Congratulations, Not That You Asked

June 8, 2016

Congratulations, Not That You Asked

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.

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  • Well said 🙂

  • I’ll 100% be revisiting this post. And who doesn’t love a good pasta analogy? I shall recommend you to my alma mater 🙂

  • Well done. We missed you (said while giving you a standing ovation).

  • This is the best. Thank you, Caroline!

  • Aleksandra,

    Being a commencement speaker has always been a bucket list item of mine as well! Haha glad someone shares that aspiration. I really liked your message here and will definitely be rereading it as I navigate through undergrad.

  • Monica B.,

    I’ve just graduated a 2nd time! And the beauty of this speech is I now have a copy to refer back to. You never know who you are inspiring!! Thank you, Caroline!

  • I absolutely loved it. Great speech, your day will come. Laughed out loud at the opener and pasta analogy. So glad you’re back!

  • I love this! Thank you, Caroline! 🙂

  • I hope that one day I actually get to listen to you speak at one. Or meet you at your book signing. Whichever comes first.

    Also, if we could all of that to happen in Europe. EVEN BETTER.

    Hearts to you magic lady.

  • Samantha,

    This was so wonderful to read. I want to memorize every bit and recite it myself when needed, which is probably often. Ha! It really helped me realize that every day I’M TRYING and that may not look like much to others but, I’ve got to focus on even the tiniest victories. I was just diagnosed with bipolar II a few weeks ago and I have felt sad and downtrodden. This was like a light beam into my brain and heart. I have to realize I am graduating constantly. I graduated by going and asking questions and getting help! So, thank you. This really made my day!

    p.s. I’ve missed you and am so glad you are back! 🙂


  • I love your writing so much and am glad that you’re starting your blog back up. Still, A Cup of Jo won’t be the same without you.

  • Love your writing Caroline!

  • Thank you. Needed to hear that.

  • Jillian,

    My 10 year reunion is this month and this commencement speech is truer than true. It’s one of those things that when you hear it at 18, you won’t quite grasp it, but at 28 I’m like, “Word.”

  • I loved this. Smart, witty, and succinct as always. I’ve missed your voice on Cup of Jo, so I’m so glad to see Hello I’m Flawed has made a comeback. 🙂

  • Shannon,

    This is JUST what I needed to hear today! 🙂

  • Diana McNeill,

    Sweet, sweet Caroline. You always know just how to say it.

  • Stephanie H.,

    I’m gonna bookmark this for those days I need a little pep talk…

  • Beautifully written! Your thoughts on advice from others encompasses everything I feel on the subject but have never been able to adequately express in my own terms. I actually wrote it down to save (you know, on my phone. Because its 2016 and I’m forever without a pen).

  • I saved this and will be reading it a lot of times, for sure. Thank you =)

  • One of the best commencement speeches I’ve never (and have) asked for.

  • Nicole Brant,

    So happy to enjoy your writing again! I’ve missed you over at Cup of Jo.

  • Have I mentioned yet how happy I am to have you back? Because this post just made my day xx

  • Mariana,

    I really needed to read this today. Thank you 🙂

  • This is so great. I never thought I would aspire to be a gypsy moth, but here I am. I loved your writing on Cup of Jo and didn’t realize you had a blog until you posted on your instagram. So happy to have your thoughts on the world back in my life!

  • This is what we all need to hear at least once a week and the speech I wish I heard at my graduation. Never stop writing, Caroline!

  • Thanks for this.

  • Just what I needed to read as I wrap up my last few weeks in my current career to go back to school full time. Thank you!

  • I love this! Will share, share, and re-share.

  • Love this! Also, relieved not to be the only person who thinks of doing stuff like this. Last year I had a cancer scare and couldn’t help but think “I can’t go yet, I haven’t got enough wise words to gift people.” I’m coining it the Nora Ephron Effect.

  • Ella Campbell,

    My soul is comforted 🙂 thanks

  • Love this! Thanks so much for this. I was very down on myself today and reading this post really provided great encouragement. So glad you’re back!

  • “The larger truth is that you commence all the time” – love this

  • This is hilarious! And spot-on. I am feeling very snail like lately (I’m also working on a novel – maybe that’s the root cause?) but found this very uplifting.

    Anyway, I love the new look of your site and am excited to read along!

  • Ha. I’m intoxicated by your word choice. I’ll be referring back to this for inspiration. Thanks, Caroline 🙂

  • Katrina,

    This was amazing. I love your blog and I love, love, love your writing. Can’t wait to keep reading what you post!

  • Honestly, this is so good. Thank your, Caroline.

  • Hii…I was brought here by Pinterest : ) Your blog is so different…I love it <3