Let’s face reality: It’s hard, if not impossible, to feel motivated all the time.
Some days you just want to put your feet up, eat buffalo chicken nachos, and watch Netflix — and not even good Netflix, but some crappy movie that you’re only watching because you’ve given up on being productive and are complicit in filling your brain with dim-witted, mind-numbing entertainment. But hey, sometimes that’s what it takes to recharge your batteries. A nice little brain vacation.
Of course, when you’ve got a deadline looming, or a big presentation coming up, and your coworkers (and/or customers) are depending on you, taking a brain vacation isn’t really an option. In such cases, when you can’t afford to lollygag, you need to be able to silence your inner couch potato and get your head in the game. You need to be able to dig down deep, find your inner strength, give 110%, and … look, I’ll admit it: Motivational speeches aren’t really my thing.
So in lieu of writing you one, I’ve found 16 of the greatest motivational speeches from across the worlds of business, sports, entertainment, and more. And while the messages vary greatly from speech to speech, they can all help you get in the right frame of mind for tackling your next big challenge.
(Warning: Some speeches — *cough* Al Pacino *cough* — may contain NSFW language.)
16 of the Best Motivational Speeches
1) J.K. Rowling: “The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination” (2008)
In J.K. Rowling’s 2008 Harvard commencement speech, the Harry Potter author explored how two phenomena — failure and imagination — can be crucial to success. While failure can help you understand where your true passion lies, and where you should focus your energy moving forward, imagination is what will allow you to empathize with other people so you can use your influence to do good.
We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.”
2) David Foster Wallace: “This Is Water” (2005)
From the opening minutes of David Foster Wallace’s 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech, in which he questions commencement speech conventions, it’s clear that Wallace has some serious wisdom to share. The crux of his speech: Many of us are oblivious to our own close-mindedness. We picture ourselves as the centers of our own, individual universes, instead of seeing the bigger, more interconnected picture.
If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important, if you want to operate on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you’ll know you have 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 fire with the same force that lit the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.”
3) Brené Brown: “The Power of Vulnerability” (2013)
The video above is an animated excerpt from researcher Brené Brown’s speech, “The Power of Vulnerability.” In the speech, Brown explores how our fear of not being good enough (among other fears) drives us to shield ourselves from our own vulnerabilities. The alternative to wearing this emotional suit of armor: Embrace vulnerability through empathizing with others.
Empathy is a choice, and it’s a vulnerable choice. Because in order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling. “
4) Al Pacino: “Inch by Inch” (1999)
Yes, this speech is from a football movie (Any Given Sunday), but trust me: This isn’t your stereotypical rah-rah-go-get-’em sports speech. It’s deeper than that. It’s about life, and loss, and … gosh darn it just listen to Al Pacino, he’s pouring his soul out!
Either we heal as a team or we’re gonna crumble, inch by inch, play by play, till we’re finished. We’re in hell right now, gentlemen, believe me. And we can stay here and get the $&#@ kicked out of us, or we can fight our way back into the light. We can climb out of hell, one inch at a time.”
5) Steve Jobs: “How to Live Before You Die” (2005)
Considering the YouTube video of Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford commencement speech has 24 million views (not counting the 10 million+ additional views from duplicate uploads), it’s likely that you’ve seen this one already. In the speech, Jobs plays on two themes: connecting the dots (anecdote: how taking a calligraphy class helped inspire the design of the Mac) and love & loss (anecdote: how getting fired from Apple helped inspire his greatest innovations). Perhaps the most memorable part his speech comes at the end, when he quotes the (now-famous) lines from the final issue of his favorite publication, The Whole Earth Catalog:
Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”
6) Ellen DeGeneres: Tulane University Commencement Speech (2009)
Ellen’s speech, as you might expect, has its humorous moments. But it also explores some of the very personal and tragic episodes in her life that helped push her into comedy in the first place. Two key themes of DeGeneres’ speech: overcoming adversity and being true to yourself. For DeGeneres, that meant pushing onward with her career after her sitcom was canceled in response to her publicly coming out as gay.
Really, when I look back on it, I wouldn’t change a thing. I mean, it was so important for me to lose everything because I found out what the most important thing is … to be true to yourself. Ultimately, that’s what’s gotten me to this place. I don’t live in fear. I’m free. I have no secrets and I know I’ll always be OK, because no matter what, I know who I am.”
7) Will Smith: Speech from The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)
Here’s another speech from the big screen, this time from the 2006 film The Pursuit of Happyness. In the scene above, Will Smith’s character explains to his son why he shouldn’t pursue basketball (because he’ll end up being “below average”) before having a major change of heart.
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 can’t do it. If you want something, go get it. Period.”
8) Sheryl Sandberg: Harvard Business School Class Day Speech (2012)
In her speech to the HBS class of 2012, Lean In author and tech executive Sheryl Sandberg deconstructed the idea of the “career as a ladder.” For Sandberg, a career is about finding opportunities where you can make an impact, not about chasing titles and planning out a meticulous path. “If I had mapped out my career when I was sitting where you are, I would have missed my career,” she commented. What’s more, Sandberg eschews the traditional wisdom of keeping emotions out of the workplace. For Sandberg, you need to care not only about what you’re working on, but also who you’re working with.
