It was halftime during one of my 7th grade football games. And we were losing 14 – 0. With our knees planted in the grass, my team was quietly huddled, drenched in sweat and defeat. We all knew the game was over.
That’s when our assistant coach bursted through our circle and shattered our pity party, delivering one of the best motivational speeches I’ve heard to this day.
I can’t directly quote him because he said some things that are inappropriate for a blog post (and, in hindsight, probably for a bunch of 13-year-olds too). But the point is, he harnessed the power of words to rejuvenate a physically and emotionally drained team. And we came back clawing to win the game.
Just like in sports, being motivated at work is crucial for your performance. This rings especially true when you have a looming deadline, an important presentation to give, or colleagues or customers depending on your performance.
To help you stay motivated, no matter what your job throws at you, we decided to compile 22 of the best motivational speeches from business, sports, entertainment, and more. If you want to get fired up for a project, watch these videos. Trust me, I was ready to write a 5,000 word blog post after I saw them. And while the messages vary from speech to speech, they will put you in the optimal frame of mind for tackling and crushing your next big challenge.
(Disclaimer: Some speeches — *cough* Al Pacino *cough* — may contain NSFW language.)
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.”
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.”
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. “
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.”
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.”
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. ForDeGeneres, 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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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!”
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.”
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.”
This speech fromThe 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.”
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!!!”
Sometimes humor is the best motivator. So 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.
“Culture is the bitter drunken coachmen lashing motivation into the ungrateful workhorses, so they drag the wagon of growth down the road of success. I think that’s a very accurate analogy.”
The Miracle on Ice is still considered the biggest upset in Olympic hockey history. And for good reason. The Soviet Union won six of the last seven Olympic gold medals, and the U.S. team consisted only of amateur players. It was obvious the Soviets were better. But, in the movie Miracle, which told the incredible story of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team, Kurt Russell’s character — Coach Herb Brooks — knew that this game was different. The U.S. was better than the Soviets that day. And his speech conveyed such a strong belief in his team that they pulled off one of the greatest sports moments of the 20th century.
“If we played ’em ten times, they might win nine. But not this game… Not tonight. Tonight, we skate with them. Tonight, we stay with them. And we shut them down because we can! Tonight, WE are the greatest hockey team in the world. You were born to be hockey players, every one of you. And you were meant to be here tonight. This is your time.”
Less than two months before he lost his battle to cancer, Jim Valvano delivered one of the most impactful and timeless speeches about living life to the fullest. My words can’t do it justice, so be prepared for some laughter, tears, and thought.
“I just got one last thing; I urge all of you, all of you, to enjoy your life, the precious moments you have. To spend each day with some laughter and some thought, to get your emotions going. To be enthusiastic every day, and Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Nothing great could be accomplished without enthusiasm,” to keep your dreams alive in spite of problems whatever you have. The ability to be able to work hard for your dreams to come true, to become a reality.”
The movie We Were Soldiers takes place in one of the most racially charged decades in American history, but Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore — played by Mel Gibson — delivered such a rousing speech that it brought an incredibly diverse group of soldiers together as one unit. He knew if his troops could set their differences aside, then they would form a true brotherhood, increasing their chances of survival as a whole. That way, the memories of their lost brothers could live on forever when they returned home.
“I can’t promise that I will bring you all home alive. But this I swear before you and before Almighty God: that when we go into battle, I will be the first to set foot on the field, and I will be the last to step off. And I will leave no one behind. Dead or alive, we will all come home together. So help me God.”
In 2014, Kal Penn delivered an uplifting speech that DePauw University will never forget. He advised graduates to strive for success but to not let it loosen their grip on the things that actually matter, like staying connected with loved ones, being adventurous, and acting selflessly. He also comforted millennials everywhere, convincing them that their futures are full of potential and promise because their generation’s identity is rooted in innovation.
“Opportunity is all around us. You’re graduating at a time where youth unemployment is high. And yet your peers are refusing to sit idly by. You’re the most active, service-driven generation, the most imaginative, the most tech-savvy. You’re creating opportunities, inventing gadgets, placing an emphasis on social responsibility over greed. So stop worrying so much. Why are you worried?”
In the film Rudy, Sean Astin’s character, Rudy Ruettiger, quits the Notre Dame football team because he has to watch one of his last games from the stands. After two years of grueling practices and never once being apart of the team on the sidelines, he’s done dealing with the humiliation. But his friend Fortune — played by Charles Dutton — flips the script on him. He shows Rudy that he shouldn’t be humiliated. He should be proud because he’s proven to everyone that his perseverance and heart can carry him through any challenge. He just needs to realize that himself. And the only way he can do that is if he stays on the team for the rest of the season.
“You’re 5 feet nothin’, a 100 and nothin’, and you got hardly a speck of athletic ability. And you hung in with the best college football team in the land for two years. And you’re also gonna walk outta here with a degree from the University of Notre Dame. In this lifetime, you don’t have to prove nothin’ to nobody – except yourself. And after what you’ve gone through, if you haven’t done that by now, it ain’t gonna never happen. Now go on back.”
Last year at INBOUND, Vera Jones told a moving story about the life lessons she’s learned from raising her blind son. She explains how having faith in your future and letting it lead you toward your true purpose will help you overcome blinding obstacles. She also discusses how following your passion and trusting your vision develops empathy, which is a critical leadership skill.
“Passionately play your position no matter how bad things get. You are significant. Why we are here is not for our own glory. Ultimately, we’re here to lead and serve everybody else. By doing that, we encourage others to do the same.”
Seen any other motivational speeches that should be on this list? Share them in the comments section below!
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