President Hanlon, faculty, staff, honored guests, parents, students, families and friends—good morning and congratulations to the Dartmouth graduating class of 2019!
This is weird.
Me giving a speech. In general, I do not like giving speeches. Giving a speech requires standingin front of large groups of people while they look at you and it also requires talking. I can do thestanding part OK. But the you looking and the me talking ... I am not a fan. I get thisoverwhelming feeling of fear. Terror, really. Dry mouth, heart beats superfast, everythinggets a little bit slow motion. Like I might pass out. Or die. Or poop my pants or something. Imean, don’t worry. I’m not going to pass out or die or poop my pants. Mainly because just bytelling you that it could happen, I have somehow neutralized it as an option. Like as if saying itout loud casts some kind of spell where now it cannot possibly happen now. Vomit. I couldvomit. See. Vomiting is now also off the table. Neutralized it. We’re good.
Anyway, the point is. I do not like to give speeches. I’m a writer. I’m a TV writer. I like to writestuff for other people to say. I actually contemplated bringing Ellen Pompeo or KerryWashington here to say my speech for me ... but my lawyer pointed out that when you dragsomeone across state lines against their will, the FBI comes looking for you, so...
I don’t like giving speeches, in general, because of the fear and terror. But this speech? Thisspeech, I really did not want to give.
A Dartmouth Commencement speech? Dry mouth. Heart beats so, so fast. Everything in slowmotion. Pass out, die, poop.
Look, it would be fine if this were, 20 years ago. If it were back in the day when I graduatedfrom Dartmouth. Twenty-three years ago, I was sitting right where you are now. And I waslistening to Elizabeth Dole speak. And she was great. She was calm and she was confident. Itwas just ... different. It felt like she was just talking to a group of people. Like a fireside chatwith friends. Just Liddy Dole and like 9,000 of her closest friends. Because it was 20 years ago.And she was just talking to a group of people.
Now? Twenty years later? This is no fireside chat. It’s not just you and me. This speech is filmedand streamed and tweeted and uploaded. NPR has like, a whole site dedicated toCommencement speeches. A whole site just about commencement speeches. There are sitesthat rate them and mock them and dissect them. It’s weird. And stressful. And kind ofvicious if you’re an introvert perfectionist writer who hates speaking in public in the firstplace.
When President Hanlon called me—and by the way, I would like to thank President Hanlon forasking me way back in January, thus giving me a full six months of terror and panic to enjoy.When President Hanlon called me, I almost said no. Almost.
Dry mouth. Heart beats so, so fast. Everything in slow motion. Pass out, die, poop.
But I’m here. I am gonna do it. I’m doing it. You know why?
Because I like a challenge. And because this year I made myself a promise that I was going todo the stuff that terrifies me. And because, 20-plus years ago when I was trudging uphill fromthe River Cluster through all that snow to get to the Hop for play rehearsal, I never imaginedthat I would one day be standing here, at the Old Pine lectern. Staring out at all of you. Aboutto throw down on some wisdom in the Dartmouth Commencement address.
So, you know, yeah. Moments.
Also, I’m here because I really, really wanted some EBAs.
I want to say right now that every single time someone asked me what I was going to talkabout in this speech, I would boldly and confidently tell them that I had all kinds wisdom toshare. I was lying. I feel wildly unqualified to give you advice. There is no wisdom here. So allI can do is talk about some stuff that could maybe be useful to you, from one Dartmouth gradto another. Some stuff that won’t ever show up in a Meredith Grey voiceover or a Papa Popemonologue. Some stuff I probably shouldn’t be telling you here now because of the uploadingand the streaming and the tweeting. But I am going to pretend that it is 20 years ago. Thatit’s just you and me. That we’re having a fireside chat. Screw the outside world and what theythink. I’ve already said "poop" like five times already anyway ... things are getting real up inhere.
OK, wait. Before I talk to you. I want to talk to your parents. Because the other thing about itbeing 20 years later is that I’m a mother now. So I know some things, some very differentthings. I have three girls. I’ve been to the show. You don’t know what that means, but yourparents do. You think this day is all about you. But your parents ... the people who raised you... the people who endured you ... they potty trained you, they taught you to read, theysurvived you as a teenager, they have suffered 21 years and not once did they kill you. This day... you call it your graduation day. But this day is not about you. This is their day. This is theday they take back their lives, this is the day they earn their freedom. This day is theirIndependence Day. So, parents, I salute you. And as I have an eight-month-old, I hope to joinyour ranks of freedom in 20 years!
