Great Commencement Speeches

by | May 24, 2018


Conan O’Brien, as he delivered the commencement address at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., on June 12, 2011.

It’s that time of year – high school and college graduations are upon us. I love good commencement addresses and try to read some of the most highly regarded ones each year.  Here are a few that I have liked the best and which are also widely regarded as some of the best commencement speeches:

David Foster Wallace – Kenyon College 2005.

This is my personal favorite commencement speech and is almost always included as a contender for the greatest commencement address of all-time in lists of great commencement addresses. David Foster Wallace was a celebrated author of literature who died by suicide in 2008.  This commencement address was published as a book titled “This is Water.” Here’s a sample:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

Link to Full Transcript: David Foster Wallace – This is Water

Conan O’Brien – Harvard 2000

Conan is a Harvard grad and this address is a work of art and hilarious.  Excerpt:

Students of the Harvard class of 2000, 15 years ago I sat where you sit now. And I thought exactly what you are now thinking. What’s going to happen to me? Will I find my place in the world? Am I really graduating a virgin? Still have 24 hours. Roommate’s mom very hot. Swear she’s checking me out. There was that Rob Lowe movie.

Full transcript: Conan O’Brien – Harvard Commencement

He also gave an amazing commencement address to Dartmouth College graduates in 2011: Dartmouth 2011

Steve Jobs – Stanford 2005

Steve Jobs’ commencement address at Stanford was two years before the iPhone and about a year after his cancer diagnosis. Very meaningful and poignant. Excerpt:

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. 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 are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

Full Transcript and Video: Steve Jobs – Stanford 2005

Ben Horowitz – Columbia University School of Engineering 2015

Ben Horowitz is co-founder of celebrated venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz and a former CEO of various start-ups. He is also the author of The Hard Thing About Hard Things, a fantastic book on business and leadership. His commencement address at Columbia is about why recent graduates should not follow their passions. Excerpt:

Thinking for yourself sounds both simple and trivial, but in reality it’s extremely difficult and it’s profound and here is why. As human beings, we want to be liked. It’s anthropological. If people didn’t like you in caveman days, they would just eat you. So you really have a natural built in instinct to want to be liked and the easiest way to be liked is to tell people what they want to hear. And you know what everybody wants to hear? What they already believe to be true. And so the last thing they want to hear is an original idea that contradicts their belief system.

Full Transcript and Video: Don’t Follow Your Passion: Career Advice for Recent Graduates

J.K. Rowling – Harvard 2008

J.K. Rowling, of course, is the author of the Harry Potter books. Her path is an interesting one and in this commencement address she focuses on two topics: the importance of failure and the importance of imagination. Excerpt:

Given a time machine or a Time Turner, I would tell my 21-year-old self that personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a check-list of acquisition or achievement. Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life, though you will meet many people of my age and older who confuse the two. Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone’s total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.

Full Transcript and Video: J.K. Rowling – Harvard 2008


  1. Congratulations Claire and thank you John for reposting this iPod. I love it.

    One comment n relation to language around suicide. You mention that David Foster Wallace “committed suicide”. Now most major media outlets use “died by suicide”. Here’s why,

    • Thanks. Will change. Didn’t know that – thank you for educating me.

  2. Daughter graduating in 7 hours. Really appreciated this. (May use a few lines later this evening!)

    • Here’s a great one from Dr. Seuss at Lake Forest College in 1977. (Google it to see a fun accompanying story about it from “Humanity” website.)

      My Uncle Terwilliger on the Art of Eating Popovers

      My uncle ordered popovers
      from the restaurant’s bill of fare.
      And, when they were served,
      he regarded them
      with a penetrating stare…
      Then he spoke great Words of Wisdom
      as he sat there on that chair:
      ‘To eat these things,’
      said my uncle,
      ‘you must exercise great care.
      You may swallow down what’s solid…
      you must spit out the air!’

      as you partake of the world’s bill of fare,
      that’s darned good advice to follow.
      Do a lot of spitting out the hot air.
      And be careful what you swallow.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Subscribe To The IFOD

Get the Interesting Fact of the Day delivered twice a week. Plus, sign up today and get Chapter 2 of John's book The Uncertainty Solution to not only Think Better, but Live Better. Don't miss a single post!

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This
%d bloggers like this: