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The Best Commencement Addresses of All Time (Or at Least, of The Last Decade Or So): The Top Ten

Updated on May 12, 2012

Graduation season is quickly approaching. Soon, millions of students (yes, millions) will walk through the hallways of their respective high schools and colleges for the last time as pupils, don the traditional cap and gown, and receive a diploma recognizing their achievement. For graduates at any level of schooling, times are tough, yes. There’s no denying it. There have certainly been more prosperous times to take the next step in life – when college was within the financial reach of middle-class high school grads, when college grads could snag a job after finishing their time in the university, with a manageable amount of student loan debt (or no debt at all – yes, there was actually a time when that was possible). However, times are not totally bleak. I would be lying if I said that after the graduation dinners and parties end, it will be clear sailing for 2012 graduates. Many, if not most, are going to have some long, hard roads to cross, but doing so will only make them stronger. After all, the root word of “commencement” is “commence”, and “to commence” is “to begin”. As a graduate, you are not just completing your course of study, you are beginning a whole new chapter in your life – one that will be filled with the fulfillment of hopes and dreams, as well as new hopes and dreams to be chased after (and let nothing get in your way in pursuit of said hopes and dreams). There will be many new things, exciting things, for you to experience – new friends, new city, new routine. And, of course, your life, post-graduation, will be fraught with new challenges, waiting to be tackled head-on. But do not despair just yet – someone has hope for the least of you: the guy your school hires to be the guest speaker at your graduation ceremony, imparting words of wisdom, inspiring rhetoric, and funny anecdotes. With that said, I present to you my handpicked list of the best graduation speeches of all time ("all time" being early 2000s and beyond because, apparently, they weren't filming these things prior to that).

At #10 on the list is Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates. Let me be the first to say that this speech sounds a lot like Kermit the Frog continuously plugging the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation without actually saying the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Harsh? Perhaps, but let's be honest -- I speak the truth. (Also, where are the graduates when they show shots of the audience?) If there's one thing, though, that you should take away from this speech it's something profound he says towards the end -- "To those to whom much is given, much is expected." He's quoting his mother. You don't have to be a Harvard graduate to consider yourself among the fortunate -- the fact that you went to college, or even the fact that you received any level of formal education and are able to read this, makes you luckier than many. As Bill suggests, it is imperative that you, being in a position of privilege, take some step to give back to your community or the world.

10. Bill Gates at Harvard, 2007

"Wow! I'm in the state that's next to the state where Ben & Jerry's is made!" Conan O'Brien is #9 on my list, a list with a large concentration of comedians like himself. What can you do? These ceremonies can go on and on and on. For those who are not graduating, let's face it, these things can get dry. People want entertainment, and guys like this are the ones who can provide it, while giving the graduates a terrific sendoff. Conan gave this speech not too long after (and he mentions it several times) Jay Leno usurped him from his (Conan's) show on NBC because, frankly, Leno's The Jay Leno Show was a ratings disaster. Apparently, after experiencing nothing but decades of unparalleled success in the entertainment industry, Leno stealing Conan's show gave Conan a reality check, which, between the wisecracks, provided O'Brien with some valuable insights about life in general that he was able to impart onto Dartmouth's graduates.

9. Conan O'Brien at Dartmouth College, 2011

I'm not a fan of Rowling's Harry Potter series, if you can believe that. Really. I'm not. I think her writing style is just so-so, and the books are thick, not because there's a solid, complex plot there, but because there's a lot of unnecessary stuff in there that I feel distracts from the overall idea. I feel the reason she is the world's first billionaire author is, in large part, thanks to the efforts and the brilliance of the marketing and sales departments at her UK publisher, Bloomsbury, and her American publisher, Scholastic, and not her ability as a writer. I have read hundreds and hundreds of far better books, where the authors did not get rich off of their work. So, seeing as how I'm not a Harry Potter fan (you could even say I despise it), the fact that JK Rowling makes it in at #8 on my list is a testament to what a great commencement address she gave at Harvard in 2008. It's great. It's inspiring. She has a surprising amount of humor and wit. If this were a list of the greatest commencement addresses of all time, ranked by how well they speak to overcoming adversity and obstacles in life, this speech would surely be #1.

