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The 12 Best Motivational Speeches of All Time

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study by Harvard Business Review made an important discovery: recognizing employees for their work contributes significantly to their performance, productivity, and morale.

This stresses the importance of motivation, especially today, where impossible success stories and unhealthy expectations set by social media smother us.

Now, anyone can motivate you anywhere, be it your classmate during a graduation speech or your CEO during a conference keynote.

After all, motivational speakers don’t have to be famous or successful, but they tend to have a specific audience in mind their ideals resonate with.

Usually, their speeches attempt to alter your view of your current challenges, but they can also be a call to action.

We also believe that part of the human experience is feeling overwhelmed and helpless at some points.

Our list of motivational speeches is an attempt to help pull you out of whatever pit you feel stuck in and fire you up for your next journey, be it for personal growth or career success.

Continue reading to get inspired!

The 12 Best Motivational Speeches

Your journey is unique, and we understand that your struggles differ from those of others.

These motivational speeches revolve around various facets of life, and you should find something for yourself below, no matter what challenges you face.

These talks are not ranked in terms of superiority, by the way!

  1. Al Pacino: Scent of a Woman – 1992
  2. Les Brown: It Is Not Over Until You Win! Your Dream is Possible – 1996
  3. Steve Jobs: Stanford Commencement Speech – 2005
  4. J.K. Rowling: The Fringe Benefits of Failure And The Importance of Imagination – 2008
  5. Will Smith: The Pursuit of Happyness – 2006
  6. Elizabeth Gilbert: Your Elusive Creative Genius – 2009
  7. Al Pacino: Any Given Sunday – 1999
  8. Bill Gates: Harvard Commencement Speech – 2007
  9. Jim Carrey: Maharishi University of Management Commencement Speech – 2014
  10. Sheryl Sandberg: Get on a Rocket Ship Whenever You Get The Chance – 2012
  11. Denzel Washington: Fall Forward – 2011
  12. David Foster Wallace: This Is Water – 2005

1. Al Pacino: Scent of a Woman – 1992

Theme: Courage, Integrity

Few Hollywood actors can match Al Pacino’s eloquence, especially in the 1992 movie Scent of a Woman.

Pacino, playing blind retired army Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade, delivered an emotionally charged speech highlighting the importance of courage and integrity near the end.

Slade defended Charlie Simms, a student who stood up for what’s right despite adversity and emphasized the importance of integrity. He contended that you must be courageous to act honorably and justly, even when faced with hardship.

He commended Charlie for his unwavering commitment to justice and truth and the immense character it takes to stand up against wrongdoing and not succumb to peer pressure.

The context, you may ask? Charlie was pressured to snitch on his friends, who pulled a prank against the headmaster, Mr. Trask, in exchange for keeping his scholarship. Expectedly, Charlie refused to sell his soul and betray his friends for his benefit.

The movie challenges attitudes common today. The lesson it presents is simple: don’t step on others to get your way, and have the courage to stand up to oppression and wrongdoings.

2. Les Brown: It Is Not Over Until You Win! Your Dream is Possible – 1996

Theme: Perseverance, Ambition

Les Brown’s famous motivational speech started with an interesting quote: “I do not believe that any of us have dreams that were not given to us for the purpose of accomplishing those particular dreams.”

This means that Les Brown believes that our dreams are given to us by some higher power or purpose and that we have the responsibility and—focus on this—the ability to pursue them and make them come true.

He spent time sharing his personal story with his audience: how he started from humble beginnings and faced many obstacles that didn’t stop him from completely changing his life and finding success.

The takeaway from his speech is that your potential is endless, and failing is part of your journey to success.

To make it in life, protect your ambitions from the criticism of negative people and persevere despite being faced with disappointments, frustrations, and obstacles.

How do you do that?

Surround yourself with people sharing the same hunger for success as you, be creative in finding solutions to problems and ways to motivate yourself, and understand that your responsibility is to take risks and work hard toward achieving your goals.

3. Steve Jobs: Stanford Commencement Speech – 2005

Theme: Destiny, Love, Death

Steve Jobs was a pioneer and magnate in the business world before his untimely death in 2011.

His Stanford motivational speech revolves around three stories from his life: connecting the dots, love and loss, and death.

Destiny

During the first story, Steve Jobs recounted his experiences as a college dropout who attended a calligraphy class at Reed College which seemed utterly useless then.

It didn’t dawn on him until later in life that that class was indispensable to designing the typography of Apple computers—the best back then, according to Jobs.

Jobs said to trust in something to build faith in your abilities and pursue your passions, which make all the difference in life. It doesn’t matter what it is: karma, your gut, destiny, or whatever you fancy.

Second, he said: “You can only connect the dots looking backward.” This is about having confidence that everything you do will have a purpose later in life.

Loss

His second story revolved around his getting fired from Apple, the company he started, and his fearless motivation to try new things that ensued.

He said that the best thing that happened to him was getting fired. It opened him to new opportunities and enabled him to rekindle new passions.

Love

Jobs said: “Sometimes life is gonna hit you in the head with a brick.”

He also added a quote that reflects what people struggle with today: “You’ve got to find what you love.”

