“You want to be a writer? A writer is someone who writes every day — so start writing.”
By far the finest 2014 addition to the greatest commencement addresses of all time comes from Dartmouth College and Golden Globe-winning television writer and producer Shonda Rhimes, creator of some of the most acclaimed scripted dramas of the past decade. Rhimes, who graduated from Dartmouth herself in 1991, is in admirable company — the only other alums to ever give a commencement address at the university are Robert Frost and Mr. Rogers. Rather than regurgitating the usual commencement cliches, Rhimes offers honest, no-bullshit advice on what it takes to succeed (“Dreams do not come true just because you dream them — it’s hard work that makes things happen… Ditch the dream and be a doer, not a dreamer.”), why most middle-class millennials’ complaints are a failure of perspective (“Hard is relative… I’m allowed to own my freedom, my rights, my voice, and my uterus… Elsewhere in the world, girls are harmed simply because they want to get an education, slavery still exists, children still die from malnutrition.”), and how the choices we make around the priorities we set come with inevitable tradeoffs (“That is the Faustian bargain one makes with the devil that comes with being a powerful working woman who is also a powerful mother… Anyone who tells you they are doing it all perfectly is a liar.”). Hardly anyone has addressed the winding road of success with more lucidity since Bill Watterson in 1990, nor resilience with more measured assurance since Neil Gaiman in 2012, nor women with cooler conviction since Adrienne Rich in 1977.
Treat yourself to this gem of a talk — transcribed highlights below.
When people give these kinds of speeches, they usually tell you all kinds of wise and heartfelt things. They have wisdom to impart. They have lessons to share. They tell you: Follow your dreams. Listen to your spirit. Change the world. Make your mark. Find your inner voice and make it sing. Embrace failure. Dream. Dream and dream big. As a matter of fact, dream and don’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, the really 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 it endlessly… The buttoned-up ones meet for cocktails and they brag about their dreams, and the hippie ones have vision boards and they meditate about their dreams. Maybe you write in journals about your dreams or discuss it endlessly with your best friend or your girlfriend or your mother. And it feels really good. You’re talking about it, and you’re planning it. 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 not come true just because you dream them — it’s hard work that makes things happen. It’s hard work that creates change. So… ditch the dream and be a doer, not a dreamer.
Maybe you know exactly what it is you dream of being, or maybe you’re paralyzed because you have no idea what your passion is. The truth is, it doesn’t matter. You don’t have to know. You just have to keep moving forward. You just have to keep doing something, seizing the next opportunity, staying open to trying something new. It doesn’t have to fit your vision of the perfect job or the perfect life. 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’t have a job? Get one. Any job. Don’t sit at home waiting for the magical opportunity… Do something until you can do something else.
Rhimes puts things in perspective in a beautiful way that humbles — which is a fine but palpable line away from shaming, the cultural trope these days — millennials out of their tendency for entitlement:
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-class family, my parents are academics, I was born after the civil rights movement, I was a toddler during the women’s movement, I live in the United States of America — all of which means I’m allowed to own my freedom, my rights, my voice, and my uterus. And I went to Dartmouth and I earned an Ivy League degree. The lint in my navel that accumulated while I gazed at it as I suffered from feeling lost about how 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, slavery still exists, children still die from malnutrition. In this country, we lose more people to handgun violence than any other nation in the world. Sexual assault against women in America 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… Now it’s time to pay it forward.
Addressing the graduating women and men (because “fatherhood is being redefined at a lightning-fast rate”), Rhimes speaks candidly about the inconvenient truth of a tradeoff — a truth that doesn’t exactly make for marketable books but reveals, instead, one of the most profound paradoxes of modern life:
As you try to figure out the impossible task of juggling work and family, [you will] hear over and over and over again that you just need a lot of help or you just need to be organized or you just need to try just a little bit harder… As a very successful woman, a single mother of three, who constantly gets asked the question “How do you do it all?,” for once I am going to answer that question with 100% honesty here for you now — because it’s just us… Because somebody has to tell you the 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 certainly means 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 at home. If I am at home sewing my kids’ Halloween costumes, I’m probably blowing off a rewrite I was supposed to turn in. If I am accepting a prestigious award, I am missing my baby’s first swim lesson. If I am at my daughter’s debut in her school musical, I am missing Sandra Oh’s last scene ever being filmed at Grey’s Anatomy.
If I am succeeding at one, I am inevitably failing at the other. That is the tradeoff. That is the Faustian bargain one makes with the devil that comes with being a powerful working woman who is also a powerful mother.
You never feel a hundred percent okay. You never get your sea legs — you are always a little nauseous. Something is always lost, something is always missing.
I want my daughters to see me and know me as a woman who works. I want that example set for them. I like how proud they are when they come to my offices and know that they 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, mothers work — 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 a better 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 day long. I wouldn’t want them to know the me who wasn’t doing.
So… anyone who tells you they are doing it all perfectly is a liar.
For more spectacular commencement addresses, see Kurt Vonnegut on kindness and the power of great teachers, Anna Quindlen on the essentials of a happy life, Debbie Millman on courage and the creative life, George Saunders on the power of kindness, David Foster Wallace on the meaning of life, Neil Gaiman on the resilience of the creative spirit, Patti Smith on life and making a name for yourself, and Joseph Brodsky on winning the game of life.