Wellbeing

6 Must-Watch Graduation Speeches With A-Grade Life Advice

There’s nothing like a good graduation speech to set you on fire. Sure, speeches have a habit of being boring. But these aren’t those speeches.

Some speeches – when given by carefully chosen people with carefully chosen words – help launch hundreds of humans off into the big bad world with hope and courage. So they have to be damn good.

A great graduation speech should make you bubble with enthusiasm. It should touch upon some sort of universal or personal truth you already knew, but are poignantly reminded of.

It should pick you right up from your breezy student life and gently plop you down into your new adult reality. It also should not be given by Kurt Vonnegut, who famously said to a graduating class, “everything is going to become unbelievably worse and will never get better again.”

Here’s some essential life knowledge learned from killer commencement speeches, which are valuable to listen to no matter what stage of life you’re in.

#1 Just be kind, you’ll regret it otherwise – George Saunders 

You’ve probably seen the topic of regret pop up in all sorts of inspirational fodder. Most of the time they’re disappointingly followed by a variation of ‘I don’t have them’. But we all know this is a cop out. Nobody’s perfect and almost all of us are in a state of constantly wondering why on earth we made a terrible pun to a hot barista three years ago.

In his graduation speech, writer George Saunders treats regret with realness. His humbly spoken speech beautifully touches on those miniscule things he regrets not doing in his life. Not missed opportunities or saying ‘see you Latte’ to a hipster, but for ‘failures of kindness’ towards other people.

#2 Make your bed – Admiral William H. McRaven

“If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another.”

Okay, so I definitely thought that not making your bed was a life hack because it saved you time for the end of the day when you don’t have to untuck your sheets. But no, making your bed at the start of the day is a bonafide adult activity we should all get into the habit of doing. Also, you didn’t buy those throw pillows from Sri Lanka for nothing.

In his address, Admiral William McRaven relays the lessons he learned in his long and distinguished Navy career into a life well lived. The main takeaway being that if you can’t do the little things right, how can you do the big things right?

#3 Sacrifice for others – David Foster Wallace

Arguably the best commencement speech of all time, This Is Water by David Foster Wallace is the freakin’ King Lear of grad speeches. If you listen to any of these, make it this one.

Foster Wallace delves into the clichés and finds that “the capital T Truth” is all about being aware. If you make an effort to choose how you think, this will get you through the “day to day trenches of adult life.” The speech is absolutely essential listening but if you don’t have the time, at least read his advice on what it means to have freedom:

“The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad of petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. That is being educated and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting; the rat race. The constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.”

#4 Don’t listen to celebrities – Mindy Kaling

Mindy Kaling is the absolutely hilarious, self-aware diva that the entertainment world never knew it needed. Her speech is a powerhouse of sharp jokes and insight, by far the most entertaining of the bunch. In our saturated culture, her advice to not listen to celebrities – but to listen to yourself – is key.

Gwyneth Paltrow may have poreless skin but that doesn’t mean you have to drink quail eggs, or whatever ‘Goop’ is. Trust your own judgement instead. And please, please, never buy a diet shake a Kardashian is selling you.

#5 Be hard on your opinions – Tim Minchin

This speech turns a lot of established truths on their heads – in an uncannily accurate and hilarious way. Classic Minchin. For example, his unpacking of the fact that you don’t really need to have a ‘dream’ and that you shouldn’t seek happiness: “We didn’t evolve to be content. Contented Australophithecus Afarensus got eaten before passing on their genes.”

But most importantly, you need to be hard on your opinions. This involves being humble, knowing you’re not always right and knowing you can’t take full credit for your success. Also, just freakin’ exercise.

#6 Check your perspective – Margaret Atwood

Even though it’s older than the others and without video, Margaret Atwood’s speech does not pack any less of a punch. The Queen of Modern Literature uses her impossibly delightful Canadian charm to acknowledge life’s inherent negativity, but urges you to look at it a different way.

Her speech imparts some of the most useful advice I have ever heard; that the best thing to do is to focus on your perspective. She says, “You may not be able to alter reality, but you can alter your attitude towards it, and this, paradoxically, alters reality. Try it and see.”

Enjoy your diploma of bad bitchery, graduates.


Josephine is a writer from Sydney. She has written for AWOL, Kaleido Press and is a commissioned poet for the Disappearing 2.0. She tweets nonsense here.