OK. So here comes the real deal part of the speech, or you might call it, Some Random StuffSome Random Alum Who Runs a TV Show Thinks I Should Know Before I Graduate:
When people give these kinds of speeches, they usually tell you all kinds of wise and heartfeltthings. They have wisdom to impart. They have lessons to share. They tell you: Follow yourdreams. Listen to your spirit. Change the world. Make your mark. Find your inner voice andmake it sing. Embrace failure. Dream. Dream and dream big. As a matter of fact, dream anddon’t stop dreaming until all of your dreams come true.
I think that’s crap.
I think a lot of people dream. And while they are busy dreaming, the really happy people, thereally successful people, the really interesting, engaged, powerful people, are busy doing.
The dreamers. They stare at the sky and they make plans and they hope and they talk about itendlessly. And they start a lot of sentences with "I want to be ..." or "I wish."
"I want to be a writer." "I wish I could travel around the world."
And they dream of it. The buttoned-up ones meet for cocktails and they brag about theirdreams, and the hippie ones have vision boards and they meditate about their dreams. Maybeyou write in journals about your dreams or discuss it endlessly with your best friend or yourgirlfriend or your mother. And it feels really good. You’re talking about it, and you’re planningit. Kind of. You are blue-skying your life. And that is what everyone says you should be doing.Right? I mean, that’s what Oprah and Bill Gates did to get successful, right?
Dreams are lovely. But they are just dreams. Fleeting, ephemeral, pretty. But dreams do notcome true just because you dream them. It’s hard work that makes things happen. It’s hardwork that creates change.
So, Lesson One, I guess is: Ditch the dream and be a doer, not a dreamer. Maybe you knowexactly what it is you dream of being, or maybe you’re paralyzed because you have no idea whatyour passion is. The truth is, it doesn’t matter. You don’t have to know. You just have to keepmoving forward. You just have to keep doing something, seizing the next opportunity, stayingopen to trying something new. It doesn’t have to fit your vision of the perfect job or the perfectlife. Perfect is boring and dreams are not real. Just ... do. So you think, "I wish I could travel."Great. Sell your crappy car, buy a ticket to Bangkok, and go. Right now. I’m serious.
You want to be a writer? A writer is someone who writes every day, so start writing. You don’thave a job? Get one. Any job. Don’t sit at home waiting for the magical opportunity. Who areyou? Prince William? No. Get a job. Go to work. Do something until you can do something else.
I did not dream of being a TV writer. Never, not once when I was here in the hallowed halls ofthe Ivy League, did I say to myself, "Self, I want to write TV."
You know what I wanted to be? I wanted to be Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison. Thatwas my dream. I blue sky’ed it like crazy. I dreamed and dreamed. And while I was dreaming, Iwas living in my sister’s basement. Dreamers often end up living in the basements of relatives,FYI. Anyway, there I was in that basement, and I was dreaming of being Nobel Prize-winningauthor Toni Morrison. And guess what? I couldn’t be Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison,because Toni Morrison already had that job and she wasn’t interested in giving it up. So oneday I was sitting in that basement and I read an article that said—it was in The New YorkTimes—and it said it was harder to get into USC Film School than it was to get into HarvardLaw School. And I thought I could dream about being Toni Morrison, or I could do.
At film school, I discovered an entirely new way of telling stories. A way that suited me. A waythat brought me joy. A way that flipped this switch in my brain and changed the way I saw theworld. Years later, I had dinner with Toni Morrison. All she wanted to talk about was Grey’sAnatomy. That never would have happened if I hadn’t stopped dreaming of becoming her andgotten busy becoming myself.
Lesson Two. Lesson two is that tomorrow is going to be the worst day ever for you.
When I graduated from Dartmouth that day in 1991, when I was sitting right where you areand I was staring up at Elizabeth Dole speaking, I will admit that I have no idea what she wassaying. Couldn’t even listen to her. Not because I was overwhelmed or emotional or any ofthat. But because I had a serious hangover. Like, an epic painful hangover because (and here iswhere I apologize to President Hanlon because I know that you are trying to build a better andmore responsible Dartmouth and I applaud you and I admire you and it is very necessary) butI was really freaking drunk the night before. And the reason I’d been so drunk the night before,the reason I’d done upside down margarita shots at Bones Gate was because I knew that aftergraduation, I was going to take off my cap and gown, my parents were going to pack my stuffin the car and I was going to go home and probably never come back to Hanover again. Andeven if I did come back, it wouldn’t matter because it wouldn’t be the same because I didn’tlive here anymore.
On my graduation day, I was grieving.
My friends were celebrating. They were partying. They were excited. So happy. No more school,no more books, no more teachers’ dirty looks. And I was like, are you freaking kidding me? Youget all the fro-yo you want here! The gym is free. The apartments in Manhattan are smallerthan my suite in North Mass. Who cared if there was no place to get my hair done? All myfriends are here. I have a theatre company here. I was grieving. I knew enough about how theworld works, enough about how adulthood plays out, to be grieving.
