Second, graduation speeches are a lot like college essays. The mediocre ones traffic in clichés and generalities – can we all officially agree that Robert Frost did not have graduations in mind when he wrote “The Road Less Traveled”? But the great ones say something specific and personal that slides a new lens over the experience of graduating, making you feel like the very first group of people to charge out into the world and try to make it better.
Because my sister graduated this year, I had the pleasure of seeing Stacey Abrams speak at her commencement. Abrams did an incredible job balancing earnest inspiration, humor, and a call to action. We all left the event with a collective urge to donate money somewhere or sign up for something. She started her speech with a story she had shared in her book, Lead from the Outside, about going through a bad breakup in college and feeling anxious about what she should do next. She said:
“I began to type out all the things I intended to accomplish for the next 40 years. I wanted to be mayor of Atlanta. I wanted to be somewhere near Oprah. I wanted to be a writer. And I knew that the way I could get those things done was to write it down. And over the last 20 years, I have tended my spreadsheet like Gollum tends his precious. I have looked at it and cultivated it, I have made changes and edits, I’ve erased things and ignored others, and along the way, I realized I had no idea what I was talking about. Because, you see, I made a plan for my life, but what I was trying to do was prepare to succeed. […] You don’t have to plan your life the way I did, but in the process, we have to prepare to succeed. And we do that by knowing what we believe, knowing what we want, and knowing that sometimes it might not work.”
I really appreciated this message in a commencement speech, an event that lends itself to the question, “So, what are you going to do next?” Although the premise of this blog series is that it’s totally okay not to have your whole life planned out by the time you’re 17, I strongly believe you have to have interests, ambitions, visions for yourself. Abrams fully acknowledges that, in many ways, she had no idea what she was going to end up doing. But she had a picture in her mind of how things might unfold, hopefully leading to a close, personal friendship with Oprah. And those ideas gave her the energy to start moving, to start doing things. The key is then to hold those visions loosely and allow for those unexpected happenings that, in hindsight, make all the difference.
The best part about this advice is that it’s really one-size-fits-all. It’s perfect for new college grads, but it’s also the same advice I give the high school students I work with. And it’s honestly the same thing I’ve heard from bosses and mentors and even from myself as I’ve built my career. Have ideas, make a plan, but be open to changes along the way. And if it’s worked this well for Stacey Abrams, a woman who is no stranger to the unexpected, then there’s every reason to believe it’ll work for you.