Never settle. You’ll do great in what you love once you find it, and you’ll know when you do. It just gets better as the years roll on, too.

Death

Finally, Jobs spoke about the inevitability of death. It was a stark reminder that our time on Earth is limited, and what we do with it is what matters.

We must follow our dreams and not succumb to others’ dogma to live a fulfilling life.

4. J.K. Rowling: The Fringe Benefits of Failure And The Importance of Imagination – 2008

Theme: Failure, Imagination

Among the most inspiring motivational quotes you could read is: “It is impossible to live without failing at something unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”

Failure

What constitutes failure? How do you define success? J.K. Rowling, the mastermind behind The Wizarding World, says it’s up to us to decide.

Rowling shared two crucial lessons she learned from her life experiences: the benefits of failure and the importance of imagination.

You will fail miserably at one point in life. You may even hit rock bottom. For Rowling, rock bottom was a divorce and complete destitution seven years after graduation.

However, that rock bottom could become the foundation of your new life.

It liberates you to connect with your authentic self, start fresh, pursue your dreams, and gain wisdom you can’t learn from any other aspect of life.

It’s what helped her discover her true passion for writing novels, resilience, and inner security.

Imagination

Rowling also emphasizes the importance of imagination in empathizing with others.

Many choose not to express their imagination, preferring comfort over the courage to step outside and make a positive difference in the world.

She urges us to use it and our intelligence and influence to better the world.

5. Will Smith: The Pursuit of Happyness – 2006

Theme: Ambition, Dreams

Motivational speakers will often inspire you with long speeches carrying many anecdotes.

After shattering his son’s dream by telling him he likely won’t become a professional basketballer, Will Smith, in 40 seconds, rectified the situation by telling him what everyone must hear in a speech so short yet so powerfully moving.

“Hey. Don’t ever let somebody tell you you can’t do something. Not even me. All right? You got a dream? You gotta protect it. People can’t do something themselves, they want to tell you you can’t do it. You want something? Go get it! Period!”

The Pursuit of Happyness is based on the real-life story of Christopher Gardner. We recommend checking it out.

6. Elizabeth Gilbert: Your Elusive Creative Genius – 2009

Theme: Fear, Success, Determination

Elizabeth Gilbert’s famous motivational speech is more of a philosophical food for thought than a “Get up. Do it.”

She spoke about the challenges and pressures of creative people in the modern world. She also explained how differently people have understood their creative impulses from ancient times to the present.

The key takeaway is that today’s idea of creativity (as a whole) as something that comes from within the individual is harmful and unrealistic as it’s too much responsibility for a single frail being to handle.

Gilbert suggests that we return to the older notion of creativity as something that comes from outside the individual and that we can’t control.

What you have to do, in turn, is to keep showing up for your work. Find your niche and keep trying, even if you fail.

It doesn’t matter if you do a horrible job. Learn to enjoy life. Embrace the mystery and unpredictability of creativity. “Olé!” to you if you dare to be creative.

Her talk is captivating, and a summary can’t do it justice. Give the video a watch.

7. Al Pacino: Any Given Sunday – 1999

Theme: Fear, Winning

The speech Tony D’Amato, played by Pacino, gave before his football team’s crucial game during the movie Any Given Sunday is invigorating.

That said, the talk doesn’t apply to football only, as it’s about overcoming obstacles of all sorts.

He emphasized that life and football are both games of inches, where the margin for error is small and every inch matters.

His team (and you) must fight for every inch with passion, courage, and sacrifice. His team must also heal together and trust and support each other, as they’re all in it together.

Living, to D’Amato, is overcoming fears, doubts, and failures and finding your inner strength and will to win.

This speech is a rallying cry for individuals paralyzed by fear and unable to step forward and achieve their goals.

It’s a resounding affirmation message that says: “It’s okay. You can do it. And, if you think you can’t, you have friends to help you do it.”

8. Bill Gates: Harvard Commencement Speech – 2007

Theme: Change, Progress

During his Harvard commencement speech, Bill Gates reflected on his time at Harvard and the intellectual and social experiences that came with it.

He commented on how the worst part about dropping out of Harvard was his leaving without a sufficient understanding of the world and its inequities and the millions of issues impoverished and less fortunate people face daily.

His speech is a call to action. He emphasized that reducing inequality is humanity’s greatest achievement and calls for applying new technologies toward that endeavor.

In other words, Gates urges those who are more fortunate intellectually, financially, and socially to be the change this world needs.

9. Jim Carrey: Maharishi University of Management Commencement Speech – 2014

Theme: Risk-Taking

People know Jim Carrey for his hilarious roles in comedy classics like Ace Ventura and The Mask. But did you know that he also has a profoundly deep side that can surprise you?

His commencement speech at the Maharishi University is philosophical and impactful, but one part stands out:

“…Sometimes, it’s okay to eat your feelings. Now fear is going to be a player in your life, but you get to decide how much.

You can spend your whole life imagining ghosts and worrying about the pathway to the future, but all there will ever be is what’s happening here and the decisions we make at this moment, which are based on either love or fear.