Here’s where I am going to embarrass myself and make you all feel maybe a little bit betterabout yourselves. I literally lay down on the floor of my dorm room and cried while my motherpacked up my room. I refused to help her. Like, hell no I won’t go. I nonviolent-protestedleaving here. Like, went limp like a protestor, only without the chanting—it was really pathetic.If none of you lie down on a dirty hardwood floor and cry today while your mommy packs upyour dorm room, you are already starting your careers out ahead of me. You are winning.
But here’s the thing. The thing I really felt like I knew was that the real world sucks. And it isscary. College is awesome. You’re special here. You’re in the Ivy League, you are at the pinnacleof your life’s goals at this point—your entire life up until now has been about getting into somegreat college and then graduating from that college. And now, today, you have done it. Themoment you get out of college, you think you are going to take the world by storm. All doorswill be opened to you. It’s going to be laughter and diamonds and soirees left and right.
What really happens is that, to the rest of the world, you are now at the bottom of the heap.Maybe you’re an intern, possibly a low-paid assistant. And it is awful. The real world, it suckedso badly for me. I felt like a loser all of the time. And more than a loser? I felt lost.
Which brings me to clarify lesson number two.
Tomorrow is going to be the worst day ever for you. But don’t be an asshole.
Here’s the thing. Yes, it is hard out there. But hard is relative. I come from a middle-classfamily, my parents are academics, I was born after the civil rights movement, I was a toddlerduring the women’s movement, I live in the United States of America, all of which means I’mallowed to own my freedom, my rights, my voice, and my uterus; and I went to Dartmouth andI earned an Ivy League degree.
The lint in my navel that accumulated while I gazed at it as I suffered from feeling lost abouthow hard it was to not feel special after graduation ... that navel lint was embarrassed for me.
Elsewhere in the world, girls are harmed simply because they want to get an education. Slaverystill exists. Children still die from malnutrition. In this country, we lose more people tohandgun violence than any other nation in the world. Sexual assault against women inAmerica is pervasive and disturbing and continues at an alarming rate.
So yes, tomorrow may suck for you—as it did for me. But as you stare at the lint in your navel,have some perspective. We are incredibly lucky. We have been given a gift. An incredibleeducation has been placed before us. We ate all the fro-yo we could get our hands on. Weskied. We had EBAs at 1 a.m. We built bonfires and got frostbite and had all the free treadmills.We beer-ponged our asses off. Now it’s time to pay it forward.
Find a cause you love. It’s OK to pick just one. You are going to need to spend a lot of time outin the real world trying to figure out how to stop feeling like a lost loser, so one cause is good.Devote some time every week to it.
Oh. And while we are discussing this, let me say a thing. A hashtag is not helping. #yesallwomen#takebackthenight#notallmen#bringbackourgirls#StopPretendingHashtagsAreTheSameAsDoingSomething
Hashtags are very pretty on Twitter. I love them. I will hashtag myself into next week. But ahashtag is not a movement. A hashtag does not make you Dr. King. A hashtag does notchange anything. It’s a hashtag. It’s you, sitting on your butt, typing on your computer andthen going back to binge-watching your favorite show. I do it all the time. For me, it’s Game ofThrones.
Volunteer some hours. Focus on something outside yourself. Devote a slice of your energiestowards making the world suck less every week. Some people suggest doing this will increaseyour sense of well-being. Some say it’s good karma. I say that it will allow you to rememberthat, whether you are a legacy or the first in your family to go to college, the air you arebreathing right now is rare air. Appreciate it. Don’t be an asshole.
Lesson number three.
So you’re out there, and you’re giving back and you’re doing, and it’s working. And life is good.You are making it. You’re a success. And it’s exciting and it’s great. At least it is for me. I lovemy life. I have three TV shows at work and I have three daughters at home. And it’s allamazing, and I am truly happy. And people are constantly asking me, how do you do it?
And usually, they have this sort of admiring and amazed tone.
Shonda, how do you do it all?
Like I’m full of magical magic and special wisdom-ness or something.
How do you do it all?
And I usually just smile and say like, "I’m really organized." Or if I’m feeling slightly kindly, Isay, "I have a lot of help."
And those things are true. But they also are not true.
And this is the thing that I really want to say. To all of you. Not just to the women out there.Although this will matter to you women a great deal as you enter the work force and try tofigure out how to juggle work and family. But it will also matter to the men, who I thinkincreasingly are also trying to figure out how to juggle work and family. And frankly, if youaren’t trying to figure it out, men of Dartmouth, you should be. Fatherhood is being redefinedat a lightning-fast rate. You do not want to be a dinosaur.