8. JK Rowling at Harvard, 2008

This is the first of two commencement addresses on my list that were never actually speeches (the second, by humorist David Sedaris, is found below), but were so good they deserved a place on this list. I admit it -- my title is a bit deceitful, but I think you will agree with my reasoning after viewing the video below. In 1997, Mary Schmich, a Chicago Tribune columnist, wrote an article with the headline, "Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young", stating that "inside every adult lurks a graduation speaker dying to get out" (I have actually given a commencement address before, and I do think it is something that should be on everyone's to-do list). Schmich then proceeded to tell her readers that writing a commencement address, regardless of whether anyone will ever hear it, is an exercise that everyone over the age of 26 should do. She then used the rest of her column to write the theoretical graduation speech she would give. The wise words she wrote were beautiful in their simplicity, and ring true today, just as they did fifteen years ago. At the top of her list of advice was "wear sunscreen". The column Schmich wrote was popular with readers and gained national attention. It was also surprisingly lyrical, and Australian director Mark Anthony "Baz" Luhrmann, who had directed and produced William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, the year before, and would go on to co-write, direct, and produce Moulin Rouge! in 2001, had the song narrated in its entirety on his 1998 album, Something for Everybody, which was otherwise comprised of remixed versions of songs from his earlier films and plays. The song, which was mixed with samples from "Everybody's Free (To Feel Good)", a 1991 song by Zambian performer Rozalla, narrated by Australian voice actor Lee Perry, with the chorus solely sung by Quindon Tarver (what a voice!), was retitled "Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen)", also informally known as "The Sunscreen Song". "The Sunscreen Song" would go on to be quickly re-released as a single, and wound up reaching number 45 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the United States. Two different music videos were officially released with the song. The original is shown below. Mary Schmich's column is good food for thought, and I encourage you to read it, regardless of where you are in life.

7. "Everybody's Free to Wear Sunscreen" (The Sunscreen Song) by Baz Luhrmann (speech written by Mary Schmich)

Okay. This wasn't an actual speech. I wish I had a video of humorist David Sedaris reading this at Princeton, but I don't because it never happened (for the record, though, he would be the ultimate commencement speaker). I highly recommend reading it. In the hilarious, irreverent fashion that only he can pull off, David Sedaris admits that he's "dating himself" by using his fictional commencement address to describe a time, thousands of years ago (before Jesus, apparently), in a violent, pagan society, when he (Sedaris) attended Princeton. Primarily, he describes the story of switching his course of study from a double major in patricide and matricide (which his parents are extremely proud of) to the then-new field of comparative literature (which his parents are incredibly disappointed with). Admittedly, he says there wasn't much to compare then -- just a few epic poems and one novel about a lady detective. If you like this piece as much as I do, but you're not familiar with Sedaris' work on NPR or his books, he is one of my favorite writers. You have to check him out. You will literally be trying to keep your sides from splitting. Oh, and for the record, Sedaris is really only 55 and attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, not Princeton.

Bill Gates would be disappointed if he knew that the late, great Steve Jobs, once again, made a list he was on, too. Gates would also be disappointed to find out that, yet again, Jobs placed higher on said list. How could I not forget Steve Jobs, though? After all, I'm typing on a MacBook Pro by Apple. This speech takes a much more serious tone than the other commencement addresses on this list (and maybe being serious cuts down on time, seeing as how this speech is only fourteen minutes, thirty-four seconds long), but Steve Jobs, a brilliant innovator, offers up some great wisdom to the Stanford University Class of 2005 in this remarkable appearance through his three stories: how he dropped out of Reed College, only to drop in on the classes that looked interesting to him; how he was ousted from the company he started, only to be hired back when Apple bought out another Jobs venture, NeXT Computer; and, about his battle with pancreatic cancer. Unfortunately, Steve Jobs is gone from this world now, after we lost him last October, but the things he said that day in 2005 will stay true forever. Stay hungry. Stay foolish.

5. Steve Jobs at Stanford, 2005

Love or hate this man's politics or the fact that he's the leader of the free world, you have to admit that his public speaking abilities are incredible -- bar none. When he was still a United States Senator in 2006, Barack Obama addressed the graduating class at Northwestern University. Do you think anyone there realized this man was going to be the next President of the United States? The ironic thing is that at the commencement ceremony the year prior, Senator John McCain had given the address, which Obama is sure to point out. You could almost say this was the first speech of Obama's 2008 Presidential Campaign -- he mentions the issues and rhetoric that he repeated on the campaign trail, and the words "change" and "hope" (or variations of those words) become major talking points in this commencement address. This is definitely the kind of thing that members of Northwestern's Class of 2006 will be telling their grandchildren about.

4. Barack Obama at Northwestern University, 2006

Wow! This is amazing. Ellen DeGeneres gave such an original speech, especially dancing towards the audience at the end. Ellen was brought back to Tulane by popular demand (the speech she gave in 2006 at the school that they keep alluding to is below), and it's not difficult to see why they wanted Ellen back. Don't you wish the person who had given the commencement address at your graduation ceremony had been this fun and memorable? While I'm sure it's disheartening for many of these recent graduates to hear that the really successful, really wealthy, really famous people who are speaking at their graduations are college dropouts themselves, or, like Ellen, never went to begin with, Ellen, who grew up in New Orleans while her mother worked for Tulane, speaks to this fact with good humor. The entire speech is humorous, and what she says about not really knowing yourself is so true: for better or for worse, the concept of self is constantly evolving, and that is one of the long, hard roads most commencement speakers fail to speak to.

