Soft Skills

8 minute read

20 Inspiring Takeaways From Top Graduation Speeches

Kat Boogaard

Kat Boogaard

Be the change you wish to see in the world.

Are you rolling your eyes yet? There are plenty of beloved quotes, ancient proverbs, and tired clichés that find their way into graduation speeches.

But, some speeches that happen at that prestigious podium on the graduation stage? They’re actually downright enlightening and moving.

So, we’ve pulled together some of the best graduation speeches from recent years—that won’t result in any groans or eye rolls.

Whether you’re a recent graduate or are more established in your career, we all have something to learn from these inspiring, encouraging, and sometimes even hilarious messages.

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1. Amy Poehler, Harvard University

All I can tell you today is what I have learned. What I have discovered as a person in this world. And that is this: you can't do it alone. As you navigate through the rest of your life, be open to collaboration. Other people and other people's ideas are often better than your own.

Read the full transcript here

2. Madeleine Albright, Wellesley College

None of us have full title to the truth. Wisdom comes from the ability to believe in ideas while maintaining respect for the rights and beliefs of others. As critics point out, this quality can sometimes lead to intellectual mush. At its best, however, it can generate triumphs that encompass both mind and spirit.

Read the full transcript here

3. Steve Jobs, Stanford University

Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

Read the full transcript here

4. Stephen Colbert, Wake Forest University

Of course, any standards worth having will be a challenge to meet. And most of the time, you will fall short. But what is nice about having your own set of standards is that from now on, you fill out your own report card. So do yourself a favor: Be an easy grader. Score yourself on a curve. Give yourself extra credit. You have the power. You are your own professor now.

Read the full transcript here

5. Arianna Huffington, Smith College

The founding fathers wrote about the pursuit of happiness, and if you go back to the original documents—as I'm sure all of you have done—happiness did not mean the pursuit of more ways to be entertained. It was the happiness that comes from feeling good by doing good.

Read the full transcript here

6. Barack Obama, University of Michigan

But we cannot expect to solve our problems if all we do is tear each other down. You can disagree with a certain policy without demonizing the person who espouses it. You can question someone’s views and their judgment without questioning their motives or their patriotism.

Read the full transcript here

7. Oprah Winfrey, Howard University

Your calling isn't something that somebody can tell you about. It's what you feel. It's a part of your life force. It is the thing that gives you juice. The thing that are you supposed to do. And nobody can tell you what that is. You know it inside yourself.

Read the full transcript here

8. Peter Dinklage, Bennington College

Raise the rest of your life to meet you. Don’t search for defining moments because they will never come. Well, the birth of your children, OK, of course, forget about it, that’s just six months. My life is forever changed, that’s most defining moment ever. But I’m talking about in the rest of your life and most importantly in your work. The moments that define you have already happened. And they will already happen again. And it passes so quickly.

Read the full transcript here

Peter's Bennington College alumni page

9. Meryl Streep, Barnard College

Pretending is not just play. Pretending is imagined possibility. Pretending or acting is a very valuable life skill and we all do it. All the time, we don’t want to be caught doing it but nevertheless it’s part of the adaptations of our species, we change who we are to fit the exigencies of our time, and not just strategically, or to our own advantage, sometimes sympathetically, without our even knowing it for the betterment of the whole group.

Read the full transcript here

10. Neil deGrasse Tyson, Rice University

So many people can’t wait till school ends, can’t wait until the summer holidays. What are you in a hurry to do, to stop learning? This is the only time in your life when your job was to learn. That was your job. That’s what was expected of you. Now you’re being cast forth and I’m hoping, I’m expecting that you’re not saying to yourself ‘I’m done learning.

11. Marissa Mayer, Illinois Institute of Technology

Finding something you are passionate about gives you a sense of purpose and is a big part of happiness. To find it though, you need to be honest with yourself, observant, and make the most of the situation. Which brings me to my next piece of advice on finding things. Find the smartest people you can and surround yourself with them.

Read the full transcript here

12. Sanjay Gupta, University of Michigan

We do not think of our lives in a linear way. If I ask you to tell me about your days as a University student, it’s unlikely you would start at the beginning and describe every moment all the way to the end. We remember series of moments, memorable moments; and together these moments make up the meshwork of our lives.

Read the full transcript here

13. Sheryl Sandberg, Barnard College

So my hope for all of you here, for every single one of you, is that you’re going to walk across the stage and get your diploma. You’re going to go out tonight or maybe all summer and celebrate. You deserve it. And then you’re going to lean way into your career. You’re going to find something you love doing, and you’re going to do it with gusto. You’re going to pick your field and you’re going to ride it all the way to the top.

Read the full transcript here

14. Will Ferrell, University of Southern California

To those of you graduates sitting out there who have a pretty good idea of what you’d like to do with your life, congratulations. For many of you who maybe don’t have it all figured out, it’s okay. That’s the same chair that I sat in. Enjoy the process of your search without succumbing to the pressure of the result. Trust your gut, keep throwing darts at the dartboard. Don’t listen to the critics and you will figure it out.

Read the full transcript here

15. Abigail Washburn, Colorado College

An open heart and curious mind creates miracles. I believe we discover our true calling not because we intellectually know what it is (even if we think we do) but because we are curious enough & open enough to be found by our true calling.

Read the full transcript here

16. Ben Bernanke, Princeton University

Nobody likes to fail but failure is an essential part of life and of learning. If your uniform isn't dirty, you haven't been in the game.

Read the full transcript here

17. Diana Nyad, Middlebury College

But I’m asking you, what are you going to do with this one wild and precious life of yours?

Read the full transcript here

18. Aaron Sorkin, Syracuse University

To get where you’re going, you have to be good, and to be good where you’re going, you have to be damned good. Every once in awhile, you’ll succeed. Most of the time you’ll fail, and most of the time the circumstances will be well beyond your control.

Read the full transcript here

19. Barbara Bush, Wellesley College

For several years, you've had impressed upon you the importance to your career of dedication and hard work. And, of course, that's true. But as important as your obligations as a doctor, a lawyer, a business leader will be, you are a human being first. And those human connections—with spouses, with children, with friends—are the most important investments you will ever make. At the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, winning one more verdict, or not closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a child, a friend, or a parent.

Read the full transcript here

20. Conan O’Brien, Dartmouth College

Your path at 22 will not necessarily be your path at 32 or 42. One’s dream is constantly evolving, rising and falling, changing course.

Read the full transcript here

Wrapping it up

You’ve just had a front-row seat to some of the best nuggets of wisdom from these graduation speeches. And now, it’s time to give you a well-deserved round of applause because you have reached the finish line of an amazing chapter—not the end of the journey.

Now, a challenging world is waiting. But don’t panic. You’ll be able to roll with the punches if you don’t stop doing one thing: learning. These inspiring speeches have proved that you don’t only need knowledge but also ‘people’ skills to surf everyday waves.

So, what’s next? At GoSkills, we’ve got a bunch of soft skills courses waiting for your to dive into, so you can keep your learning party going after your graduation. After all, every end is just a brand-new beginning!

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Kat Boogaard

Kat Boogaard

Kat is a writer specializing in career, self-development, and productivity topics. When she escapes her computer, she enjoys reading, hiking, golfing, and dishing out tips for prospective freelancers on her website.