This week, I’m celebrating my cousin, Devon’s, graduation from Santa Clara University (woo!), and like the good student that I am, I’m preparing by watching some of this year’s commencement speeches. I *love* a good commencement speech. A well-crafted speech can be inspiring, emotional, and give you insight into the struggles that even celebrities face in between moments of dazzling success. And maybe I’m partial to the art of the commencement speech because its objectives are very similar to my goals for “When I Was 17.”
One of my favorites this year was Mindy Kaling’s address at Dartmouth, particularly the end:
"I will tell you a personal story. After my daughter was born in December, I remember bringing her home and being in my house with her for the first time and thinking, “Huh. According to movies and TV, this is traditionally the time when my mother and spouse are supposed to be here, sharing this experience with me.” And I looked around, and I had neither. And for a moment, it was kind of scary.
[…]But then, that feeling went away, because the reality is, I’m not doing it by myself. […] And the joy I feel from being with my daughter, Katherine, eclipses anything from any crazy checklist.
I just want to tell you guys, don’t be scared if you don’t do things in the right order, or if you don’t do some things at all. […] If you have a checklist, good for you. Structured ambition can sometimes be motivating. But also, feel free to let it go. Yes, my culminating advice from my speech is a song from the Disney animated movie, Frozen. I’ve covered a lot of ground today, not all of it was serious, but I wanted to leave you with this: […] Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something, but especially not yourself."
I also cheered the feminism invoked in USA women’s national soccer team member, Abby Wambach’s, speech at Barnard (shared with me by my recent interviewee, Cecilia Mason):
"Like all little girls, I was taught to be grateful. I was taught to keep my head down, stay on the path, and get my job done. I was freaking Little Red Riding Hood.
You know the fairy tale: […] Little Red Riding Hood heads off through the woods and is given strict instructions: Stay on the path. Don’t talk to anybody. […] And she does… at first. But then she dares to get a little curious and she ventures off the path. That’s of course when she encounters the Big Bad Wolf and all hell breaks loose. The message is clear: Don’t be curious, don’t make trouble, don’t say too much or BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN.
I stayed on the path out of fear, not of being eaten by a wolf, but of being cut, being benched, losing my paycheck. If I could go back and tell my younger self one thing it would be this: “Abby, you were never Little Red Riding Hood; you were always the wolf.”
BARNARD WOMEN—CLASS OF 2018—WE. ARE. THE. WOLVES.
We are the ones we’ve been waiting for."
But my all-time favorite commencement speech is Steve Jobs’s Stanford address from 2005. I would very much encourage you to spend the 15 minutes it takes to read it, but in case you can't, here is the part that always gives me chills:
"[A]ll of my working-class parents’ savings were being spent on my college tuition. After six months, I couldn’t see the value in it. […] So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting.
[…]Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. […] Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and sans serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.
None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But 10 years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. […] Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backward 10 years later."
I’ve talked about this speech before, but it’s worth bringing up specifically in the context of “When I Was 17.” I’m not encouraging people to drop out of college, or spend all their parents’ money to attend a prestigious university. But I am encouraging you to leave a little space in your education, in your career, and in your life for mystery. Read any one of these interviews and you’ll see that the greatest moments of growth, insight, and success happened when people didn’t know exactly what was going to happen next, or when they took an unexpected left turn away from their plans. These moments are often the most unsettling, but as Jobs points out, looking back, they make perfect sense.