Some speeches are so memorable we can quote them at will. But few of them are commencement speeches. How many of us can recall the commencement speech at our college graduation?
What if a commencement speech was not something to be endured, but to be treasured? And what if, instead of the same tired sentiments to "go forward and seize the day," the 20-minute address dispensed a glimpse of humanity's higher self? Thankfully, some of those exist. But it's not all rainbows and butterflies. Many memorable speeches have a touch of the macabre that foreshadow the underbelly of adulthood. After reading dozens of transcripts and viewing hours of footage, we've distilled 10 famous commencement speeches to their essence. Some speeches are memorable because of their time in history or because millions watched it online. Some were later published as books. At least one became a hit song. Here they are, in chronological order.
10.President John F. Kennedy at American University, 1963
"Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's futures. And we are all mortal."
This commencement address had a higher purpose. Just months after the Cuban missile crisis with the Soviet Union, when nuclear war was still a real threat, President John. F. Kennedy used the occasion to deliver a peace-laced talk to the entire world. The speech, which took a month to craft, was written in secret because he feared Pentagon officials would oppose its conciliatory tone. Kennedy asked Americans to consider their attitudes: "Too many of us think is impossible. Too many think it is unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable ... We need not accept that view ... Among the many traits the peoples of our two countries have in common, none is stronger than our mutual abhorrence of war." Kennedy then announced that he, Nikita Khrushchev and Britain's Harold Macmillan would be entering talks about a comprehensive test ban treaty and that the U.S. wouldn't conduct further nuclear tests as long as no other country did either.
9.Hillary Rodham at Wellesley, 1969
"Every protest, every dissent, whether it's an individual academic paper, Founder's parking lot demonstration, is unabashedly an attempt to forge an identity in this particular age."
It was her first big speech, but there would be many more to follow. At her graduation from Wellesley College in 1969, Hillary Rodham became the first student in the college's history to deliver a commencement address. She was president of student government at the time. Before beginning her prepared remarks, though, she criticized the event's previous speaker, Sen. Edward Brooke. In his speech, he had urged graduates to reject "coercive protest," which was a polite euphemism for near-riotous student demonstrations. It was an idea at which Rodham pointedly aimed when she took the podium. He was, it seemed to Rodham, too complacent. So she set aside her prepared speech and embarked on an elegantly efficient, impromptu response. "What does it mean to hear that 13.3 percent of the people in this country are below the poverty line? That's a percentage. We're not interested in social reconstruction; it's human reconstruction," she said. Rodham got a standing ovation that lasted several minutes. And she was only getting started. As Hillary Clinton, she went on to scale great heights as first lady of the United States, a senator, secretary of state and a 2016 presidential candidate.
8.Kurt Vonnegut's Fictional Speech at MIT, 1997
"Wear sunscreen ... The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience."
So begins one of the most popular commencement addresses in recent history, which also included such gems as "Keep your old love letters. Throw away your old bank statements. Get to know your parents. Travel". Famed American novelist Kurt Vonnegut sure had a way with words, didn't he? Within days, the sage-but-simple advice he supposedly offered to Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduates in June 1997 was racing across international borders via forwarded e-mails. Except Vonnegut didn't write the commencement address. Or share it from the podium during MIT's graduation ceremony. In fact, MIT's 1997 graduation speaker was actually Kofi Annan, then-secretary-general of the United Nations, who encouraged graduates to pursue multilateral diplomacy rather than save old love letters. Turns out the commencement address wasn't an address at all, but a column penned by Mary Schmich that was published in the Chicago Tribune. "It was witty," Vonnegut later said, "but it wasn't my wittiness." Of course, this didn't stop the prose from becoming nearly as famous as its mistaken author. Within a year, "Wear Sunscreen" had even been adapted into a hit single in Australia that rose to No. 1 in the U.K and No. 45 in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100. Schmich made a book out of it, too.
7.Maria Shriver at College of the Holy Cross, 1998
"Don't expect anyone else to support you financially."
When Maria Shriver, NBC news anchor and third-generation Kennedy, addressed 1998 graduates at College of the Holy Cross, her remarks received national attention. Shriver mentioned that she'd gotten a lot of advice on what she should say but decided to share her "top-ten list of things I wish someone had told me when I was sitting, like you, at my graduation." (Among them: "Pinpoint your passion." "No job is beneath you." And, "Superwoman is dead". Shriver backed up her advice with personal stories from her career and parenting adventures, and took a humorous approach to life's toughest moments. The well-received speech formed the basis of "Ten Things I Wish I'd Known—Before I Went Out into the Real World," a book that became an instant hit in the graduation gift category. In 2012, Shriver followed up with a second powerful commencement speech, "The Power of the Pause." Delivered at the University of Southern California on the occasion of her daughter's graduation, Shriver asked the new grads to pause before making judgments or decisions.
6.Steve Jobs at Stanford, 2005
"Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life."
Even if you're not a Mac, you should listen to Steve Jobs' understated commencement address at Stanford University in 2005. Jobs, who quipped that the address was the closest he'd ever come to a college graduation, shared three stories that connected the dots of his life -- and could possibly serve as a roadmap for others. He outlined his decision to drop out of college, how it had loosed a hunger for learning and eventually inspired the launch of Apple computers. Next, Jobs chronicled being fired from the company he'd built and how the painful and embarrassing split had led to greater things, including NeXT (which Apple later purchased because of its proprietary technology). But it was Jobs' recollection of being diagnosed with cancer that really stood out. For one day, he lived with the prognosis that he had three to six months before a rare form of pancreatic cancer would take his life. Then a biopsy revealed he had a rarer form still, one that could be surgically removed. (Sadly, the cancer would return and Jobs died in 2011). "Don't be trapped by dogma -- which is living with the results of other people's thinking," Jobs advised. "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".