Graduation season is upon us. Caps are donned, “Pomp and Circumstance” is played, and a new class of grads is released into the world. Every year at this time, I ask two things: First, what have I accomplished since my own graduation? And second — my secret dream — will I ever be asked to deliver a commencement address? This year, I decided to write one anyway. So without further ado, here is the speech no one asked me to give…
Good morning. I stand before you today not because I was invited, but because I was ready. You see, I’ve spent most of my life — scratch that, all of my life — unsure of what I wanted to do. The one aspiration I’ve always had is to deliver a commencement address.
Commencement speakers have their shit together. At the very least, they’ve cracked the code of life enough to offer wisdom to younger, confused humans who may or may not wish to hear it. They say things like “wear sunscreen” and “be kind,” which despite their profundity are the very same nuggets parents have been offering up for ages. Yet when these words tumble from the mouths of a properly anointed commencement speaker, they become viral videos, get republished by The New York Times and turned into little hardcover gift books with seven words per page. Indeed, all thoughts seem wiser when directed at a swarm of people in ridiculous matching caps.
Try as I might, I have yet to be invited to speak at any graduation exercises. But today I woke up and realized: I’m not sure what I’m waiting for. Perhaps it would be just as helpful to hear advice from one who has not reached (or even glimpsed) the zenith. True, I may not have a Pulitzer — YET— but I have things to say.
This brings me to my first point, which is: don’t wait for things to happen to you. If you do, you’re placing too much power in the hands of randomness, otherwise known as fate. Randomness is a beautiful thing, but it’s something you can coax along by consistently putting yourself out there.
My own graduation was the most terrifying day of my life. I sat there feeling not proud, but more like “holy-f*ck-I-have-to-figure-out-the-rest-of-my-life-this-second.” Ten years later, my picture of forever is hazier than ever. But I have learned this: You don’t have to understand the shape and scope of your life just because you’re donning an unflattering ceremonial smock. You get to figure out the next step every single day. If you choose wrong, you choose again. If you make a wrong turn, you backtrack. Taken piecemeal, the premise of life is actually not so scary.
My introduction to the “real world” looked quite different than I imagined. It was hard. It was disappointing. It was, at times, nothing less than heartbreaking. The first decade of my career — a very lucky trajectory about which I would not change a thing — involved more errands, more mindless tasks, and more salaried games of fetch than the lifespan of a typical Labrador.
Meanwhile, friends and acquaintances kept singing the tune of, “Right after graduation, I started my own company and we’ve made a bazillion dollars and I’m also famous and oh look, here I am on the cover of this magazine!” I felt like the proverbial snail that climbs an inch up the waterspout only to slide back down overnight. What was wrong with me? What was their secret?
Now I understand that in the case of anyone who appears to be an immediate success, you never know the whole story. It takes years to stage an overnight triumph, not to mention a lot of work. If someone says their ascent really did happen overnight, this is likely due to one of three things: they are liars, they are lucky, or they are rich. Sometimes it may be any combination of those things. And that’s great for them, because the truth is it doesn’t matter. Their journey is not your journey. And their voice is not your voice. Find inspiration where you can, but when it comes to the game of comparison always keep your lens focused on your own story.
In this age of emulation and self-made celebrity, the thing that will set you apart is being “authentically yourself,” whatever the hell that means. So don’t hold back. Tap into the real you — the painfully honest, uncomfortable, messy, complicated, utterly resplendent being that you are — and let that person out into the sunlight.
As you’re finding your way, lots of endeavors feel like throwing pasta at a wall and waiting for something to stick. Sometimes, you are the thrower. Sometimes, you are the pasta. Sometimes, you’re a person who needs to stop making an analogy about pasta. All of these things are okay.
Commencement speakers love analogies, so here’s another one for you: Remember the gypsy moth. For the unacquainted, gypsy moths are loathsome, disgusting moths that descend upon Eastern North America and take out entire forests by eating ALL OF THEIR LEAVES. In the spring, you’ll see their tent-like cocoons propped up in branches, and there’s a rumble in the air like, “the gypsy moths are coming.” One day they’re silently metamorphosing; the next day, rampant destruction.
I’m not suggesting you use your powers to destroy things. What I am saying is that you cannot kick ass all the time. Sometimes you need to germinate, to hibernate, to recuperate. Sometimes it’s cool to take a nap. Then one day, when your own metamorphosis is complete, you can wake up hungry and ready to go after your birthright.
Sometimes you’ll meet people who don’t value you. Often, this is not about you, it’s about them. That’s just one of the many reasons it’s a good idea to build yourself a team. Seek out some humans who are unflinchingly honest, in a nice way. Seek out the people who will tell you when it’s time to spread your wings. Seek out the people who know the real you and love you because of, not despite, everything you are.
While we’re on the topic of dealing with others, here’s something I wish I realized sooner: Advice is great, but nobody has to live your life except you. No one has to live with the choices you make, the risks you take — or don’t take — except you. So make it count. The secret side of risk is that even if you play it safe, you probably can’t control the outcome anyway. It’s always, always worth it to try.
People love to make a fuss about commencements, and that’s rightly deserved. But the larger truth is that you commence all the time. Maybe it won’t be labeled as a milestone. No one will shake your hand or take a photo. But you graduate constantly: from dating jerks, from attempting the scary yoga pose, from being too intimidated to go after what you really want. Celebrate today, but don’t forget to celebrate all victories, big and small, along the way.
I’m not a real commencement speaker. And maybe the only thing you’re graduating from this morning is your bed. But let’s pretend, for just a second, that you’re standing on the precipice between this moment and the rest of your life. Oh wait, YOU ARE. That’s kind of exciting, don’t you think?
So today, wherever you are, be proud of what you’ve accomplished. But rest assured that even if what you’ve accomplished is essentially nothing, it’s never too late to come out of that cocoon. In the immortal words of Gloria Estefan circa 1992, “There is always tomorrow, to start over again.”
I know you didn’t ask me, but congratulations! I believe in you. Take a deep breath. Everything is going to be great.