A recurring theme in commencement addresses is to embrace failure. The reason for this, I suppose, is that most graduates headed out into the world are going to be knocked on their asses at one time or another. The speakers trying to instill the motivation to get back up after a real-life smackdown by sharing their own experiences of failure followed by success.

Another recurring theme is the importance of being true to who you are and listening to your own unique, inner voice. The future is wide open for fresh-faced graduates. What better time to design a life full of joy and fulfillment rather than soul-numbing, life-wasting misprioritization.

Here are five commencement speeches that send electrifying and inspiring messages for creating a great life; a life that values imagination, community, self-actualization, perseverance and purpose, free from the fear of failure.

Neil Gaiman at the University of the Arts, 2012
Writer Neil Gaiman waxes poetic on the beauty of not knowing what you’re doing, not doing things just for the money, being courageous enough to expose your heart and mind, and the importance of doing what you feel you were put here to do.

J. K. Rowling at Harvard, 2008
J.K. Rowling, the mastermind behind the Harry Potter stories delivers a funny, thought-provoking speech that covered the wisdom of failure, the importance of imagination and the power of empathizing with others to create a better world.

David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College, 2005
In 2005, author David Foster Wallace gave a commencement address to Kenyon College graduates. A few years later, a video was made of the speech’s highpoints. The resulting video went viral and has been viewed over 5 million times. In his address, Wallace talks about the danger of letting life’s routines turn us into cynical, flat humans who are disconnected from those around us. Instead, he advises us to consciously choose where our thoughts and priorities are, letting life’s little boredoms connect us to ourselves and each other.

Steve Jobs at Stanford, 2005
In this eerily foretelling commencement address, Steve Jobs talks about dropping out of college to follow his own interests, why his very public failure turned out to be the best thing that happened to him, and how the inevitably of our own death is a powerful teacher.

Ellen DeGeneres at Tulane University, 2009
Ellen DeGeneres began her commencement speech, not surprisingly, with jokes, and she sprinkles them liberally throughout her speech. But she also dips into soulful territory as she tells the story of her own career that was born out of a personal tragedy. She talks about the importance of being honest with yourself, finding your purpose, and living a compassionate life. Her final words to the crowd, before she launched into her trademark dance session, were, if you stay true to yourself and show people your brain, you’re going to be OK.

Cat Johnson


Cat Johnson | |

Cat Johnson is a content strategist and teacher helping community builders create strong brands. A longtime writer, marketing pro and coworking leader, Cat is the founder of Coworking Convos and