5 Commencement Speeches That'll Inspire You (Even if You Graduated Forever Ago)

Many people say that college was the best years of their lives. Not just because of the friends they made and ridiculous stories they inherited along the way, but because it was a time in their life where they experienced the most growth and self-discovery.

Which is why graduation season brings back all the nostalgic feelings for people even years later (or, for others it’s maybe just a friendly reminder that summer is right around the corner).

So, if you’re trudging away at work and are in desperate need of some motivation, or struggling to get your job search off the ground, or feeling especially lost today on what your next career step is, we’ve compiled five of the best commencement we’ve ever seen on overcoming doubt, fear, hardship, and tackling the working world with confidence.

In his hilarious speech, Conan O’Brien delivers some life advice (and, some great jokes) on getting past failure and paving your own path when the typical career trajectory keeps changing. As he so eloquently puts it, “[T]oday I tell you that 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.”

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of the highly-acclaimed Americanah, is charming in this speech full of lessons about courage, changing careers in the face of adversity (did you know she went to medical school?), feminism, and standing up for yourself: “Please do not twist yourself into shapes to please. Don’t do it. If someone likes that version of you, that version of you that is false and holds back, then they actually just like that twisted shape, and not you. And the world is such a gloriously multifaceted, diverse place that there are people in the world who will like you, the real you, as you are.”

As he’ll tell you, this is as close Steve Jobs has ever gotten to a college graduation. However, his career path is one of little regret. The three stories he shares will teach you about loss, recovery, and finding a job you love in unconventional ways: “Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith. I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers.”

I don’t need to tell you that Oprah Winfrey, a highly successful talk show host, journalist, and entrepreneur, is an inspiration for anyone shooting for the stars in media. But it wasn’t always an easy road—in your career, as she says about hers, you will stumble and struggle, but your hard work and faith in yourself will always turn you around: “[N]o matter what challenges or setbacks or disappointments you may encounter along the way, you will find true success and happiness if you have only one goal, there really is only one, and that is this: to fulfill the highest most truthful expression of yourself as a human being.”

Ellen DeGeneres is funny and witty in her speech, but she’s also honest about her career path and the obstacles she overcame along the way, including coming out. Her story will show you that everyone has a purpose, even if it’s not one you’d expect: “For me, the most important thing in your life is to live your life with integrity and not to give into peer pressure to try to be something that you’re not, to live your life as an honest and compassionate person, to contribute in some way.”

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About Richard Moy

Richard Moy
Richard Moy is a Content Marketing Writer at Stack Overflow. He has spent the majority of his career in talent management, including a stint as a full-cycle recruiter and hiring manager. In addition to the career advice he contributes to The Muse, he also writes test prep and higher education marketing content for The Economist. Say hi on Twitter @rich_moy.

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