Motivational Commencement Speeches to Inspire You

UPDATED: May 19, 2023
PUBLISHED: May 16, 2016
college graduates throwing caps after commencement

In the happy points of our lives—graduation, a new job, a promotion, the birth of a child, a marriage, newfound independence—it’s easy to dream of a brighter future and actually believe it’s possible.

But in the low points, and even the average ones, it’s even easier to lose sight of those dreams. To let the daily stressors diminish the future we know we can accomplish.

6 motivational commencement speeches

So grab hold of the moments of clarity when you see them. Let these six motivational commencement speeches push you toward those moments and dare you to dream bigger.

Sheryl Sandberg’s commencement speech

University of California, Berkeley, 2016

“But I am also aware that I am walking without pain. For the first time, I am grateful for each breath in and out—grateful for the gift of life itself. I used to celebrate my birthday every five years and friends’ birthdays sometimes. Now I celebrate always. I used to go to sleep worrying about all the things I messed up that day—and trust me that list was often quite long. Now I try really hard to focus on each day’s moments of joy.

It is the greatest irony of my life that losing my husband helped me find deeper gratitude—gratitude for the kindness of my friends, the love of my family, the laughter of my children. My hope for you is that you can find that gratitude—not just on the good days, like today, but on the hard ones, when you will really need it.”

Mindy Kaling

Harvard University, 2014

“I’m now at the part of my speech where I’m supposed to give you advice and I thought, What advice could I give you guys?…. So then I was thinking, Well then, who should be giving advice? And the answer is people like you. You’re better educated and you’re going to go out there in the world and people are going to listen to what you say…. I look at all of you and see America’s futures. Attorneys, corporate lawyers, public prosecutors, judges, politicians, maybe even the president of the United States. Those are all positions of such great influence. Understand that one day you will have the power to make a difference, so use it well.”

Barack Obama’s motivational commencement speech

Howard University, 2016

“If you had to choose one moment in history in which you could be born, and you didn’t know ahead of time who you were going to be—what nationality, what gender, what race, whether you’d be rich or poor, gay or straight, what faith you’d be born into—you wouldn’t choose 100 years ago. You wouldn’t choose the ’50s, or the ’60s or the ’70s. You’d choose right now. If you had to choose a time to be, in the words of Lorraine Hansberry, ‘young, gifted and black’ in America, you would choose right now.

“I tell you all this because it’s important to note progress. Because to deny how far we’ve come would do a disservice to the cause of justice, to the legions of foot soldiers; to not only the incredibly accomplished individuals who have already been mentioned, but your mothers and your dads and grandparents and great-grandparents, who marched and toiled and suffered and overcame to make this day possible. I tell you this not to lull you into complacency but to spur you into action—because there’s still so much more work to do, so many more miles to travel. And America needs you to gladly, happily take up that work. You all have some work to do. So enjoy the party because you’re going to be busy.”

Stephen Colbert

Wake Forest University, 2015

“It is my responsibility as a commencement speaker to prepare you for what awaits you in the future. Here it is: No one has any idea what’s going to happen. Not even Elon Musk. That’s why he’s building those rockets. He wants a ‘plan B’ on another world.

But whatever happens, I think it’s entirely appropriate that I’m the one talking to you right now. Because I just spent many years learning to do one thing really well. I got so comfortable with that place, that role, those responsibilities, that it came to define how I saw myself. But now that part of my life is over. It’s time to say goodbye to the person we’ve become, we’ve worked so hard to perfect, and to make some crucial decisions about who we’re going to be. For me, I’ll have to figure out how to do an hour-long show every night. And you, at some point, will have to sleep. I am told the Adderall wears off eventually. Good luck.”

Shonda Rhimes’s motivational commencement speech

Dartmouth, 2014

“Dreams are lovely, but they are just dreams—fleeting, ephemeral, pretty. But dreams do not come true just because you dream them. It’s hard work that makes things happen, it’s hard work that creates change. So lesson one, I guess, is ditch the dream and be a doer, not a dreamer…. My dreams did not come true. But I worked really hard, and I ended up building an empire out of my imagination. So my dreams? Can suck it.”

Bill and Melinda Gates

Stanford University, 2014

“Bill worked incredibly hard and took risks and made sacrifices for success. But there is another essential ingredient of success, and that ingredient is luck—absolute and total luck. When were you born? Who were your parents? Where did you grow up? None of us earned these things. They were given to us.

When we strip away our luck and privilege and consider where we’d be without them, it becomes easier to see someone who’s poor and sick and say, ‘That could be me.’ This is empathy; it tears down barriers and opens up new frontiers for optimism.

So here is our appeal to you: As you leave Stanford, take your genius and your optimism and your empathy and go change the world in ways that will make millions of others optimistic as well. You don’t have to rush. You have careers to launch, debts to pay, spouses to meet and marry. That’s enough for now. But in the course of your lives, without any plan on your part, you’ll come to see suffering that will break your heart. When it happens, and it will, don’t turn away from it; turn toward it. That is the moment when change is born.”

This article was updated May 2023. Photo by Ground Picture/Shutterstock