9 Inspirational Graduation Speeches that Teach Profound Life Lessons

group of graduations listening to an inspirational graduation speech

Graduation season is upon us, a time when students shuck their confining educational bonds, flee the frivolity of youth, and—presumably—join the ranks of the gainfully employed. It’s a time of farewells, of raging keggers on the quad, and vain attempts at selling their textbooks back to the campus bookstore. But before the curtain can finally drop on that particular stage of life, there’s one last lesson to be imparted… and it comes in the form of inspirational graduation speeches.

At their best, graduation speeches bear profound life lessons. So, we’ve rounded up some of the most inspirational graduation speeches and compiled a few noteworthy passages.  Read them, and feel inspired!

1. Ellen DeGeneres (Tulane University Commencement 2009)

“Really when I look back on it, I wouldn’t change a thing. I mean, it was so important for me to lose everything because I found out what the most important thing is, is to be true to yourself. Ultimately, that’s what’s gotten me to this place. I don’t live in fear, I’m free; I have no secrets, and I know I’ll always be okay because no matter what, I know who I am.”

Life Lesson: Be true to yourself. 

2. Steve Jobs (Stanford University Commencement 2005)

“I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And 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.”

Life Lesson: Find what you love.

3. J.K. Rowling (Harvard University Commencement 2008)

“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… The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships until both have been tested by adversity.”

Life Lesson: You are stronger from setbacks. Embrace adversity.

4. Stephen Colbert (Northwestern University Commencement 2011)

“Life is an improvisation. You have no idea what’s going to happen next, and you are mostly just making things up as you go along. And like improv, you cannot win your life… In my experience, you will truly serve only what you love, because, as the prophet says, ‘service is love made visible.’”

Life Lesson: Work at what you love.

5. Michelle Obama (Oberlin College Commencement 2015)

“Today, I want to urge you to actively seek out the most contentious, polarized, gridlocked places you can find. Because so often, throughout our history, those have been the places where progress really happens—the places where minds are changed, lives transformed, where our great American story unfolds.”

Life Lesson: Seek progress.

6. Meryl Streep (Barnard College, Columbia University Commencement 2010)

“My own sense of well-being and purpose in the world… That comes from studying the world feelingly, with empathy in my work. It comes from staying alert and alive and involved in the lives of the people that I love and the people in the wider world who need my help. No matter what you see me or hear me saying when I’m on your TV holding a statuette spewing, that’s acting.”

Life Lesson: Approach the world with empathy.

John F. Kennedy (American University Commencement 1963)

“World peace, like community peace, does not require that each man love his neighbor, it requires only that they live together in mutual tolerance, submitting their disputes to a just and peaceful settlement. And history teaches us that enmities between nations, as between individuals, do not last forever.”

Life Lesson: Be just and peaceful.

Conan O’Brien (Dartmouth College Commencement 2011)

“Many of you here today are getting your diploma at this Ivy League school because you have committed yourself to a dream and worked hard to achieve it. And there is no greater cliché in a commencement address than ’follow your dream.’ Well, I am here to tell you that whatever you think your dream is now, it will probably change. And that’s okay. Four years ago, many of you had a specific vision of what your college experience was going to be and who you were going to become. And I bet, today, most of you would admit that your time here was very different from what you imagined.”

Life Lesson: Embrace change.

Oprah Winfrey (Harvard University Commencement 2013)

“If you’re constantly pushing yourself higher, higher—the law of averages, not to mention the Myth of Icarus, predicts that you will at some point fall. And when you do, I want you to know this, remember this: there is no such thing as failure. Failure is just life trying to move us in another direction.”

Life Lesson: There is no such thing as failure.

From Speech to Action—Pointing Graduates to Living a Bold Life

Clearly, the most inspirational graduation speeches deliver the final lesson with sincerity and candor, to inspire and move people to action.

The parties, the last few classes, the final moments shared with friends before heading out to the real world—these make graduation ceremonies a genuinely significant occasion. Nevertheless, the commencement address takes the cake in inspiring graduates to live boldly as they move forward.

About the Author

Imee Rabang is a blogger/writer and bilingual poet from Manila, Philippines. She is an advocate of Philippine culture and supports causes that promote language and national identity. She juggles her time between work, parenthood, and community outreach programs. She also dabbles in photography and graphic arts in her free time.
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