Highlights from Remarkable Graduation Speeches

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Beyond all the pomp and circumstance, the typical commencement clichés, the jokes about hangovers and not remembering who the commencement speaker is, there are some truly remarkable and timeless graduation speeches that will be remembered for a long time to come.

Here are highlights from a few.

Charlie Day — Merrimack College (2014)

Charlie Day is a television actor, producer, and comedian. He is best known for work on the hit sitcom “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.”

  • “You cannot succeed without the risk of failure”
  • “You cannot have a voice without the risk of criticism.”
  • “You don’t have to be fearless, just don’t let fear stop you.”

Conan O’Brien — Dartmouth (2011)

With a remarkable combination of wit, humor, and originality, Conan discussed evolving dreams, failure, and the importance of not trying to be like everyone else.

“It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique. It’s not easy, but if you accept your misfortune and handle it right, your perceived failure can be a catalyst for profound reinvention.”

J.K. Rowling — Harvard University (2008)

In her 2008 commencement address, J.K. Rowling delivered her speech entitled “The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination.”

  • “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.”
  • “Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”

Michael Lewis — Princeton (2012)

Michael Lewis is the author of the best-selling books Lair’s Poker and Moneyball. His commencement address focused on the motifs of success and luck and the profound connection between the two.

  • “Success is always rationalized because successful people don’t want to acknowledge t hat they were actually just really lucky.”

Marissa Mayer — Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) (2009)

At the time she delivered this speech, Marissa Mayer was an executive and spokesperson at Google. She is currently the CEO of Yahoo.

  • “Find the smartest people you can and surround yourself with them.”
  • “Find allies rather than adorers.”
  • “Find the courage to do things you’re not ready to do.”
  • “Find places where you’re comfortable … By being comfortable in your environment, you’re freed of your insecurities and the things that hold you back, but don’t need to.”
  • “Power comes through sharing information. Tell everyone everything. The more valuable the better.”

Denzel Washington — University of Pennsylvania (2011)

Denzel Washington talked about “falling forward.”

  • “Reggie Jackson struck out twenty-six-hundred 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. Did you know that? I didn’t know that because the 1,001st was the light bulb. Fall Forward.”
  • “Every failed experiment is one step closer to success. You will fail at some point in your life. If you don’t fail … you’re not even trying. Sometimes, it’s the best way to figure out where you’re going.”

Steve Jobs — Stanford (2005)

This is easily the most famous commencement speech on this list.

  • “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”
  • “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.”
  • “Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking.”
  • “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”