So women and men of Dartmouth: As you try to figure out the impossible task of jugglingwork and family and you hear over and over and over again that you just need a lot of help oryou just need to be organized or you just need to try just a little bit harder ... as a verysuccessful woman, a single mother of three, who constantly gets asked the question "How doyou do it all?" For once I am going to answer that question with 100 percent honesty here foryou now. Because it’s just us. Because it’s our fireside chat. Because somebody has to tell youthe truth.
Shonda, how do you do it all?
The answer is this: I don’t.
Whenever you see me somewhere succeeding in one area of my life, that almost certainlymeans I am failing in another area of my life.
If I am killing it on a Scandal script for work, I am probably missing bath and story time athome. If I am at home sewing my kids’ Halloween costumes, I’m probably blowing off a rewriteI was supposed to turn in. If I am accepting a prestigious award, I am missing my baby’s firstswim lesson. If I am at my daughter’s debut in her school musical, I am missing Sandra Oh’slast scene ever being filmed at Grey’s Anatomy. If I am succeeding at one, I am inevitablyfailing at the other. That is the tradeoff. That is the Faustian bargain one makes with the devilthat comes with being a powerful working woman who is also a powerful mother. You never feela hundred percent OK; you never get your sea legs; you are always a little nauseous.Something is always lost.
Something is always missing.
And yet. I want my daughters to see me and know me as a woman who works. I want thatexample set for them. I like how proud they are when they come to my offices and know thatthey come to Shondaland. There is a land and it is named after their mother. In their world,mothers run companies. In their world, mothers own Thursday nights. In their world, motherswork. And I am a better mother for it. The woman I am because I get to run Shondaland,because I get write all day, because I get to spend my days making things up, that woman is abetter person—and a better mother. Because that woman is happy. That woman is fulfilled.That woman is whole. I wouldn’t want them to know the me who didn’t get to do this all daylong. I wouldn’t want them to know the me who wasn’t doing.
Lesson Number Three is that anyone who tells you they are doing it all perfectly is a liar.
I fear I’ve scared you or been a little bit bleak, and that was not my intention. It is my hopethat you run out of here, excited, leaning forward, into the wind, ready to take the world bystorm. That would be so very fabulous. For you to do what everyone expects of you. For you tojust go be exactly the picture of hardcore Dartmouth awesome.
My point, I think, is that it is OK if you don’t. My point is that it can be scary to graduate. Thatyou can lie on the hardwood floor of your dorm room and cry while your mom packs up yourstuff. That you can have an impossible dream to be Toni Morrison that you have to let go of.That every day you can feel like you might be failing at work or at your home life. That the realworld is hard.
And yet, you can still wake up every single morning and go, "I have three amazing kids and Ihave created work I am proud of, and I absolutely love my life and I would not trade it foranyone else’s life ever."
You can still wake up one day and find yourself living a life you never even imagined dreamingof.
My dreams did not come true. But I worked really hard. And I ended up building an empire outof my imagination. So my dreams? Can suck it.
You can wake up one day and find that you are interesting and powerful and engaged. You canwake up one day and find that you are a doer.
You can be sitting right where you are now. Looking up at me. Probably—hopefully, I pray foryou—hung over. And then 20 years from now, you can wake up and find yourself in the HanoverInn full of fear and terror because you are going to give the Commencement speech. Drymouth. Heart beats so, so fast. Everything in slow motion. Pass out, die, poop.
Which one of you will it be? Which member of the 2019 class is going to find themselvesstanding up here? Because I checked and it is pretty rare for an alum to speak here. It’s prettymuch just me and Robert Frost and Mr. Rogers, which is crazy awesome.
Which one of you is going to make it up here? I really hope that it’s one of you. Seriously.
When it happens, you’ll know what this feels like.
Dry mouth. Heart beats so, so fast. Everything moves in slow motion.
Graduates, every single one of you, be proud of your accomplishments. Make good on yourdiplomas.
You are no longer students. You are no longer works in progress. You are now citizens of thereal world. You have a responsibility to become a person worthy of joining and contributing tosociety. Because who you are today ... that’s who you are.
So be brave.
And every single time you get a chance?
Stand up in front of people.
Let them see you. Speak. Be heard.
Go ahead and have the dry mouth.
Let your heart beat so, so fast.
Watch everything move in slow motion.
You pass out, you die, you poop?
And this is really the only lesson you’ll ever need to know...
You take it in.
You breathe this rare air.
You feel alive.
You be yourself.
You truly finally always be yourself.
Thank you. Good luck.