So many of us choose our path out of fear disguised as practicality. What we really want seems impossibly out of reach and ridiculous to expect. So we never dare to ask the universe for it…”

Carrey’s father chose to be an accountant instead of a comedian in fear of failing. You can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance at doing what you love.

The lesson to take away is simple: take risks in life. It’s the only way you can progress and truly enjoy it. Decisions based on fear will only get you to a future where you’ll be neither proud of yourself nor satisfied.

10. Sheryl Sandberg: Get on a Rocket Ship Whenever You Get The Chance – 2012

Theme: Opportunity, Personal Growth, Honesty

Sheryl Sandberg is an ex-Facebook COO. She imparted many crucial qualities that people in the business world should have. Her 2012 speech at the Harvard Business School covers three main points. They are:

Opportunity

Eric Schmidt said: “If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat. Just get on.”

Lori Goler, Schmidt’s co-worker, also compared careers to a jungle gym instead of a ladder.

You’ll get tired of working and stagnate if you don’t look for opportunities and growth.

Today’s overly competitive, hyperconnected world demands a new approach. Viewing jobs how people did thirty years ago is no longer viable.

Sheryl urges us to look for a mission, move in all directions (hence the jungle gym comparison); build our skills, not our resume; and evaluate what we can do, not the title we’ll get.

Honesty

“A good leader recognizes that most people won’t feel comfortable challenging authority, so it falls upon authority to encourage them to question.”

Being honest in workplaces is difficult, as people fear challenging authority. Sheryl urges leaders to welcome dissenting opinions and feedback, not punish them.

This doesn’t apply to leaders only, though. Everyone should ask for input, especially from those who might disagree with them, and listen to their perspectives.

Admit your mistakes and share your vulnerabilities, as it’s the best way to build trust and transparency and grow.

Personal Growth

“As you lead in this new world, you will not be able to rely on who you are or the degree you hold. You’ll have to rely on what you know.”

Pieces of paper don’t define you; your skills do. Working on your professional and interpersonal skills to stay ahead of others is crucial.

Focus on talent, skills, imagination, vision, and the ability to communicate authentically.

Developing such skills isn’t exactly easy, though. That’s why reading is important. We recommend checking out some of these must-read books.

11. Denzel Washington: Fall Forward – 2011

Theme: Failure, Risk-Taking

Actor Denzel Washington gave an inspiring speech about the importance of failure and taking risks at the Pennsylvania 2011 Commencement Address. There are two parts to his speech.

Risk-Taking

“I found that nothing in life is worthwhile unless you take risks. Nothing. Nelson Mandela said: ‘There is no passion to be found, playing small and settling for a life that’s less than the one you’re capable of living.'”

Washington highlighted how people always tell you to ensure you have something to fall back on. He said he never understood this concept and that falling back on your faith or forward is always better.

His example? Thomas Edison conducted 1,000 failed experiments. Few know that because the 1,001st experiment was the lightbulb.

Take risks. People don’t care about your failures; they only remember your successes. There’s nothing to be afraid of.

Failures

Washington also spoke about how every failed experiment is a step closer to success.

He emphasized that you’ll fail at some point in your life; you must accept it. He also said you’re not trying in the first place if you don’t fail.

Failure is inevitable, but what sets the winners apart from the losers is perseverance, and he gave an interesting—and funny—quote to exemplify his point:

“There’s an old saying, you hang around the barbershop long enough, sooner or later, you’re going to get a haircut. So you will catch a break. And I did catch a break.”

It doesn’t matter how long it takes to achieve your mission. Small steps accumulate. Take it easy, one step at a time, and you’ll inevitably reach whatever you set out to do.

Accept new views, be open to new opinions, meet new people, and take new chances. They’re what’s going to define you. Keep going forward. Never stop.

12. David Foster Wallace: This Is Water – 2005

Theme: Thinking, Open-Mindedness

David Foster Wallace‘s talk is another overly philosophical didactic that makes you say: “Woah, I never thought of it this way before.”

He invites us to free ourselves from the prison of self-centeredness by being more conscious, humble, and compassionate.

His motivational speech mainly revolved around the value of a liberal arts education. He said it’s not about the knowledge you gain, it’s about being taught how to think and what to pay attention to in life.

Most of us are trapped in our default setting of self-centeredness and automatic thinking, making us unhappy and unaware of what’s unfolding around us.

He explained it best in two quotes:

“Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.”

“But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on par with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.”

The speech is called “This Is Water” because of the metaphor he proposes at the beginning: fish swimming in water. It’s about how we often take life’s most important things for granted.

Wrapping Up

Life isn’t easy. Sometimes, it can be so overwhelming that we consider giving up on our dreams and aspirations in return for some peace of mind.

Luckily, we don’t have to face our problems alone. We learn from them, and motivational speakers ignite our passion to chase our goals with vehement determination and boost our confidence.

We shared some impactful speeches by some of the most brilliant minds the world has ever seen in hopes of implanting one belief in your mind: It’s okay. You can make it. And, if you don’t, you have a lifetime to make it. Don’t give up.

We hope you found these talks as touching as we did. Don’t forget to leave your feedback and share this article with your friends if you enjoyed it!

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