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Congratulations graduates! Wise words for lifelong learners.
Graduates of the class of <covers mouth and mumbles> these three commencement speeches still apply.
Put down the backpack.
I have sent Anna Quindlen’s 1999 Mount Holyoke commencement address to just about every woman I’ve worked with. Her words are still relevant, perhaps more so, today.
Quindlen illuminates the burden of societal and self-imposed expectations with which I and every woman I know have struggled to meet day after day after day. A few excerpts:
“Being perfect day after day, year after year, became like always carrying a backpack filled with bricks on my back,” Quindlen said. “And oh, how I secretly longed to lay my burden down.”
“Trying to be perfect may be sort of inevitable for people like us, who are smart and ambitious and interested in the world and in its good opinion. But at one level it's too hard, and at another, it's too cheap and easy. Because it really requires you mainly to read the zeitgeist of wherever and whenever you happen to be, and to assume the masks necessary to be the best of whatever the zeitgeist dictates or requires.”
“Begin with that most terrifying of all things, a clean slate. Then look, every day, at the choices you are making, and when you ask yourself why you are making them, find this answer: for me, for me.”
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This year, Reshma Saujani, Founder of Girls Who Code and Founder/CEO of Moms First delivered the commencement speech at Smith College. She talked about “imposter syndrome.” If you’ve seen the #BicycleFace trending, this is why. Take ten minutes to watch the video.
Imposter Syndrome is a topic for an upcoming newsletter, but (spoiler alert), I 100% agree with Reshma. Let’s retire the term. Why?
“Impostor syndrome isn’t [women’s] problem to solve.”
“This impostor scheme has deluded an entire generation of women into thinking that we’re somehow deficient.”
“Impostor syndrome is based on the premise that we’re the problem, but … discomfort is a normal, human reaction to my environment.”
“We’ve been telling women, one by one, “Know your worth!” “Ask for more!” “Slay your negotiation!” In reality, we should be telling companies: Pay women fairly. Provide salary transparency. Offer paid leave and childcare, both proven to help close the pay gap.”
And then there’s me. Because I refuse to play into imposter syndrome (anymore), I’ll include myself in the company of these thoughtful and articulate women.
When I graduated with my MFA in creative writing at the age of 59, I was asked to give the commencement speech for my cohort of nonfiction writers. ICYMI, I’ll offer these highlights.
The only thing that is constant for a writer—revision.
Our mentors dared us to cast our words into the world and to recast them when they came back, rejected. We learned never to give up on the stories we are meant to tell.
Joan Didion once said, “I write to find out what I think.” I’d argue, we write to find out who we are. You can never really revise your way out of the truth—only closer to it. With every review, we see what our narrator can’t get away with, we hear when our voice is off-key, we ache when we’ve reached the bone of our truth.
Congratulations graduates, and welcome to your next round of revisions.
Prompts to reinspire your next chapter
Drop a few lines of writing in the comments, and I’ll share mine too. There is only one rule. Be kind to yourself as you write and to others as they trust us with their words.
Reflection: What advice do you remember from a graduation speaker—whether it was your ceremony or you were in the audience? Describe the scene and how you felt when you first heard those wise words.
Inspiration: Write a commencement speech. What would you say to the class of 2023? Or to the class at your 30th, 40th, or 50th high school reunion?
Work hard. Be Brave. Believe.