10 Inspiring Last Lectures and Commencement Speeches Everyone Should Watch


Published on Tuesday 9th of December, 2008

By Laura Milligan

Part of paying for a college education means that students get access to special guest speakers, including the best possible commencement addresses and even special lectures from resident faculty. The idea of the Last Lecture, for example, rests on the idea that the professor will give a lecture as if it was his last opportunity to speak to the university community. Last lectures and commencement speeches dispense life lessons not traditionally taught in a classroom, and thanks to the viral power of YouTube, Last Lecture and commencement audiences are growing well beyond their intended numbers. Read below for our list of 10 inspiring Last Lectures and commencement speeches everyone should watch.

Last Lectures

These two professors pull from very different life experiences but share the same belief that taking risks and following your dreams is the way to be happy and impact the world.

  1. Randy Pausch at Carnegie Mellon: This famous last lecture from a dying Carnegie Mellon computer science professor touched people all over the world. The entire video lasts for approximately 1 hour, 16 minutes, and is punctuated with cheery, uplifting jokes while inspiring viewers to achieve their childhood dreams and enable the dreams of others. Pausch delivers his lecture on September 18, 2007, during his battle with pancreatic cancer. He died in July of 2008, and his lecture blasted through the Internet, accumulating over 5 million views. Pausch also worked with author Jeffrey Zaslow to publish a book version, entitled The Last Lecture.
  2. David Skorton at Cornell: David Skorton gives his hypothetical last lecture in 2008, during his term as 12th president of Cornell University. A first generation American–Skorton’s father immigrated to the U.S. from Western Russia–Skorton was also the first in his family to graduate from college. He uses this lecture series to hold a “conversation” with Cornell students and to convey three messages: the importance of humility and humanitarianism; the tiny, thin differences that separate the powerful from the powerless; and the nonlinearity and unpredictability of life, which inspires Indiana Jones moments. His unshaking belief in the power of higher education inspires more than just college students already looking towards graduation: anyone who has benefited or plans to benefit from higher education can make a difference through participation in the global economy or involvement in research projects. Watch his lecture to learn the principles that define the best leaders: the ability to be open-minded, the courage to take risks and the drive to ask questions and refuse to be complacent.

Commencement Speeches

From historical addresses from Barack Obama to hysterical but still meaningful speeches from comedians like Conan O’Brien and Stephen Colbert, these commencement speeches are both inspiring and fun to watch.

  1. Steve Jobs at Stanford, 2005: The CEO of Apple and Pixar Animation, Steve Jobs, tells three personal stories in a gentle but commanding style. Jobs starts his speech with a story about his real-life adoption as a newborn. He discusses the impact that the promise of a college education had on the ultimate outcome of his adoption, and his eventual decision to drop out of college once he got there. Instead of giving up on education, altogether, however, Jobs continued to go to classes that interested him and opened him to new ideas and talents. His quiet humor and honest delivery compliment his simple belief that in order to have the courage to follow your heart, you must believe that your decisions will ultimately match up in the future, leading to a successful, happy life.
  2. Randy Pausch at Carnegie Mellon, 2008: Just two months before his death, computer science professor Randy Pausch delivers the commencement speech at Carnegie Mellon. Famous for his Last Lecture, Pausch’s optimism, passion and gratitude are still evident but even he acknowledges how much weaker he is. Viewers will be inspired by his message to focus on living well, not on living a long time. This speech is just over six minutes but still offers as much inspiration and optimism as his much longer Last Lecture. In 2008, Pausch was included in TIME Magazine’s list of 100 most influential people.
  3. Conan O’Brien at Harvard, 2000: Conan O’Brien doesn’t waste any time cracking jokes and playing with his Harvard audience. O’Brien graduated magna cum laude from Harvard in 1985 and returns enthusiastically to share memories and engage his audience in his signature smart-but-rowdy style. O’Brien pokes fun at the intellectual achievements of students that will prove useless in real life, the snotty reputation of Harvard grads, and the predatory alumni association that “will be on your ass until the day you die.” But along with the humor, O’Brien offers advice for surviving humbling first jobs and the nightmare of second guessing yourself.
  4. Barack Obama at Wesleyan, 2008: At the time that Barack Obama substituted for Senator Edward Kennedy at the Wesleyan graduation in May 2008, he was still running for President of the United States. Just over five months later, Obama won the election and became the first black president-elect. During the speech, Obama acknowledges Kennedy’s personal and familial legacies during the Civil Rights movement and beyond. Besides the historical significance, Obama cautions graduates not to forget to continue to push the evolution of our country, socially, economically and environmentally. His belief that each person’s private life is fundamentally intertwined with the future of the United States incites feelings of self-confidence, ambition and responsibility.
  5. Stephen Colbert at Knox College, 2006: This funny man dispenses sage but practical advice for living life as a “Yes and” person. By adhering to this improvisational theatre strategy, Colbert argues that you will set yourself up for unexpected but fulfilling experiences. By becoming a “Yes and” person, you can accept the unknown and take your life in a new direction. Besides giving the commencement address, Colbert also receives an honorary doctorate degree in Fine Arts.
  6. Will Ferrell at Harvard, 2003: Will Ferrell’s commencement address is on YouTube in five, 5-minute parts, during which the comedian dances, hugs the audience, and even performs his famous impersonation on George W. Bush. Ferrell attempts to “give it you straight” but admits he can’t relate to Harvard students because he received his degree from “The School of Hard Knocks.” He gives Harvard students a reality check into the harsh, hypocritical world where limos arrive late and cell phones aren’t allowed on airplanes. In part three, Ferrell admits that Harvard graduates are best situated for successful careers and leadership opportunities.
  7. James Carville at Tulane, 2008: Colorful political strategist and analyst James Carville gives a rousing, impassioned speech to the New Orleans graduating class, whose students had to disperse to other schools and cities after Hurricane Katrina but who returned to finish at Tulane in 2008. Carville praises their involvement in proclaiming “the age of cynicism…dead” and emphasizes the importance of feeling, rather than seeing. Even members of Carville’s audience who didn’t attend Tulane or live in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina will feel inspired by his message of perseverance, courage, and overcoming failure.
  8. Tom Brokaw at Stanford, 2006: Celebrated news anchor and author Tom Brokaw delivered the commencement speech at Stanford University in 2006. He jokes that expectations of Stanford graduates are exceedingly high, and that if his audience doesn’t make it to celebrity status, they should consider themselves failures. Once into his speech, Brokaw comments on how high-tech this generation is, calling them the “masters of a new universe, whose boundaries are yet to be determined.” He cautions them to pursue excellence beyond the Internet and technology and to remember to make real contributions to the community, citing the inspirational young people who drove the Civil Rights Movement. Brokaw’s speech is a great reminder to all of us to avoid getting caught up in the sexy, exciting world of celebrity and technology and to focus our energy on being humble, nonviolent and understanding, and working hard.

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