Among the thousands of graduation addresses given each year, these stand out–mostly for the right reasons.
In 1994, I witnessed perhaps history’s most insane commencement addresses, at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass.
Connie Chung, then the anchor of CBS Evening News, offered a stream-of-consciousness recounting of a dream she’d had the night before–not exactly a Martin Luther King Jr.-style aspirational dream–a surreal story about using a portable toilet that turned out to be a zip-up garment bag. (I’m serious. There’s a video here.)
Nearly two decades later, I remember that speech distinctly, and it got me thinking about some other graduation speeches that were memorable for better reasons. Here’s my list of the most insightful, imaginative, or historical graduation speeches ever given by entrepreneurs and other leaders.
1. Steve Jobs, Stanford 2005
The original iPhone was still two years in the future when Jobs gave this classic speech in which he told three stories: one about connecting the dots, one about love and loss, and one about death.
Jobs talked about the unanticipated, positive results of his having dropped out of college and audited a calligraphy class, of being fired from Apple at age 30, and about being diagnosed with the cancer that would take his life six years later:
Death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true. Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.
2. George W. Bush, U.S. Military Academy, 2002
Barely nine months after the September 11 terror attacks, President Bush addressed the West Point class of 2002 and their families–the first class since Vietnam to graduate during wartime.
In your last year America was attacked by a ruthless and resourceful enemy. You graduate from this academy in a time of war, taking your place in an American military that is powerful and is honorable. Our war on terror is only begun. But in Afghanistan it was begun well.
He used the occasion to outline his new foreign policy of preventative war, which led to the invasion of Iraq. (Disclosure: I wrote a book about West Point’s class of 2002, in which Bush’s speech plays an important role.)
3. J.K. Rowling, Havard 2008
Rowling said she’d been “jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless,” before her success with the Harry Potter series. She talked about the benefits of failure–an important lesson for entrepreneurs.
Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me,” she said. “[R]ock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.
4. Winston Churchill, Harrow School, 1941
Entrepreneurship is “the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled.” By the time Churchill gave this speech, Hitler controlled nearly all of Western Europe. The British were in desperate need of the resources of its quasi-neutral American ally. There’s an audio recording here. You might not have known the exact context of Churchill’s words, but chances you knew the words themselves:
Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never–in nothing, great or small, large or petty–never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense.
5. Bono, University of Pennsylvania, 2004
The U2 frontman is an entrepreneur and a social entrepreneur perhaps without peer–or worse, he told the graduates, “the worst scourge on God’s green earth: a rock star with a cause.”
Except it isn’t [a] cause. Seven thousand Africans dying every day of preventable, treatable disease like AIDS? That’s not a cause, that’s an emergency. And when the disease gets out of control because most of the population live on less than one dollar a day? That’s not a cause, that’s an emergency. And when resentment builds because of unfair trade rules and the burden of unfair debt, that are debts by the way that keep Africans poor? That’s not a cause, that’s an emergency… I’m not that interested in charity. I’m interested in justice.
6. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Wellesley College, 1969
Long before she was First Lady, U.S. Senator, or U.S. Secretary of State, Clinton gave a class speech at her own graduation, following then-Sen. Edward Brooke’s address. She responded to him, suggesting he was out of touch with a new generation:
We’re not in the positions yet of leadership and power, but we do have that indispensable task of criticizing and constructive protest… Part of the problem with empathy with professed goals is that empathy doesn’t do us anything. We’ve had lots of empathy; we’ve had lots of sympathy…
A few weeks after that, she was featured on the pages of Life magazine, “as a shining example of the Class of ’69.”
There are many others I could cite: Jeff Bezos at Princeton University in 2010, Theodore Geisel (better known as Dr. Seuss) at Lake Forest College, 1977, David Foster Wallace at Pomona College in 2005, Stephen Colbert at Knox College the following year, Conan O’Brien at Harvard in 2000 and Kurt Vonnegut, never. (Vonnegut was credited in an Internet rumor for having given this speech, which turned out in fact to have been an old newspaper column.)