In recent years, the top universities have become more ambitious than ever in their search for a star name to deliver their graduation speech – or commencement speech as it’s more commonly known in the US. We’re certainly not complaining. It’s led to some amazing words of wit and wisdom, often from the most unlikely of sources.
Here we pick our top 10 of the best ever graduation speeches. Scroll down for video links and killer quotes on each one.
10. Alice Cooper, Musicians’ Institute, 2012
The original godfather of shock wouldn’t be an obvious choice for many commencement days but for the rowdy and excitable LA Musicians’ Institute class of 2012 he was the perfect fit.
Top quote: “Whatever you do, avoid mediocrity. Mediocrity is your enemy.”
9. Steve Jobs, Stanford, 2005
This was one of the rare occasions we got to see the real Steve Jobs in the public eye, honest and open, offering his wisdom on how to get the most from your limited time on the planet.”
Top quote: “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked.”
8. Jeff Bezos, Princeton, 2010
It takes a hard-nosed businessman to be CEO of Amazon and make the internet giant the success it is today. Or so you’d think. In his commencement speech at Princeton, Jeff waxed lyrical about the importance of… kindness. Who’d have thought it? Jezz Bezos, an old softie?
Top quote: “I took the less safe path to follow my passion, and I’m proud of that choice.”
7. JK Rowling, Harvard, 2008
The Harry Potter author went full-on confessional during her 2008 speech at Harvard, delving into the details of her dark past when she was “as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless.”
Top quote: “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.”
6. Robert de Niro, NYU Art School, 2015
Not one to gloss over the realities of working life in the entertainment industry, the legendary actor caused a stir with his obscenity-laden speech. He was bombastic in his declaration that the 2015 Art School graduates before him should be prepared for big challenges ahead.
Top quote: “You are opening a door to a lifetime of rejection… But when it comes to the arts, passion should trump common sense.”
5. Mary Schmich, hypothetical commencement speech, 1997
Columnist Mary Schmich encouraged anyone over the age of 26 to write their own ‘Guide to life for graduates’. Her attempt was an essay titled ‘Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young’ which was first published in the Chicago Tribune and later re-imagined as the well-known pop song ‘Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)’
Top quote: “Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts. Don’t put up with people who are reckless with yours.”
4. John F Kennedy, American University, 1963
Against the backdrop of the early 1960s in America, Kennedy’s speech inspired graduates to strive for what may be the biggest goal of all: world peace.
Top quote: “Our problems are man-made — therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants.”
3. Rik Mayall, Exeter, 2008
It seems comedians make great graduation speakers. The likes of Will Ferrell, Stephen Colbert and Ellen Degeneres almost made our top 10 too. But the late, great Rik Mayall topped the lot. As entertaining and engaging as ever, Rik treated the assembled throng to his very own ‘five mantras to life’.
Top quote: “Nobody is genuinely your superior.”
2. David Foster Wallace, Kenyon College, 2005
In his now-legendary ‘This Is Water’ speech, the great novelist pulls no punches in dismissing the rat-race civilisation of modern-day western living. Wallace calls on his graduate audience to prove their educated ways by achieving “capital T-true” freedom through consciousness and sympathy.
Top quote: “The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able to truly care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom. That is being educated.”
1. Muhammad Ali, Harvard University, 1975
Muhammad Ali was more than just a boxer. He was a philosopher, poet, theologian, comedian and teacher. He was also dyslexic. When news got out that he’d been invited to give a commencement speech at Harvard in 1975 the excitement was fever pitch. The Greatest did not disappoint, delivering a rousing speech about the importance of friendship. Once he’d finished, someone in the audience shouted out “give us a poem!”. He responded famously with a poem of his own, known to be the shortest poem in history: “Me. We.”
Top quote: “If a man extracts in return all he does for a friend then it is business, not true friendship. The greatness of a man depends on his heart not on his education or wealth.”
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