These Are the 10 Most Motivational Commencement Speeches of All Time

Graduating isn’t the same as it used to be – you know, when you could just walk out of university with a job. The market today is tough, and with the economy constantly changing there’s no longer a sure-fire way to land the job of your dreams.

So it definitely helps to have a bit of inspiration before you start the next chapter of your life and to make the transition at least manageable.

While many people will most likely forget who spoke at their graduation ceremony, let alone what they said, there are a few individuals whose commencement speeches have stood the test of time.

From Steve Jobs to Natalie Portman, Jeff Bezos to John F. Kennedy, here are the speeches you wish you’d heard on your graduation day.


Steve Jobs — Stanford University, 2005
The Apple founder and CEO advised Stanford graduates to live each day as if it were their last and to pursue their dreams and see the opportunities in life’s setbacks  including death itself. Jobs was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a year earlier, so his speech really is from the heart.

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

J.K. Rowling — Harvard University, 2008 
The author of the Harry Potter series shared the story of the dark period she experienced before she pushed forward to achieve success.

“You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.”

John F. Kennedy — American University, 1963 
Kennedy encouraged graduates to strive for what might be the biggest challenge of all: world peace. And while he gave this speech more than 50 years ago, its sentiment still rings true today.

“Too many of us think it is impossible,” he said. “Too many think it unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable — that mankind is doomed — that we are gripped by forces we cannot control. Our problems are manmade — therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants.”

Jeff Bezos — Princeton University, 2010 
The founder of Amazon shared with Princeton graduates the difference between choices and gifts. Cleverness, Bezos pointed out, is a gift, while being kind to others is a choice.

“What I want to talk to you about today is the difference between gifts and choices. Cleverness is a gift, kindness is a choice. Gifts are easy — they’re given after all. Choices can be hard. You can seduce yourself with your gifts if you’re not careful, and if you do, it’ll probably be to the detriment of your choices.”

Aaron Sorkin — Syracuse University, 2012 
The author and screenwriter of the Social Network used his particular blend of wit and sound principles to deliver a moving commencement speech that involved his own fails and triumphs as he grew up.

“Develop your own compass, and trust it. Take risks, dare to fail, remember the first person through the wall always gets hurt.”

Conan O’Brien — Dartmouth College, 2011  
The comedian and television host shared stories with Dartmouth grads about key moments in his career and how certain disappointing setbacks helped shape him into who he is today.

“Whether you fear it or not, disappointment will come. The beauty is that through disappointment you can gain clarity, and with clarity comes conviction and true originality.”

Daniel Pink — Northwestern University’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, 2014
The New York Times best-selling author explained to graduates why the best roadmap for an interesting life is the one that you make up as you go.

“Sometimes, the only way to discover who you are or what life you should lead is to do less planning and more living — to burst the double bubble of comfort and convention and just do stuff.”

Natalie Portman — Harvard University, 2015 
The Acadamy Award-winning actress reflected on her own experiences at university and in her career as she battled self-doubt. Even 12 years after graduating, and with a successful acting career under her belt, she still deals with her own personal insecurities and shared how graduates can use the feeling of self-doubt as motivation.

“Sometimes your insecurities and your inexperience may lead you, too, to embrace other people’s expectations, standards, or values,” Portman said. “But you can harness that inexperience to carve out your own path, one that is free of the burden of knowing how things are supposed to be, a path that is defined by its own particular set of reasons.”

Jim Carrey — Maharishi University of Management, 2014 
In true Carrey fashion, he shared funny pearls of wisdom, while still offering graduates inspiring words about life and their future.

“Like many of you, I was concerned about going out into the world and doing something bigger than myself, until someone smarter than myself made me realize that there is nothing bigger than myself.”

Sheryl Sandberg — Barnard College, 2011 
The Chief Operating Officer of Facebook used her speech to encouraging young women to be ambitious and self-confident, and to “lean in” to their careers, especially before making important life choices.

“Try until you find something that stirs your passion, a job that matters to you and matters to others. It is the ultimate luxury to combine passion and contribution. It’s also a very clear path to happiness.”