In a powerful and motivational commencement speech delivered to the class of 2011 at the University of Pennsylvania, Academy Award-winning actor Denzel Washington shared valuable life lessons on the importance of embracing failure and taking risks. Through personal anecdotes and inspirational messages, Washington encouraged graduates to pursue their dreams, work hard, and make a positive impact on the world. This article breaks down key points from his speech and highlights the wisdom imparted to the graduating class.

Putting God First

Washington begins by emphasizing the significance of putting God first in everything one does. Reflecting on his journey, he shares how a prophecy he received 40 years ago about traveling the world and speaking to millions of people has guided him throughout his life. He credits his success to the grace of God and underscores the importance of humility and staying connected to a higher power.

Fail Big and Dream Big

The actor urges graduates to “fail big” and not be afraid of setbacks. He emphasizes that failure is an inevitable part of life and a crucial element in the journey toward success. Washington encourages students to dream big but stresses the importance of setting goals to turn those dreams into reality. He advocates for discipline, consistency, and hard work in pursuing both short-term and long-term goals.

The Value of Helping Others

Washington shares a profound insight about the most selfish act — helping others. He emphasizes that true success lies in making a positive impact on the lives of others. He encourages graduates to express gratitude and acknowledge the importance of kindness, love, and humility. Washington emphasizes that the joy derived from helping others surpasses material possessions.

Leaving a Legacy

The actor uses a poignant metaphor, stating, “You’ll never see a U-haul behind a hearse,” conveying the idea that material wealth cannot be taken into the afterlife. He challenges graduates to consider what they will do with their talents, emphasizing that making a difference in the world is more meaningful than accumulating wealth. Washington stresses the importance of using one’s gifts to contribute positively to society.

Embracing Failure and Taking Risks

Drawing from his personal experiences, Washington shares instances of failure in his early career, highlighting that failure is a natural part of the journey toward success. He encourages graduates to take risks, be open to new ideas, and not to fear failure. He emphasizes that life’s path is not always straight, and the willingness to embrace failure and learn from it is crucial for personal and professional growth.



Denzel Washington’s commencement speech at the University of Pennsylvania serves as a source of inspiration for graduates as they embark on their journeys. His words resonate with themes of faith, resilience, and the pursuit of meaningful goals. The actor’s wisdom, derived from a lifetime of experiences, encourages the class of 2011 to face challenges head-on, embrace failure, and make a positive impact on the world. As they leave the university, Washington’s message echoes, urging them to fall forward in their pursuit of success and fulfillment.

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