3. Ellen DeGeneres at Tulane University, 2009

I was never mad about Mad About You, nor was I ever a friend of Friends. It's not to say that I didn't like these award-winning shows -- I just never watched them. However, I have an enormous amount of respect for actress Lisa Kudrow. She's an incredibly bright woman. As if being a Vassar alumna was not proof enough of her intelligence, she also speaks French fluently (as did her character, Phoebe, on Friends), and in her speech, when she says she could go into the specific details about her research in neuropsychopharmacology, neurotransmitters, and hemispheric dominance and headache types if she wanted to, she's not kidding. This is an incredible speech from a smart, witty, driven individual, describing something most of those graduates were/are too young to realize yet -- how random, unexpected, seemingly unconnected, perhaps sometimes unfortunate, events in life can lead to great outcomes that may not have been part of your original plans, but work out well anyway. I absolutely love this speech -- it's so clever. I was even debating with myself if this might be #1, but Sacha Baron Cohen is a tough act to compete with.

2. Lisa Kudrow at Vassar College, 2010

Let me clear things up. Kofi Annan, the Ghanaian diplomat who served as Secretary-General of the United Nations from 1997 to 2006, gave the actual commencement address at Harvard in 2004, but I was blown away by Israeli-British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen appearing in character as Ali G (short for Alistair Leslie Graham), a white, suburban kid from Staines, England who tries so hard to be a part of urban African-British culture and rap/hip-hop culture -- essentially, a poseur, loosely based off of Tim Westwood, an English DJ and television personality. Therefore, I expand "the best commencement addresses of all time" to "the best graduation speeches of all time". The following is from Harvard's Class Day, ceremonies that occur every year the day before commencement. Class Day began at Harvard in 1968 and is put on by the Senior Class Committee as a way for seniors and their families to socialize before graduating. At least one comedian speaks at these festivities each year. In 2004, that comedian was Sacha Baron Cohen. Now, keep in mind that Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (generally shortened to just Borat), the controversial film about Borat, another one of Baron Cohen's characters, a Kazakh journalist traveling across the United States interacting with non-actors and making fools of real Americans, which made Sacha Baron Cohen a household name in the United States was not released until 2006. Back in 2004, Baron Cohen (and his antics) was a relative unknown in the United States. Imagine the surprise of these Ivy Leaguers and their families then when this guy walks onto the stage and starts speaking. He's wearing a bright red jumpsuit! He thinks he's black! Every sentence he says is grammatically incorrect! At the end, police appear to be arresting him! And I think that's what gets me about this speech -- how shocked people must have been. But this guy has high hopes for them -- he says many of them might be team leader material at a McDonald's store (they might even get to meet "Sir Ronald" himself), they could do as their alleged classmate did and star in pornos filmed at the Great Western motel (excuse me -- Best Western), or they could take up careers as drug mules, seeing the world as they transport the finest chronic across borders (that is, if the ex-lax works). In addition to having a creative presentation that was very well acted out, as far as I'm concerned, Ali G (Sacha Baron Cohen) wins the award for having the best graduation speech of all time because what better way to begin the next step in life than having a chuckle or two, especially if you're a relatively uptight Harvard kid? As for me, every time I see this, I think I'm going to have a heart attack from all the laughter! And, if you think Baron Cohen's style or brand of humor is unsophisticated and below your own personal standards, as well as the standards Harvard must set for itself, this guy is a Cambridge graduate, mind you. Just so you know and so there's no confusion, the second video picks up where the first part left off at 2:30.

1. Ali G (Sacha Baron Cohen) at Harvard, 2004

Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat's Cradle author Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. definitely deserves a mention here. A speech made at Albion College seems so out of place when I have a list of speeches from Ivy League schools or universities so selective and prestigious that they might as well be in the Ivy League. A single word comes to mind when I think of what Vonnegut said at this private liberal arts college, affiliated with the United Methodist Church, in southern Michigan in 2002: inspiring. The only reason that this speech is an honorable mention, instead of being at the top of my list of the greatest commencement addresses is because this is not a commencement address. It was just a lecture he gave at the college, but watching this speech should be a requirement before anybody graduates from anything. The speech is called "How To Get a Job Like Mine", which is what every speech he gave during his career was titled. However, he never actually talked about how to become a writer, and this speech is no exception. He just used the opportunity as a forum to talk about whatever he wanted to say. The speech below is pretty disjointed, but he basically tells you everything you need to know for life. It's almost an hour long, so I know most are not going to take the time to view it in its entirety (even though they ought to), so here are the highlights:

- You can be a saint, too -- meaning being a decent person in a strikingly indecent world.

- Joe Heller, Vonnegut's friend and Catch-22 author, realized he had something his ultra-wealthy neighbors in Long Island didn't have and could never have -- the knowledge that he had enough.

- Building and strengthening communities is a destiny that one should love.

- Heartfelt thanks is a far better reward than wealth or fame.

- As Vonnegut's uncle used to say, "If this isn't nice, what is?" -- You should see the beauty in the little things.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. at Albion College, 2002 - Honorable Mention

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      Alyssa Sprinkle 3 years ago

      It is said here that David Sedaris' Princeton address did not actually happen. That is false. He did in fact give this speech at the Princeton Baccalaureate Service in 2006. There is a video of the entire service including his speech on the Princeton website.

      Source: http://www.princeton.edu/main/news/archive/S14/94/...

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      Jim 3 years ago

      love it!