You don’t have to be a college senior to appreciate the wisdom, humor, and truth in these uplifting speeches. Here, the most encouraging quotes from famous grad speeches that apply to everyone, everywhere.

By Mary Squillace and Maggie Seaver
July 16, 2018
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At this point, college graduation may be as fuzzy a memory as, well, college itself. No matter how distant your graduation date, though, there’s still plenty of inspiration to find in graduation speeches—especially when they’re delivered by the most influential actors, writers, entrepreneurs, and philanthropists of our lifetime. (Because let’s be real, a pep talk is way more effective coming from the likes of Oprah, J.K Rowling, and Steve Jobs.) Get inspired by the most powerful snippets from 18 famous commencement speeches, each imbued with incredibly encouraging words for students and post-grads (of all ages) alike.

1. “Insist on Optimism,” Jennifer Garner, Denison University 2019

After accepting an honorary degree from her alma mater, Jennifer Garner gave a charming, sassy, and moving speech to Denison’s graduating class. The actor and entrepreneur began with lighthearted life lessons (“When it comes to Halloween costumes, go funny over sexy. Why would you dress like a flirty nurse when you could be a mailbox?”, and, “Nothing looks better in your 50s than sunscreen in your 20s,”), then finished with a powerful call to happiness, kindness, and positivity:

"At some point, you will realize that there is no finish line to cross. There is no moment when you're just supposed to be happy. While you wait for those moments—while you wait for the perfect job, the MCAT score, the engagement ring—your life is happening. Isn't it enough?....Happiness is your own responsibility, so attack it....Insist on optimism. Fight for what makes you optimistic about the world. Find it, insist on it, dig into it, go after it. If this seems lofty...for now, and over and over again, even when you don’t want to, choose kindness. A smile and a moment of your time even up the world more than you can imagine—and it’s free to boot.”

2. “Don’t Let Anyone Tell You You Can’t Do Something,” Mindy Kaling, Dartmouth 2018

Writer and actor Mindy Kaling packed a lot of wisdom into her 17-minutes speech at her alma mater. She touched on everything from dating tips for guys (“Act as if every woman you’re talking to is a reporter for an online publication that you are scared of”) to funny and practical advice (“You never need more than one pancake”). Perhaps her most encouraging quote came from her salient closing remarks:

“I was sitting in the chair you are literally sitting in right now and I just whispered, 'Why not me?' And I kept whispering it for 17 years, and here I am, someone that this school deemed worthy enough to speak to you at your commencement. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something, but especially not yourself. Go conquer the world. Just remember this: Why not you? You made it this far.”

3. “You Can’t Do It Alone,” Amy Poehler, Harvard 2011

As you’d expect from this SNL alum, Amy Poehler, gave Harvard’s class of 2011 plenty to laugh about (like her tongue-in-cheek declaration, “If you remember anything I say today, remember this: Every single thing you see in movies is real.”). Among her jokes were some seriously encouraging words of wisdom about surrounding yourself with great people:

"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. Find a group of people who challenge and inspire you, spend a lot of time with them, and it will change your life.”

4. “Some Failure in Life Is Inevitable,” J.K. Rowling, Harvard 2008

J.K. Rowling stressed the benefits of failure to Harvard’s class of 2008. Her proof? The many missteps that eventually paved the way for her success story as a multi-award-winning writer, philanthropist, and household name. She told her audience, “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all—in which case, you fail by default.

5. “You Don’t Have to Do Anything Sensational for People to Love You,” Mr. Rogers, Dartmouth 2002

Everyone’s favorite cardigan-clad neighbor gave exactly the kind of advice Mr. Rogers’s fans would expect. Along with messages of self-love, helping others, and working together, he imparted these encouraging words to students:

“You don't ever have to do anything sensational for people to love you. When I say it’s you I like, I’m talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you can ever see, or hear, or touch. That deep part of you, that allows you to stand for those things, without which humankind cannot survive. Love that conquers hate. Peace that rises triumphant over war. And justice that proves more powerful than greed.”

6. “Give Back What You Have Been Given,” Oprah Winfrey, Howard University 2007

While it would be pretty great to hear Oprah shout, “You get a car!” from the podium, anything else this infinitely wise woman says is pretty great too (to put it lightly). In her 2007 speech to Howard University grads, she emphasized that in order to remain successful (even if you’re as accomplished as Oprah), it’s vital to give back to the people who supported you.

“As you walk the path of privilege, you must not forget the less privileged you left behind. You cannot continue to succeed in the world or have a fulfilling life in the world unless you choose to use your life in service somehow to others and give back what you have been given. That's how you keep it. That's how you get it. That's how you grow it.”

7. “Trust Yourself to Chart Your Own Course,” Michelle Obama, Tuskegee University 2015

Former First Lady Michelle Obama delivered some remarkably simple, yet effect words of encouragement to Tuskegee’s graduating seniors. She urged them never to stop returning to the truest, most fundamental versions of themselves as they head out into the big, bad world.  

“I want you all to stay true to the most real, most sincere, most authentic parts of yourselves. I want you to ask those basic questions: Who do you want to be? What inspires you? How do you want to give back? And then I want you to take a deep breath and trust yourselves to chart your own course and make your mark on the world.”

8. “You Never Feel a Hundred Percent Okay,” Shonda Rhimes, Dartmouth 2014

When Shonda Rhimes spoke at Dartmouth in 2014, she served major real talk about the myth of having it all. While the words seem a little discouraging on the surface, there’s something reassuring about knowing that not even someone as powerful and accomplished as Rhimes has it all together—and that it's perfectly okay.

