Commencement Speech

Taking Brené Brown’s eCourse has led me to think about the messages and mantras we let guide us. I find her work to be so true for me. But prior to discovering Brené’s work, I felt bombarded by pseudo-inspiring life advice at every turn and it’s not always easy to know which things to filter out and which ones to soak in. Plus, everyone is different, what brought me to my “A-HA” moment may be different than what works for others.

Lately, I’ve been having flashbacks to commencement speeches and all the inspiring knowledge being dropped on us as we wait to receive our respective diplomas.I have vague recollections of in high school and college where we are showered with nuggets like:

  • The world is your oyster
  • You can realize your dreams
  • You can be whatever you want to be
  • The sky is the limit
  • Don’t let anyone shatter your dream
  • Don’t ever give up
  • Love your job (my personal favorite)

Blah blah blah

This is me before I addressed my law school graduating class as the student body president.

photo by h. robinson
photo by h. robinson

For the life of me, I don’t remember what I said at all. But if I had to give that speech now, I think I’d want to tell the eager, fresh faced group of 25 year olds (mixed in with many students over 30, 40 and 50) that it’s all a crock.

Get your heads out of the clouds you silly dreamers.

Don’t get me wrong, I do want to inspire confidence, but I’m more about inspiring real confidence not false confidence. I want people to be inspired to take action and be brave while also being resilient. It’s easy to say “DON’T GIVE UP” but it’s hard to not give up when you think you are the only person on earth who hasn’t achieved greatness.

I’d want to inspire but give some real life inspiration. I’d want to tell them:

  • Dare, take risks, be seen, lean in but BE REAL and TRUE at the same time.
  • Second place (and third, fourth even last place) is good enough. Showing up is good enough most days.
  • Failing at that dream while learning 100 things along the way is enough.
  • Happiness can be achieved without winning the gold medal, getting that Supreme Court clerkship or getting the top spot at the best firm/company/gig.
  • Be kind, compassionate, giving, encouraging and inspiring to others but most of all, do all of these things to YOURSELF.

You may fall short. Make your dreams realistic. Be open to the possibility that your dreams may change and new dreams may take their place. If I took the “you can do anything” mantra to heart, I would have thought I could be a Nobel Prize winning chemist. Reality is that I don’t care for math and science and barely squeezed out a C+ in high school Chem. I also had a dream when I was younger to play professional tennis. I played tennis for a Division I college (not a university), got my education pretty much paid for and my senior year made it to nationals only to be swept off the court in 47 minutes by the # 1 singles player from UVA. Of course, by my senior year of college (actually by 7th grade), I had accepted the reality that I was not going to be my generation’s Chrissy Evert but I still kept on keeping on not knowing where it was going to lead me.

Your path and dreams may change. Be flexible. Similar to “you may fall short”, be able to change your goals and the roads it takes to get there. I didn’t become a tour player but my sport pretty much paid for my bachelor’s degree and provided me with invaluable stories, friends and some lessons about sportsmanship and resilience. You may lose a job, you may change your major, you may not get the thing that [you thought] was “the one” but there’s always “another one” that may be more suitable than you ever imagined.

You cannot control reality. But, you can control how you react, respond and account for it. From Charles Swindoll – “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.” Will you whine, wallow and let anger fester or will you search for another way to respond in a productive and positive manner?

You will struggle a/k/a things may really suck sometimes. Life is hard. There will be tragedy and there will the struggle. But if you face those hard moments and painful parts and allow yourself to feel them, accept them and overcome them instead of ignoring or numbing it will allow you to feel the highest of highs and greatest of triumphs as well. And as you remind yourself that struggle comes with the journey, remember that struggle happens for everyone else as well, no matter how cranky they seem or however charmed their life may appear, all those other fellow humans struggle too. There is hope, which leads me to…

Hope. Hope is a funny word. Hope is a word we toss around when times are good and an idea we cling onto for dear life when things aren’t so good. But hope is always there. The real truth about hope is:

HOPE = realistic goals + figuring out (flexible) paths + belief in ourselves.

– Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection, p. 65

You have to work hard. Work hard. Planning and working hard towards a realistic goal are the best ways to get there. But sometimes we need to remind ourselves that (a) some goals may take more than just hard work – they may take a bit of luck and (b) if you accomplish something that wasn’t as hard. Don’t cheapen what you have done. It’s hard to balance not defining yourself or your self-worth based on your accomplishments while also giving yourself the proper credit for what you’ve accomplished. Make sense? Another key thing is to not focus on anyone else who appears to “have it all without lifting a finger” – you don’t know their struggle and STOP COMPARING YOURSELF TO OTHERS.

You may not love your work. This seems to ring particular true for lawyers. But let’s be honest, how many people say “I love my job” on a daily basis? I do have some friends that truly love their jobs. Some of us enjoy it but would much rather get paid considerably more to do something more fun. If you are not truly fulfilled by your day job, then don’t be afraid to make time for more fulfilling things that can fit into your life. You can make it happen if you really want to. And if you really, truly despise your job and makes you miserable, then it’s definitely time for a change.

You can ask for help. Saying “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand” or “I just need help here” is not just okay, it’s courageous.

Media isn’t real – stop comparing your life to it. The movies, the ads, actresses on runways, music videos. All of it. It’s not real. We are BOMBARDED with images of perfection, beauty, ideal relationships, bodies, cars, clothes, appliances, phones, etc. It’s advertising, not life. It’s so hard to tune out the messages of “YOU WOULD BE HAPPIER IF YOU HAD _________” but we sometimes we need to remind ourselves that our lives are pretty damn good, even if our soul mate didn’t propose in top-romantic-comedy fashion, our senior prom didn’t include a soon-to-be-famous band and a huge coordinated dance scene, our legal career isn’t as entertaining, exciting or profitable as primetime…it’s okay, that stuff isn’t real anyway.

Be kind. Remember to use kindness and empathy. Funny that we have to remind ourselves to be kind, but I think we do. I think it’s easy to get caught up in our own business and tasks that we forget about human connection. No matter where life takes you, the courtroom, boardroom or sideline of a soccer game remember that each and every person you encounter all day along is a fellow human. Be kind and treat them as your would want to be treated.

Be you and be good to you. Remember who YOU are. It’s easy to label yourself or give yourself honor (or shame) based solely on your accomplishments (or lack thereof)

Maybe I’d end with something like this:

Life is a journey. The wrong turns may bring you to the right place. Don’t discount the roads, paths and experiences along the way. Each turn got you to where you are at each and every present moment and the future will always be another chapter in your book.


4 thoughts on “Commencement Speech

  1. I love your message about changing paths and being flexible. I have a very strong memory of feeling so relieved the morning I dropped chemistry my sophomore year in college. I had wanted to be a doctor since high school, but finally realized/accepted that I was not very good at biology/chemistry/etc, and that what I really wanted to do was help people (not necessarily through medicine). This opened the door to me spending two semesters abroad and then a year as an AmeriCorps VISTA.


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