Pomp and Circumstance: My Keynote Address

It’s that time of year when celebrities, business leaders and otherwise noteworthy influencers stand before eager crowds of graduating classes and their families to deliver carefully selected words designed to inspire, motivate and, of course, get posted on Facebook pages. Shockingly, sadly and unexpectedly, I haven’t been invited to deliver any keynote addresses this year. If I had been, however, this is what I would say…

Graduating students, family, faculty and people who are here, but aren’t sure why…I’m honored to standing before you today…(And all that other stuff that I would actually say that seems to take up far too much time in any of these speeches!)

I speak to hundreds of college students every year. And, as I do, I’m always awe-struck by the opportunities that they have – that you have – in front of them. Your world is a big, blank canvas, on which you can paint anything you want. As a result, most speakers will get up in front of crowds like this and strongly urge you to go do anything you want. And to be anything you want. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t! is the crux of what most these keynote addresses are all about. Be bold! Don’t be afraid to dream! You only have one life! Stop me if you’ve heard all of this before.

I’m here to tell you different.

Don’t be anything other than exactly what and who you are. You KNOW what your passions are. You KNOW what your dreams are and the vision for your life. The fact, is, however, you can’t have big, audacious dreams for yourself, until you are comfortable with yourself. YOU can’t get what you want, until you know who you really are. And, more importantly, until you’re completely comfortable being that person all the time – scars, warts, successes, failures and all – dreams can’t be dreams…they are only fantasies.

Until you learn how to take responsibility and avoid blame; until you learn how to refrain from passing judgment; until you learn how to stand in front of your parents, your bosses, your friends, boyfriends, girlfriends and everyone else and say, This is who I am…the rest can’t actually happen. The dreams can’t happen. The audacious goals can’t happen. Because if you don’t give yourself permission to be yourself, you’ll sabotage those dreams and goals…every single time.

I know. Because I’ve done it myself.

Yes, in theory I was invited here today because I’ve accomplished a few things in my life that many people find impressive. That’s flattering and I appreciate it. But, it took me far too long to get here and I wasted far too many years doing things for the wrong reasons. I don’t look back with regret about “what might have been,” because I stand here today having ultimately gotten to the “right” place. But, I do look back and wonder what I might have been able to do with those 20 years of living someone else’s life or someone else’s vision for what my life should be.

I spent 20 years worrying about wants instead of needs. What could I have done if I had actually taken the screenwriting class or if I had taken that job at ESPN? What if I had the understanding and courage to say to family and friends, I appreciate your concern for me, but you don’t understand ME like I understand me.And this is who I am.THIS is what I need to do!

And that’s why I look out here today and feel a sense of, not jealousy, but envy. I’m envious of the opportunities you all have to get the next 20 years right. I was recently speaking with a soon-to-be graduate and he was lamenting how, for the first time in his life, he felt lost. He’d always gotten exactly what he wanted. He couldn’t understand why, now, nothing felt right. It didn’t take long to understand why he felt confused. It didn’t take long to dig into the core of what he was really all about and the risks he needed to take, but felt afraid to take.

You have the opportunity to understand right now – that difference between wants and needs. And, while the difference is difficult to explain, the feelings are easy. If you have everything you want, but not what you need – you’ll still feel unfulfilled. WANTS are what you ask for when you’re not being true to yourself – because when you’re not true to yourself, you NEVER ask for what you need. And the wants fill that void. There’s nothing worse than waking up day after day and looking around and wondering why you feel so badly when you have everything you want. Why do you feel so badly? Because you don’t have what you need.

Listen to those celebrities, business people and influencers who tell you to dream. Dream big. Listen to Steve Jobs when he says to screw what others think and follow your instincts. But make sure they are YOUR instincts. And then surround yourself with people who know YOU. Surround yourself with people who will not only support you, but will do so by calling you on your bullshit. Surround yourself with people who will challenge you, question you, and help you both stay the course and recognize new ones.

When you do reach this point – this point of being true to yourself, when you do have a vision for what you need and a big dream for yourself…you’re going to need to work your ass off. It’s been said that if you do what you love you won’t work a day in your life. It’s not true. You’ll work harder…because you care more. It’s personal. It also means that you might have to do some really crappy work that you absolutely hate, but you don’t care…because you have a vision and a dream that is true to you and you’ll do what it takes to see it through. You’ll happily be a waiter, or work in the mailroom, or take the receptionist job because that money provides you with the opportunity to chase your dream. It’s part of your plan. (That’s not to say those jobs aren’t great gigs – just not the ones you thought you’d have.)

Want to know why this is particularly important? Because another fallacy is the idea that you can’t be successful at something you don’t like. Unfortunately, you can be. In fact, you can be really great at something you absolutely hate. Can you possibly think of anything worse? Imagine, you’re good at whatever it is, so you keep getting promoted, keep making more money, but you’re miserable. I knew someone who had the very top job in his field, which paid him millions of dollars a year, but every single day was an absolute chore for him to get out of bed. It takes an incredible amount of work, drive and perseverance to make your dreams come true, but it also takes the will to make incredibly difficult choices. There may come a time when you find that you’ve gotten too far into a career track that has taken you too far away from your vision, but you have a vacation home, the car of your dreams and everything you want. Can you make the tough choices to get back to what you need?

Furthermore, don’t fall for what has become the oldest cliché in history, “In this economy…” That cliché is made for people who like to have an excuse. It’s a statement made by those who blame and judge. Things are tough in this economy, I can’t do (insert the dream here). But, it’s not for people like you. People who are authentic and will always fight to stay authentic. It’s not for people who have a dream. “In this economy” is just a hurdle to leap over. Eff this economy. It is what it is and you have dreams that aren’t fantasies.

Before I end this and you enter into this awesome part of your lives, I want you to remember that it’s easy to get “inspired.” It’s easy to get inspired by a sign in a window that says, “Color outside the lines,” or by a graduation speech like that one Steve Jobs so famously gave at Stanford a few years back. It’s easy to get inspired by a TV show, movie, or even by Oprah. It’s easy to get inspired by a story posted on your friend’s Facebook wall. It may even be easy for you to get inspired by what I’ve said. But, as you leave here today, I want you to remember that words matter, but actions matter more. Without action. Without forward motion, you’re not inspired. You’re merely a listener. Remember, my friends, inspiration requires that you act. That you DO something. Without action, those visions and dreams don’t happen. If you ever say, “I want X” or “I need Y” and you don’t do anything about it…you might as well just say, “I can’t Z.”

If you take away anything today – besides this piece of parchment – it’s this: Every single day is an opportunity to live well. A day well lived is a gift that requires you to trust in yourself, in who you are. A day well lived means that you handled tough days with the kind of grace that felt right. A day well lived is celebrating the little things that make a day special. A life well lived is made up of thousands upon thousands of days well lived. One after the other. And, frankly, there’s simply not enough time for judgment, fear, blame and illusions. You’re going to mess up. You’re going to make mistakes. Just own them and move on. And please, don’t get all caught up worrying about building your personal brand; worry about building the best possible you. The rest…will take care of itself.

Congratulations! Go kick some ass.

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