The Best Advice From The Most Viewed Commencement Speeches

Whether they had them laughing or tearing up, these speechmakers spoke about possibility, passion, and never settling in life.


You can sum up most advice given in college graduation address in one “word”: YOLO.


It’s an easy concept to grasp when you’re first starting out in the world with limited responsibilities and limitless potential, but dream jobs can become the daily grind and big plans can easily go unrealized.

Whether you’re in your first job, married with kids, unsure of what tomorrow will bring, or all of the above, the lessons shared with new college grads apply to us all and can be as relevant today as they were then. Here are four inspiring lessons you can take from some of YouTube’s most-viewed commencement speeches.

“Don’t Settle”

–-Steve Jobs, Stanford University, 2005

Steve Jobs’s speech to Stanford University’s Class of 2005 is the most viewed commencement address on YouTube, watched more than 26 million times. Jobs gave the address two years after he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, sharing three short stories from his life and encouraging grads to follow their passions.

Perhaps the most powerful lesson he offered is what he learned after being fired from Apple at the age of 30. Jobs considered leaving Silicon Valley but realized he still loved what he did. So he started over. “I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me,” he said. “The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything.”


Jobs entered what he considered to be one of the most creative periods of his life, where he launched NeXT Computer and Pixar. We all know Jobs eventually returned to Apple better and stronger than ever, but it’s inspiring to see that even the brightest have setbacks. His biggest lesson is to keep the faith: “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,” said Jobs. “And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.”

“Failure Can Be a Blessing”

–-Conan O’Brien, Dartmouth College, 2011

In 2000, Conan O’Brien spoke to the graduates of his alma mater, Harvard University, about not fearing failure. At the time, he had his own successful television show, NBC’s Late Night, and failure didn’t appear to be something he had experienced much of. It’s his 2011 commencement address to the graduates of Dartmouth College, however, that is among the most watched, and the advice he had handed out 11 years earlier was even more poignant as he had recently lost his job as host of the Tonight Show.

“A little over a year ago, I experienced a profound and very public disappointment. I did not get what I wanted, and I left a system that had nurtured and helped define me for the better part of 17 years,” he said. “But then something spectacular happened. Fogbound, with no compass, and adrift, I started trying things.”


O’Brien took his comedy to social media, went on a national tour, recorded an album, and made a documentary. He abandoned all of his preconceived perceptions of his career path and “never had more fun, been more challenged, and this is important–had more conviction about what I was doing,” he says.

There are few things more liberating in life than having your worst fear realized, O’Brien says: “But the point is this: It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique.”

“Find Your Passion”

–-Randy Pausch, Carnegie Mellon University, 2008

Randy Pausch was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer in 2007 and given three to six months to live. Nine months later, he was delivering the commencement address at Carnegie Mellon University where he had been an associate professor of computer science. Like Jobs, his greatest advice is to find your passion, otherwise “all you’re doing is waiting on the Reaper,” he said.


Passion comes from the things that fill you from the inside, said Pausch; and it’s grounded in the relationships you have with people.

“We don’t beat the Reaper by living longer. We beat the Reaper by living well and living fully, for the Reaper will come for all of us,” he said. “The question is what we will do between the time we’re born and the time he shows up.”

“Listen to Your Gut”

–-Oprah Winfrey, Stanford University, 2008

Although their classes had ended, Oprah Winfrey told Stanford University’s Class of 2008 that their education was just beginning. Sometimes lessons come dressed up as detours, roadblocks, or sometimes as full-blown crises, she said; the secret to getting ahead is being open.

“Inner wisdom is more precious than wealth,” she said. “When you’re doing the work you’re meant to do, it feels right and every day is a bonus, regardless of what you’re getting paid. . . . Feelings are really your GPS system for life. When you’re supposed to do something or not supposed to do something, your emotional guidance system lets you know. The trick is to learn to check your ego at the door and start checking your gut instead.”


Winfrey said every right decision she made has come from her gut and every wrong decision was a result of not listening to the inner voice.

“If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it,” she said. “When you don’t know what to do, get still, get very still, until you do know what to do. And when you do get still and let your internal motivation be the driver, not only will your personal life improve, but you will gain a competitive edge in the working world as well.”