“Whenever you see me somewhere succeeding in one area of my life, that almost certainly means I am failing in another area of my life,” she said. “That is the Faustian bargain one makes with the devil that comes with being a powerful working woman who is also a powerful mother. You never feel a hundred percent, OK; you never get your sea legs; you are always a little nauseous. Something is always lost.”

9. “Life Is an Improvisation,” Stephen Colbert, Northwestern University 2011

Leave it to famous comedian Stephen Colbert to draw a connection between life and improv in his witty and insightful commencement address to Northwestern’s class of 2011.

“Life is an improvisation. You have no idea what’s going to happen next, and you are mostly just making things up as you go along. And like improv, you cannot win your life. Even when it might look like you’re winning.”

10. “Bring Out the Best in Those Around You, and Let Them Bring Out the Best in You,” Bill Nye, Rutgers University 2015

Let’s hear it for the science guy—whose uplifting words to students had little to do with physics or chemistry. Instead, Nye spoke excitedly the necessity of keeping an open mind, learning every day, and using your time on this planet to better yourself and others.

“Keep reaching. Keep seeking. Keep using your abilities to bring out the best in those around you, and let them bring out the best in you. Become the next great generation! You can and you will—dare I say it, change the world!”

11. “There Is No Reason Not to Follow Your Heart,” Steve Jobs, Stanford University 2005

Death rarely makes for good conversation, but Steve Jobs proved it can make for a rousing speech. Jobs drew inspiration from his 2003 pancreatic cancer diagnosis to implore Stanford grads to take risks.

“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,” he said. “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.”

12. “Never Let Others Define You,” Ed Helms, University of Virginia 2015

As you know, The Hangover and The Office alum is always good for a laugh, but Helms’s serious and deeply inspiring words from his UVA commencement speech are a strong reminder not to let barriers set up by those around you hold you back.

“As you go out in the world, you’ll find that people are always quick to define you, to pigeonhole you, to whittle you down to their preconceived notions—which brings me to my point: Never let others define you. Define yourselves.”

13. “Fake It ’til You Make It,” Samantha Power, University of Pennsylvania 2015

US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power spoke some surprisingly refreshing words of encouragement that validates everything you’ve heard about “dressing for the job you want, not the job you have” and “faking it until you make it.” She told graduating Penn students:

“First, and this is foundational, if you want to change the world, start by ‘acting as if.’ Prior generations have put this a different way—‘Fake it ‘til you make it.’”

14. Life’s Not Easy. Don’t Try and Make It That Way," Matthew McConaughey, University of Houston 2015

Never underestimate the importance of working hard and staying grounded, as Matthew McConaughey stressed in his humbling graduation address. And who doesn't need a reminder every once in a while about the power of perspective, humility, and rolling up your sleeves? You won't just be given what you want, you have to earn it.

“Life’s not easy. Don’t try and make it that way. It’s not fair, it never was, it isn’t now, it won’t ever be. Do not fall into the entitlement trap of feeling you are a victim, you are not. Get over it and get on with it. And yes, most things are more rewarding when you break a sweat to get them.”

15. “Don’t Worry About the Fear Factor,” Robin Roberts, Emerson College 2015

Fear is inevitable, and people everywhere succumb to fears large and small all the time. Journalist Robin Roberts reassured the crowd at Emerson College commencement of this very fact before encouraging them to recognize it, push through it, and ultimately triumph over it to get things done.

“Don’t worry about the fear factor. Everybody in here has felt it and will feel it. It is something that you have to realize that if you wait for it to pass you’re going to be sitting on the sidelines for a very long time.”

16. “Listen to That Voice That Tells You What You Could Do,” Steven Spielberg, Harvard University 2016

When the man behind iconic films like Jaws, E.T., and Saving Private Ryan speaks up, we should all listen. Filmmaker Steven Spielberg spoke about the role of both your conscience and your intuition, calling on Harvard’s 2016 grads to pay special attention to the voice of encouragement inside your own head. In his own words:

"I want to be clear that your intuition is different from your conscience. They work in tandem, but here’s the distinction: Your conscience shouts, ‘here’s what you should do,’ while your intuition whispers, ‘here’s what you could do.’ Listen to that voice that tells you what you could do. Nothing will define your character more than that."

17. “Push Forward,” Jodi Picoult, Princeton University 2016

Naysayers will come, but you don’t have to let them stay—at least best-selling author Jodi Picoult says so. She delivered a powerfully encouraging quote about not letting rejection, and quite literally the word “no,” remain the be all and end all in life. In other words, ask questions and push forward until “no” becomes “yes.”

"When someone tells you no, you have two choices. You can stop in your tracks. Or you can push forward by raising questions most people would rather not hear, much less discuss."

18. “Consider All the Infinite Possibilities,” Katie Couric, University of Wisconsin-Madison 2016

No matter where you are in life—sitting at your own graduation or sitting at your office desk wondering why you're even there—it's essential to step back, take stock of your passions and skills, and think critically about how you can fit into the fold. Katie Couric encouraged University of Wisconsin grads to take time to really think about what lights their fire—and then find a way to chase after it, always.

“Now is the time to consider all the infinite possibilities with introspection, deliberation and thoughtfulness. Visualize the road ahead. Think about what excites you, what really gets your engine going. Engage in some real soul searching. Take a good, hard look at your strengths and weaknesses. A fulfilling professional life can be found at the intersection of what you love and what you’re good at. And when you think you’ve discovered it, go at it full throttle.”