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.

3 Of The Most Inspiring Graduation Speeches Ever

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]

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.