In honor of this year's commencement season, here are some of the greatest speeches ever given from the graduation podium. And many of them offer advice of use to people of all stages of their careers.
1. Winston Churchill, Westminster College, 1946
Winston Churchill had recently lost his bid to be re-elected Britain's prime minister when he was invited to address the graduating class of Westminster College in Fulton, Mo. In the gymnasium of this small Midwestern college, Churchill made a speech that was to echo throughout the rest of the 20th century.
"From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in Adriatic an 'iron curtain' has descended across the continent," he said, coining a term that was to define the coming decades in international relations (well, not "coin" exactly; Goebbels and other Nazi officials were also fond of the 'iron curtain' image). It was only fitting that when Mikhail Gorbachev decided to officially announce the end of the Cold War in 1992, he chose Westminster College as his venue.
2. George Marshall, Harvard University, 1947
The Harvard graduating class of '47 was the first to hear about the Marshall Plan, the wildly successful aid program that lifted Europe back to prosperity in the aftermath of World War II. "It is logical that the United States should do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health to the world," Marshall declared, "without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace."
Gen. Marshall was short on details, but his vision as was bold -- extending aid to any country that wanted it, including the Soviet Union. (It didn't.) Six years later, the program earned U.S. Secretary of State Marshall a Nobel Peace Prize.
3. John F. Kennedy , American University, 1963
John F. Kennedy gave one of the greatest speeches of his presidency 50 years ago this month, extending an olive branch to the Soviet Union during the darkest throes of the Cold War and calling for a nuclear test ban treaty.
"Today the expenditure of billions of dollars every year on weapons acquired for the purpose of making sure we never need them is essential for the keeping of peace," he told the American University class of '63. "But surely the acquisition of such idle stockpiles, which can only destroy and never create, is not the only, much less the most efficient means for ensuring peace."
4. Russell Baker, 1995, Connecticut College
If there ever was a Platonic Ideal of a commencement speech, crisp and witty, packed with original insights, skewering humor, practical advice, and a dollop of gravitas, it would be Russell Baker's at Connecticut College in 1995.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning commentator offered up some excellent tips, like "have some children" because they "add texture to your life," "learn to fear the automobile" because "future highway needs are terrifying," and listen more, because "it's good for the soul to hear yourself as others hear you, and next time maybe, just maybe, you will not talk so much, so loudly, so brilliantly, so charmingly, so utterly shamefully foolishly." [Read the full text here.]
5. Alan Greenspan, Harvard University, 1999
When Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan addressed Harvard graduates in 1999, he was the infallible oracle of Wall Street. Fourteen years and one financial meltdown later, Greenspan's musings on the role of trust in economic matters seems positively surreal.
"If a significant number of businesspeople violated the trust upon which our interactions are based, our court system and our economy would be swamped into immobility. ..." he explained. "Our system works fundamentally on individual fair dealing."
No mistake there. Greenspan's error, as he admitted to congress in 2008, was thinking banks, left to their own devices, would live up to that creed. [Read the full speech here.]
6. Jon Stewart, 2004, William & Mary
Jon Stewart's address at his alma mater combined his trademark political walloping with a dose of reassurance. "The Daily Show" host said that he'd been distinctly unremarkable at college, yet still stumbled into the pantheon of celebrity. So don't fret too much, he advised, with a genuine humility (that has dwindled a little in the years since).
"I was mediocre here," he said. "And I'm not saying aim low. Not everybody can wander around in an alcoholic haze and then at 40 -- just, you know -- decide to be president." (It was the middle of George W. Bush era, and Stewart's pincers were particularly sharp.)
7. David Foster Wallace, Kenyon, 2005
Most commencement addresses urge youth to make themselves the most courageous and productive protagonists of their own lives. Wallace, on the other hand, urged the Kenyon class of 2005 to recognize that each of them was just as much a protagonist as the other. Without the normal souped-up self-help cheer of commencement, Wallace's speech struck a note that was so haunting for being so true -- and because just three years later he took his own life. Every year it's discovered by a new cohort of young people, and just this month went viral when a marketing company turned his words into a video.
8. J.K. Rowling at Harvard, 2008
The virtue of failure is a well-worn mantra. But few have made the point so stirringly as J. K. Rowling. Her "rags to riches" biography is well-known, but Rowling assured the Harvard class of 2008 that hers was no fairy tale. "Poverty is not ennobling," she said. "Poverty itself is romanticized only by fools."
But without her own taste of it as a broke single mother, Rowling may never have become the first billionaire author to grace the earth. "I was set free because my greatest fear had been realized and I was still alive and I still had a daughter whom I adored and I had an old typewriter and a big idea," she said. "And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life."
9. Conan O'Brien, Dartmouth, 2011
In 2000, Conan O'Brien told Harvard graduates not to be afraid of failure. Easy to say; at that point O'Brien's greatest failure was the self-doubt that he experienced between writing for "Saturday Night Live" and "The Simpsons." Eleven years later, O'Brien was still reeling from one of the most public hard-knocks in network TV history. Jay Leno snatched back "The Tonight Show," and with it, O'Brien's quarter-century-old career dream.
O'Brien recounted his muddled year to the Dartmouth class of '11, from recording an album to growing a beard, and "abandon[ing] all preconceived perceptions of my career path and stature. ..." In the end, he called it the most satisfying year of his life. "The beauty is that through disappointment you can gain clarity," he said, "and with clarity comes conviction and true originality."
10. Sheryl Sandberg, Barnard, 2011
Sheryl Sandberg has said that she was cautioned against bringing up women's issues in a public way. It doesn't usually help a woman's career to become a spokeswoman for women's oppression. But Sheryl Sandberg gave a stirring TED Talk on the subject in 2010, and the following year directly told the women of Barnard College that "men rule the world," and if they want to change it, they've got to "lean in."
The phrase became the title of her bestselling book, which sent the Internet into paroxysms, and relaunched a national conversation on women's status in the workplace.
11. Michael Lewis, Princeton, 2012
Commencement speeches are usually chock full of flattery for the graduating class. The bestselling author of "Money Ball" struck a slightly different note, when he chided the Princeton's 2012 graduates to remember that their success isn't because they're awesome.
"People really don't like to hear success explained away as luck -- especially successful people," he stated. "As they age, and succeed, people feel their success was somehow inevitable. They don't want to acknowledge the role played by accident in their lives. There is a reason for this: The world does not want to acknowledge it either."
12. David McCullough Jr., Wellesley High School, 2012
High school commencements don't usually make the news -- after all, the vast majority of Americans get a high school diploma. But when English teacher David McCullough Jr. hammered that home to Wellesley High School graduates in 2010, it went viral.
"Do not get the idea you're anything special. Because you're not," he said. "Across the country no fewer than 3.2 million seniors are graduating about now from more than 37,000 high schools. That's 37,000 valedictorians, 37,000 class presidents, 82,000 harmonizing altos ... 340,000 swaggering jocks ...
"Resist the easy comforts of complacency, the specious glitter of materialism, the narcotic paralysis of self-satisfaction," he continued. "Be worthy of your advantages. And read ... read all the time ... read as a matter of principle, as a matter of self-respect. Read as a nourishing staple of life."
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