more can I do?” Or “How can I help?” Consider no task beneath you. As Queen Rania of Jordan once said, “If you’re too big for a small job, you’re too small for a big one.” (Click here for full transcript)
Speaker: Martin Scorsese (Filmmaker)
School: NYU Tisch School of the Arts (2014)
MoreMentum Mindset: You will not find your ‘vision’ by dreaming but with pure discipline and nurturing your creative impulses.
Words of Wisdom: “If you’re dreaming, you’re sleeping. And it’s important and imperative to always be awake to your feelings, your possibilities, your ambitions. And don’t get hung up on the consequences because they can be good – like awards, success and even celebrity – and they can be bad — no awards, no success, no celebrity… The rewards are as risky as the temptations of anger and self-doubt.”
Speaker: Soledad O’Brien (Journalist)
School: University of Delaware (2012)
MoreMentum Mindset: We all live one shared life and we owe it to another to stand up for what is right.
Words of Wisdom: “If you listened to the voice of the person who says you’re wasting your time, you’ll make no progress at all, I can guarantee it. Dante once said, ‘The deepest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great moral crisis maintained their neutrality.’ Which in a nutshell means there’s nothing worse than doing nothing and saying nothing when your voice is needed.”
Speaker: Barack Obama (44th U.S. President)
School: Howard University (2016)
MoreMentum Mindset: Our country has been carved out of a tumultuous history, but with perseverance, moral-courage and compassion, we can triumph anything.
Words of Wisdom: “Graduates, each of us is only here because someone else faced down challenges for us. We are only who we are because someone else struggled and sacrificed for us… A story whispered by slaves in the cotton fields, the song of marchers in Selma, the dream of a King in the shadow of Lincoln. The prayer of immigrants who set out for a new world. The roar of women demanding the vote. The rallying cry of workers who built America. And the GIs who bled overseas for our freedom… And when your journey seems too hard, and when you run into a chorus of cynics who tell you that you’re being foolish to keep believing or that you can’t do something, or that you should just give up, or you should just settle — you might say to yourself a little phrase that I’ve found handy these last eight years: Yes, we can.” (Click here for full transcript)
For even more inspiring graduation speeches, check out NPR’s site for over 350+ speeches, spanning hundreds of years back.