Commencement speech: A time to inspire

CBC News has compiled a list of some of the most watched commencement speeches on the video site YouTube, along with a short summary and a notable quote.

A list of some well-known and inspiring speeches

An address given by Steve Jobs to the 2005 graduating class at Stanford has been viewed 4.4 million times on YouTube. ((iStock))

A time honoured tradition, the commencement speech is designed to inspire fresh-faced graduates as they prepare to embark on future careers.

Each year countless scores of students listen to professors, deans, politicians and celebrities to hear words of wisdom from those who have gone before them.

Ideally, then, the speech should come from the heart and from actual experiences.

However, Phillip Baker, the dean of medicine at the University of Alberta, recently apologized for not attributing portions of the commencement speech he gave on June 10.

Students claim Baker plagiarized a speech given by Dr. Atul Gawande, a surgeon and professor, to medical students at Stanford University in 2010.

CBC News has compiled a list of some of the most watched commencement speeches on the video site YouTube, along with a short summary and a notable quote.  

Steve Jobs, Stanford University, 2005

View count: 4.4 million

Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, gave a commencement address to the students of Stanford University on June 12, 2005, and drew upon three key moments of his life — his decision to drop out of college, getting fired from Apple and his pancreatic cancer diagnosis.

Jobs explains how these pivotal moments, all of which initially seemed to be negative, actually had a positive impact on his life.

Notable quote: Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.


Randy Pausch, Carnegie Mellon University, 2008

View count: 1.3 million

Computer science professor Randy Pausch delivered an emotional address to students at Carnegie Mellon University on May 18, 2008. During the six-minute speech, Pausch explains that he was given only a few months to live after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer nine months previously. He tells students to embrace their passions above all else.

Pausch died on July 25, 2008.

Notable quote: The only advice I can give you on how to live your life well is first off — it's a cliché but I love clichés —it is not the things we do in life that we regret on our death bed. It is the things we do not. 'Cause I assure you I've done a lot of really stupid things but none of them really bother me. All the mistakes and all the dopey things and all the times I was embarrassed, they don't matter.


Will Ferrell, Harvard University, 2003

View count: 1.1 million

Will Ferrell delivered a more light-hearted commencement address to students on June 5, 2003, at Harvard University, where he initially pretends to be at a boat show. During the speech, Ferrell says he is going to tell the students about the "real world" which he says is full of hypocrisy and rules the students are not used to following after four years in "fantasy land."

Notable quote: As I stare out into this vast sea of shining faces, I see the best and brightest. Some of you will be captains of industry and business. Others of you will go on to great careers in medicine, law and public service. Four of you — and I'm not at liberty to say which four — will go on to magnificent careers in the porno industry. I'm not trying to be funny. That's just a statistical fact.


Oprah Winfrey, Stanford University, 2008

View count: 665,000

Oprah Winfrey delivered a 30-minute address to the graduating class of Stanford University on June 15, 2008. Winfrey drew upon her own history, including the fact that she failed to graduate from Tennessee University in 1975 but was still invited back eight years later to give a commencement address. By then, however, she was a successful TV talk show host.

Notable quote: When you're supposed to do something or not supposed to do something, your emotional guidance system lets you know. The trick is to learn to check your ego at the door and start checking your gut instead. Every right decision I've ever made has come from my gut. And every wrong decision I've ever made was a result of me not listening to the greater voice of myself.


Lisa Kudrow, Vassar College, 2010

View count: 500,000

Actress Lisa Kudrow gave a commencement address to Vassar College on May 23, 2010. Kudrow, who graduated from the college in 1985 with a BA in biology, tells the students about her own choice to pursue an acting career over her original field of study. This included eight years of mostly failures before finally being hired on the show Frasier, only to be fired two days later. Kudrow says she was eventually cast in the show Friends a few months later but by then was nearly broke.

Notable quote: I understand that because the twenties are that time in your life when — this is not a joke — you're really getting acquainted with your own adult self and seeing how you respond to self doubt when there's so much seemingly at stake. So, let me reassure you. It's not supposed to be easy, but it doesn't have to be torture. You're supposed to have moments of uncertainty about which path to take because the 20s are full of crossroads.


David Foster Wallace, Kenyon College, 2005

View count: 43,700

Although not as popular as other celebrity commencement addresses, a speech given by American author David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College on May 21, 2005 is often cited as noteworthy and was eventually published as a novel under the title This is Water. In it, Wallace initially discounts the notion of a liberal arts degree as something that teaches one "how to think" but eventually goes to explain how thinking critically is one of the most challenging and noble endeavours. He urges the students to examine their own, often unquestioned, beliefs about the world around them and their place in it.

Notable quote: The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me 'how to think' is really supposed to mean, to be just a little less arrogant, to have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties because a huge percentage of the stuff I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will too.