What Makes a Great Commencement Speech

Pity the poor commencement speaker, for his is a doomed assignment. Being tasked to give inspirational advice practically begs for the recitation of clichés. He is the one person standing between impatient graduates and the diplomas they've worked years to earn. And their audience is wearing sweaty polyester robes and ridiculous hats—and is also, often, terribly hungover.

Despite these considerable obstacles, every once in a while a commencement speech achieves greatness. And when they're great, they soar. "The best ones really honor the occasion," says Tony Balis of the Humanity Initiative, a nonprofit that culls and curates commencement addresses. "They have to be intelligent, relevant, original, and connective to the audience in a real way. It has to be charged with an emotional honesty and intensity. It's a rare audience because it's such a transitory audience. It is a single moment in time and it is an evanescent exercise."

The best way to judge a speech is to hear it, Balis says. "It's a thrilling thing to read them, but it's more thrilling to be there among the students and faculty and experience the laughter and tears and hear the truth." Still, here are excerpts from some that we think deserve to be read again and again, no matter what year you graduated.

Steve Jobs
Stanford University, 2005
When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: "If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you'll most certainly be right." It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: "If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?" And whenever the answer has been "No" for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something. Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure--these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

Conan O'Brien
Harvard University, 2000
I've dwelled on my failures today because, as graduates of Harvard, your biggest liability is your need to succeed. Your need to always find yourself on the sweet side of the bell curve. Because success is a lot like a bright, white tuxedo. You feel terrific when you get it, but then you're desperately afraid of getting it dirty, of spoiling it in any way. I left the cocoon of Harvard, I left the cocoon of Saturday Night Live, I left the cocoon of The Simpsons. And each time it was bruising and tumultuous. And yet, every failure was freeing, and today I'm as nostalgic for the bad as I am for the good. So, that's what I wish for all of you: the bad as well as the good. Fall down, make a mess, break something occasionally. And remember that the story is never over. If it's all right, I'd like to read a little something from just this year: " … Conan himself is not only the quickest and most inventive wit of his generation, but quite possibly the greatest host ever." Ladies and gentlemen, I wrote that this morning, as proof that, when all else fails, there's always delusion. I'll go now, to make bigger mistakes and to embarrass this fine institution even more. But let me leave you with one last thought: if you can laugh at yourself loud and hard every time you fall, people will think you're drunk.

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