Twenty years ago, I was given the honor to deliver a speech during my high school graduation. I was, and remain, tremendously honored to have given that address. At seventeen, though, I’m not sure how much actual wisdom I had to impart regarding my classmates’ journey ahead.
The speech I delivered was firmly planted in the realm of “what great potential lay before us on the road ahead”— how we stood, on that day, at the corner of independence and dreams. I spoke of the importance of embracing the power of our potential. Through all of this, though, I could really offer no advice on what was actually in store. How could I know, when I was just embarking on the same journey myself?
Over the past two decades, I’ve thought of that speech. I’ve contemplated the road that unfolded before me in all the moments that have passed since that day. I’ve considered what I would say to that same class, or today’s class, with the wisdom I have now. I’m still learning more each day with each step of my own.
Here is the is the commencement address I would deliver today:
Today, your journey continues on to one of your next great chapters. There is so much in store, and yet, nothing is guaranteed. The only things you can control are yourself, your attitude, and how you respond to the moments that lie ahead. Do your best to meet each challenge with humility and grace. Look for opportunities to help others. Most importantly, use each mistake as a lesson. Draw from each of those lessons the strength you need to continue on life’s magnificent path.
I can’t speak for everyone here today, but many of you will stumble through the next decade—maybe beyond. I know I did. Be proud of this. These years will teach you what you need to know about who you are, and what your values really mean. Your character and identity will be tested, over and over again. If you look for opportunities to learn, you will eventually figure out who you are and then, what you truly stand for.
If I could give you only one sentence of advice it would be this: “Know your worth.” Spend more time convincing yourself of your worth, much more than you spend trying to convince others. How can you expect others to see your value if you do not see it yourself? You can’t. In fact, the world often seems to mirror what you project. It’s really important, then, to project the confidence that you deserve to have. Be grounded in the fact that if you can lay your head down at the end of each day and know you did the best you could, you did enough. You are worth so much more than you can grasp today.
Speaking of your worth, and projection… most of the insults you’ll receive in this lifetime will be the projection of someone else’s fears of inadequacy. People can be cruel and lash out when they are hurting. Don’t listen to insults. Rather, try to always be open to constructive criticism. It’s important to learn the difference between the two. Listen to what others have to say. Look for the truth – if there is any. If there is, try to make it into constructive criticism. Once you have, take it to heart and work on yourself. Find strength in self-improvement. Spend no time on self-depreciation. Let everything you face build your strength. I always say if the shoe fits, make sure it fits well. If not—chuck it out the window.
Despite what anyone may say… you can literally be ANYTHING you want to be. You can learn about anything you’re passionate about. If you seek knowledge you will find it. Don’t limit yourself by the fear of your own inadequacies; these are mostly designed and destroyed by you anyway. Don’t compare yourself to others, rather compare yourself to the person you’d like to become and see how you are progressing. Be as open to learning as you can and strive to continually improve.
Don’t worry if you don’t know, right this moment, who you’d like to become. You don’t have to. There will almost undoubtedly be many different versions of yourself over the years. This makes life interesting. It’s most important to finally become someone you’re interested in. Do not be afraid to fail. Some of your biggest failures will spur some of your greatest opportunities.
As you switch the tassel atop your graduation cap from one side to the other, please change with it any feelings of entitlement to feelings of gratitude. I’m sure you are aware that you did not get here by yourself. I promise you will not get to where you are going alone either—even if it is you who believes in your success the most. Even if you don’t know it yet, I promise you there is a community of people who believe in you, too. They will strive to help you succeed.
Please thank that teacher, parent, friend, relative, or community member that cared about you and encouraged you—because you needed that support to stand here today. Continue to look for those who help you, and remind them, and yourself in the process, just how grateful you really are. Today, and every day to come, will be much more special if you acknowledge that the steps we take together are some of the greatest strides of our lives.
Kindness has the power to transform lives. Do your best each day to find ways to be kind to the world around you. Look for opportunities to help, to show appreciation, and to leave the world a nicer place than the one you’ve found. If you have a choice, choose kindness.
In terms of choices, this lifetime will be full of them. Make choices that make you proud, instead of choices that are merely popular. Allow others their choices as well. You will find a great sense of peace in who you are if you strive to be authentic, rather than to merely be liked. This gets easier as time goes on.
Be proud. Today, on your graduation, and every day. Surviving this lifetime is absolutely not guaranteed. Be thankful for each year you get to grow older. Celebrate life’s moments and milestones. Fill your world with people who inspire you, who motivate you, and who you feel happy to be around. Remove yourself from negative people and situations.
You are the only person you will be with through every breath and step. It’s important that you are grateful for who you are and where you stand. Today begins a new chapter of enlightenment, and a journey that’s more fascinating than you can possibly imagine. Choose to take the best version of yourself on that journey.
Congratulations, Graduate. This was an incredibly difficult chapter to master. You did it, despite all the obstacles that were before you. Celebrate your wins. Embrace your joy. You deserve every moment of happiness this life has to offer.
In closing, just as I said, standing behind a podium looking out at a sea of graduates twenty years ago…
“Tomorrow is calling! Take the road where your spirit carries you. Never lose sight of your dreams and may your future lead you to success.”