“If you want to win hearts and minds, you have to lead with your heart as well as your mind. I don’t believe we have a professional self from Mondays through Fridays and a real self for the rest of the time … It is all professional and it is all personal, all at the very same time.”
9) Dan Pink: “The Puzzle of Motivation” (2009)
Commissions, bonuses, other incentives … in the business world, these are the things that motivate people, right? According to Dan Pink in his 2009 TED Talk, such extrinsic motivators (a.k.a. “carrots and sticks”) could actually be doing more harm than good. The most recent sociological research suggests that the real key to producing better work is to find intrinsic motivation inside of yourself.
There is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does. And what worries me, as we stand here in the rubble of the economic collapse, is that too many organizations are making their decisions, their policies about talent and people, based on assumptions that are outdated, unexamined, and rooted more in folklore than in science.”
10) Denzel Washington: “Fall Forward” (2011)
In his 2011 UPenn commencement speech, Denzel Washington highlighted three reasons why we need to embrace failure in order to be successful. First, everybody will fail at something at some point, so you better get used to it. Second, if you never fail, take that as a sign that you’re not really trying. And third, at the end of the day, failure will help you figure out what path you want to be on.
Fall forward. Here’s what I mean: Reggie Jackson struck out twenty-six-hundred times in his career — the most in the history of baseball. But you don’t hear about the strikeouts. People remember the home runs. Fall forward. Thomas Edison conducted 1,000 failed experiments. Did you know that? I didn’t know that—because #1,001 was the light bulb. Fall forward. Every failed experiment is one step closer to success.”
11) Sylvester Stallone: Speech from Rocky Balboa (2006)
I had to put this one next since it plays along the same themes as Denzel Washington’s UPenn speech. In the scene above, from the 2006 film Rocky Balboa, the title character (played by Sylvester Stallone) is having a heart-to-heart with his son. The advice he gives him: Don’t let your failures or the adversity you face slow you down. Keep. Moving. Forward.
Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place, and I don’t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!”
12) Elizabeth Gilbert: “Your Elusive Creative Genius” (2009)
Following the extraordinary success of her book, Eat, Pray, Love, people began asking author Elizabeth Gilbert the same question over and over and over: How are you going to top that? In her 2009 TED Talk, Gilbert explores that question while also examining how our ideas of genius and creativity have shifted over the generations. While once seen as separate entities or states of being that anyone could tap into, genius and creativity have increasingly become associated with individuals. And according to Gilbert, that shift has been putting more and more pressure on artists, writers, and other creatives to produce great work.
I think that allowing somebody, one mere person to believe that he or she is like, the vessel, you know, like the font and the essence and the source of all divine, creative, unknowable, eternal mystery is just a smidge too much responsibility to put on one fragile, human psyche. It’s like asking somebody to swallow the sun. It just completely warps and distorts egos, and it creates all these unmanageable expectations about performance. And I think the pressure of that has been killing off our artists for the last 500 years.”
13) Charlie Day: Merrimack College Commencement Speech (2014)
Best known for his role in the sitcom It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, actor Charlie Day had lots of wisdom to share during the 2014 commencement speech at his alma mater, Merrimack College. Day explained to the audience how college degrees are inherently valueless, since you can’t trade them in for cash. Instead, it’s you, your hard work, and the risks you take that provide real value in life.
You cannot let a fear of failure or a fear of comparison or a fear of judgment stop you from doing the things that will make you great. You cannot succeed without the risk of failure. You cannot have a voice without the risk of criticism. You cannot love without the risk of loss. You must take these risks.”
14) Frank Oz/Yoda: Speech from The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
This speech from The Empire Strikes Back felt like a natural follow-up to Charlie Day’s speech. In the scene above, Yoda — voiced by Frank Oz — is teaching Luke the ways of the force. One of his key teachings: Whether or not something can or can’t be done (e.g., lifting an X-Wing out of a swamp) is all in your head. So instead of doubting yourself, believe in yourself.
Do, or do not. There is no try.”
15) William Wallace: Speech From the Battle of Stirling Bridge (1297)
OK, I’ll admit it: I couldn’t find a recording of the actual speech Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace gave at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297 (the historian I spoke with said something about “nonexistent technology” and me “being an idiot,” but I digress). Historical accuracy aside, there’s no denying that Mel Gibson’s version of the speech from the 1995 film Braveheart can help get you pumped up.
Aye, fight and you may die. Run and you’ll live — at least a while. And dying in your beds many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance, just one chance to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!!!”
16) Orlando Scampington: “The Pillars of C.L.A.M.” (2015)
Sometimes humor is the best motivator. So to cap things off, here’s an INBOUND Bold Talk from self-proclaimed author, thought leader, dreamer, cat owner, visionary, and “believer in unlimited human potential,” Orlando Scampington. As you’ll soon realize upon reading the quote below, it’s hard to explain what his speech is actually about — so I think it’s better that you just dive in and enjoy.
Know of any other motivational speeches that should be on this list? Share them in the comments section below!