Top 5 Commencement Speeches of 2012

I’ve done it again – watched all the commencement speeches on YouTube, just like last year. In fact, I watched all of them at least three times – I take these rankings seriously (despite the fact that no one else does). The ones that made the list usually dealt with a good message, kept attention through the use of humor, and was practical for the audience. I still think the #1 from last year’s ranking was better, but all of the ones on this list are still inspirational and enlightening. That’s true even for those of us who were not sitting in the audience at the time.


Top 5 Rankings

5) Neil deGrasse Tyson (Western New England University)

It’s no surprise that deGrasse Tyson leaves us smarter than we came in – he’s a brilliant science communicator. In this speech, he talks about the value of education being more than just the memorization of facts, and suggests how we can become innovators of tomorrow.

“When you know how to think, it empowers you far beyond those who know only what to think.”


4) Adam Savage (Sarah Lawrence College)

If I rated the speeches for how many times the audience laughed, then this would probably be #1 for 2012. But to be honest, it wasn’t that funny. The graduates in the audience seemed to think everything he said was absolutely hilarious for some reason. I don’t know why, but I guess it was one of those “you had to be there” moments. In my opinion, it’s a bit distracting, because Savage gives some good and profound advice that’s almost always met with laughter. I can only hope the graduates are taking it seriously, or else they will have missed the point entirely.

“I’m sorry to tell you that you will hurt people you love, and that you will help people that you detest. This is called being a human, and it happens to everyone whether you like it or not – nobody escapes.”

“We are never finished products – we are always works in progress.”


3) Peter Dinklage (Bennington College)

After a petition brought Game of Thrones star Peter Dinklage to speak at the campus, the graduates were very pleased with the results. He spends most of his speech talking about his own experiences. But he spends a significant part of the end of his speech tying it together with advice to the students.

“Youth gets old very quickly. You’ll see.”


2) Aaron Sorkin (Syracuse University)

Sorkin struggled severe drug addiction and came out to create some of the best writing in TV history, so he doesn’t have time for excuses. With humor and bluntness, he tells it like it is – you’re going to make screw-ups, and you have the choice to get over it.

“…make no mistake about it – you are dumb. You’re a group of incredibly well-educated dumb people. I was there.”

“Develop your own compass and trust it. Take risks. Dare to fail. Remember the first person through the wall always gets hurt.”



1)  Jane Lynch (Smith College)

Lynch was awesome in this. Her experience as a terrified teen becoming a very successful actress resonates with everyone who has had to struggle in or after their education. With good humour and personal stories, she – like Stephen Colbert did in 2011 – teaches us that improv can be a brilliant philosophy of life.

“Let life surprise you. Don’t have a plan. Plans are for wusses. You know, if my life went according to my plan, I would never have the life I have today. Now you’re obviously good planners or you wouldn’t be here… so stop it. Stop it now! Don’t deprive yourself of the exciting journey your life can be when you relinquish the need to have goals and a blueprint.”


Honorable Mentions

From High School

David McCullough Jr. at Wellesley High School - Also called the “You Are Not Special Speech,” this talk did what many believe was the right thing at the right time – a message of humility. The speakers tells the students that they are not the special people that their communities have reinforced them to believe. Personally, I feel like this had all been said and done before, but evidently (based on the feedback it got)

“String Theory” at North Penn High School - A trio of high school students gave a great tribute to the 12 years the 18 year-olds had spent in school, by playing a medley of songs that represented each year.

Other Good Commencement Speeches

Fareed Zacharia at Harvard - His speech was great, but it seemed like this speech was perhaps better suited for the format he’s accustomed to – in a brilliantly-written article or segment on his TV show. It was very general and could essentially apply to graduates from just about any university. That’s not exactly a bad thing, depending on whose perspective you’re taking; so

Sanjay Gupta at the University of Michigan – I was surprised that this was both a funny and well-written speech with some very good stories and practical advice to graduates. My only complaint is that it may very slightly be the kind of too-positive a message, which would make it the type of thing that the “You Are Not Special” speech was talking about. But it’s worth a listen.

Salman Khan at MIT and Rice University – Surprisingly, Khan gave two very different speeches (except for one analogy at the end). They were informative on how he started his business (The Khan Academy), and he also talked about how the institutions at which he spoke contributed to his success. They’re pretty interesting.


Speeches by Comedians:

Cosby at Temple University – Just like last year, he doesn’t let the students off easily. “Dreams, dreams, dreams…” he starts. “Wake up.” Similar to the “you’re not special” speech, Cosby tells the students that it’s time to make themselves useful and get their acts together.

Eugene Mirman at Hampshire – More than any other speaker, he seemed to really “speak the students’ language.” It’s also nice that he used his own experience at Hampshire to give actual practical advice. This seemed like a very casual, yet professional, and appropriate speech.

Steve Carell at Princeton University – This was very funny, with some satire and good insight peppered throughout.

Andy Samberg at Harvard – This was not a commencement speech, but a speech for “class day,” so perhaps that’s the reason it was able to get away with some of the stuff he said (i.e., “Yale sucks balls!”). His speech is a perfect example of what I would consider to be all humor and almost no insight. It was essentially a stand-up act at Harvard University, though it doesn’t look like the audience really minded it.

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