The Great and Terrible Truth of Clichés: A Collection of the Best Commencement Speeches

It’s that time of year again: Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Weddings!, and lots and lots of poor saps graduating from high school and college, realizing that they are going to be broke and paying for their education until their kids are in college. I graduated from high school 13 years ago, and I one of the most overjoyed and hopeful graduates you’d ever like to meet. I even signed up to speak at graduation (but didn’t get picked–one of my teachers told me that I should save the speech to give at another point in my life, so maybe if I can find it I’ll post it here).

The speakers that did get selected were pretty safe (they were trying to avoid what happened the year before when the student commencment speakers were drunk). The best part was when someone read part of Dr. Seuss’ “Oh The Places You’ll Go.” I graduated from college 9 years ago, still pretty hopeful, but the ceremony was pretty unmemorable (the speaker was a radio journalist who put most people to sleep).

So since I’ve been inspired by a speaker at my own commencement, here’s a collection of some of the best commencement speeches at colleges I did not attend. (in no particular order)

Rachel Maddow at Smith College in 2010

Inspirational quote:  “”personal triumphs are overrated, and  some dreams are bad dreams.”

Conan O’Brien at Darthmouth in 2011

Inspirational quote: “Whether you fear it or not, disappointment will come. The beauty is that through disappointment you can gain clarity, and with clarity comes conviction and true originality.”

Barack Obama at Wesleyan in 2008 (filling in last minute for Ted Kennedy) 

Inspirational quote: “Our individual salvation depends on collective salvation. Because thinking only about yourself, fulfilling your immediate wants and needs, betrays a poverty of ambition.”

JK Rowling at Harvard in 2008

Inspirational quote:  “I have been poor, and poverty means a thousand petty humiliations and hardships. Failure means a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself to be anything other than what I was. Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I built my life.”


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