3 Of The Most Inspiring Graduation Speeches Ever

Yes, commencement speeches are often little more than platitudes. But as David Foster Wallace, Jeff Bezos, and Arianna Huffington show us, some platitudes can save your life.

After the cherry blossoms have fallen from their branches in rising temperatures of the late springtime, we are every year greeted by a fresh crop of oratory as we enter into Commencement Speech Season.

It's certainly helpful to temper the wide-eyed wonderment of it all with a little cynicism--when you think about it, yes, these speeches are often "little more than TED talks in funny hats"--but, one would hope, that even the most expertly aloof Brooklynite could be won over by the rhetoric below.

There is of course a surfeit of speeches to sort through--check the Guardian, the Daily Beast, or Quora for further lecterning--but the three below struck us for their prescience. Let's get to 'em.

David Foster Wallace: "This is water"

The author of maybe the best novel of the past 20 years and maybe the best essay collection of the past 20 years also gave maybe the best commencement speech of the past 20 years, his Kenyon College commencement from 2005, recently revived in the below video. It's rightfully reignited an interest in the speech, in which the scribe describes how "in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance."

Jeff Bezos: "The difference between gifts and choices"

By most accounts, Jeff Bezos is the man: He rides helicopters, he's all about the long term, and he writes his shareholder letters as heartfelt missives.

So it's no surprise that he dropped knowledge on a 2010 speech, where he drew the line between gifts and choices for Princeton grads. "Cleverness is a gift, kindness is a choice," he says, and while gifts, being given, are easy, choices can get hard. "You can seduce yourself with your gifts if you're not careful," he added, "and if you do, it'll probably be to the detriment of your choices."

Arianna Huffington: "Not intelligence, but wisdom."

The Post master is an evangelist--of sleep, of recasting success, and of wisdom.

Addressing the 2011 class of Sarah Lawrence, Huffington quotes the medieval philosopher Plotinus (that the three sources of knowledge are "opinion, science, and illumination)--and her mother ("Angels fly because they take themselves lightly")--in a speech exhorting her audience to take the small steps to wisdom.

What do you think are the best commencement speeches of all time?

[Image: Flickr user Dave Lawler]

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13 Comments

  • EnotsApi

    Roger Birnbaum's undergraduate address at the University of Denver in June of 2012 is most definitely on par with Steve Jobs' 2005 Stanford Speech as well as JK Rowling's 2008 address at Harvard in 2008. I may be biased as I was lucky enough to graduate with my undergraduate degree from DU on this day. I will forever be impacted by Mr. Birnbaum's words and I still listen back to his speech on my iPod when I doubt myself. I hope one day I will be able to thank him for the inspiration. It has changed my life. 

  • Zazen

    Contrary to the comments, I think this was 3 speeches that hadn't been as popular as the Steve Jobs talk, 3 that might have gone unnoticed by a good portion of everybody ever. 

    On top of that... the Steve Jobs talk is the most widely misunderstood talk in history... just ask Cal Newport.  Steve didn't 'follow his passion' (or dreams, I forget) Steve saw an opportunity and capitalised on it, and then built his skills in the area.  If Steve had followed his passion, he probably still be alive, there would be no Apple, and there would be a legendary Zen meditation teacher up in San Francisco who reinvented deep breathing techniques and pioneered the work of other lesser known meditation teachers in his own all inclusive technique. 

  • Wade

    Thanks for including DFW on this list. Especially in a publication targeted at the business world, not many of your readers would ever have known how good that speech is if it weren't for its inclusion on this list. 

  • Rodolfo Oppenheimer

    I second Steve Jobs' choice, but would add as a close second Randy Pausch's last lecture (Sep 17, 2007) and his commencement speech in May 2008 at Carnegie Mellon University

  • Matthew David Price17

    I still think Steve Job's Commencement Speech at Stanford is one of the most inspiring I've heard.