My Message to High School Seniors
Photo by Aria Minucci
Wow, what a humbling weekend. I went back to my high school alma mater to deliver the commencement speech. It was such an incredible experience and I was honored to be there. The students were attentive, kind and welcoming, so it made my job easy.
Although my own high school graduation still feels like yesterday, preparing the speech made me realize how much I’ve done and learned over the past nine years. Perhaps the biggest lesson is I’ll never have it all figured out— and neither will anyone else. We’re constantly learning, growing, changing and developing new passions. That’s what makes life so challenging, yet remarkably rewarding.
You can watch the speech below, and/or read it. A very special thanks to the principals, staff and graduating seniors at West Ottawa High School in Holland, MI— where a part of my story will always belong.
COMMENCEMENT SPEECH TRANSCRIPT:
Thank you, Mr. Reinecke. I am humbled to be here. Congratulation, graduates! You are about to eat a lot more pizza, shrink your favorite jeans… and post Instagrams you’ll likely regret. Hashtag—SorryMom.
You’re about to enter the world before the real world. This is when it’s okay to wear the same t-shirt for a week. This is when you’re allowed to communicate solely through emoji’s. And this is the only time it’s considered cool to take a selfie with your cab driver. After that—it’s just a mistake.
I emphasize mistakes— because you’re going to make a lot of them. It’s something I thought I was immune to when I was sitting in your seat. The teachers and principals here who once had me as a student would tell you I liked to follow the rules in high school. I once vowed to never procrastinate on a college project… or to fall asleep in class.
Let’s just say I got a lot of good rest during my freshman year.
Yes, mistakes will become part of your path. But they will teach you there are consequences to every action. They will drive you to achieve the greatest successes. And mistakes will catapult you into reality. Because reality is full of mistakes. Those mistakes, however big or small, remind us we are human. Humans with imperfect tendencies and undefined dreams. Whether you’re going to school, joining the service… or working your first job— life is about to become a whole lot different.
Perhaps some of you know exactly what you want to gain from the next few years— like purchasing your first mini-fridge or foldout futon. Talk about luxury, right? Or maybe some of you don’t have a clue who you want to become. The truth is— we’re all searching for our path… our purpose… our plan. Me included.
I wish I could promise you’ll have it all figured out in a few years… That you’ll know your career path, your spouse, your journey. Instead, I can promise the process will become more important than the plan. Meaning you can’t map out your life on an Excel spreadsheet. Which is a good thing… because spreadsheets don’t always accommodate for big dreamers.
Every single one of you should be a dreamer. Your dreams are real. They are valid. They are possible.
Regardless of that “process” you’re handed— you still get to control the enormity of your dreams. They can be as big as you want. As simple as you want. As impossible as you want— as long as they are yours.
Too often, our dreams become diluted because of financial concerns. We begin to question whether our passions are, indeed, profitable. Let me assure you… they are. Whether you want to become an artist… an app developer… an electrician… or a big-time CEO… your passion is profitable. Look around! We live in a world that makes it possible to connect with someone across the globe in less than 10 seconds.
Opportunities are literally within that smartphone I know some of you are looking at right now. You have remarkable power— power that was created by innovators who tackled dreams impossibly big. Blur the lines and shape your own way.
Life requires you to take risks— really big risks. Do what others won’t dare to attempt, and embrace failure.We’re programmed to think we always need a plan B… and C… and D… when really, we just need to begin. You don’t necessarily need to know where you’re going— but you do need to at least be traveling.
I’ll remind you… dreams require work. They are not delivered to you while vacationing in Florida. They are not packaged in a confetti-filled gift box. And they are not waiting for you following a fraternity party.
Sometimes, the kind of work dreams require isn’t always what you envision. For example— following college graduation, I sincerely hoped The Today Show would want to hire me. Of course, they’d be looking for a passionate, eager, 21-year-old Indiana grad with a knack for good journalism.
Two months went by. They never called. Instead… a news director in Columbia, Missouri did. I remember listening to his voicemail, and then Googling where exactly Columbia, MO was. Smack dab in the middle of the country. Not exactly New York.
I called him back, and was offered an interview. He initially admitted I was the third choice on his short-list of candidates. Basically, I was a backup to the backup. I was told I’d be responsible for driving to locations, filming my own interviews, writing scripts and getting it all on-air by show-time.
Quite frankly, the work intimated me, and I questioned whether I even wanted the job. I called my parents, who reminded me, “If you’re offered this position, you’ve got to take it. You can dream all you want, but dreams are merely that unless you start going after them. You’ve got to start somewhere.” And so, my “somewhere” was mid-Missouri. I accepted an offer the following day, and convinced myself Missouri was just like Manhattan, only with a few more cows and cornfields.
Roughly eight months into the job, I was offered an anchoring position. It still wasn’t quite the television glamour I had once sought— mostly because my start time each day was 1:30… AM.
I recently asked my former boss why he took a gamble on hiring the third person on his list. To which he replied, quote, “You weren’t the most experienced, but it takes a combination of things to be successful— and I felt your drive and discipline were more important than the other candidate’s resumes.”
Bottom line: You don’t have to begin as the best to become one of the best.
A lot of us waste time feeling second to someone else— whether we think they’re wiser or wittier. Comparisons destroy us and our talents. What separates the successful from the unsuccessful is one’s ability to continue progressing from outside the winner’s circle.
I am doing my best to continue progressing. As you heard, I’m now living in L.A., where I work for a mobile video news company, called Newsy. We create videos that are easy to watch on your phones and online. It’s a job I had never envisioned, mostly because it didn’t exist when until I had graduated college. Technology changed— and so did my opportunities. This workplace gives me the chance to broadcast all sorts of content for websites like The Weather Channel, AOL and Mashable.
I’ve spent much of the past year developing new passions— of blogging, writing a children’s book… and becoming a wife. My plans are changing and my goals are shifting. I’m discovering talents I never knew I had. I’m neither settled nor entirely satisfied… and I have bigger dreams in mind that absolutely terrify me. But that’s what life is. It’s about doing things that scare you, and challenge you… and push you to become someone you’re proud of.
Love who you are and what you do. You don’t need to have all the answers overnight. Success takes time. Relationships take time. Stories take time.
Part of your story will always be rooted here, at West Ottawa.
Teachers within this district taught me how to be confident in a classroom of strangers. They encouraged me to keep writing. And they were the first to put me behind an anchor desk, on the set of W-O-B-N.
I’ll never forget how this school crowned my brother— a then-teenager with cerebral palsy— prom king. I’ll never forget how they chanted his name at Varsity basketball games. And I’ll never forget the students and teachers who spent hours with him, teaching him how to communicate, how to celebrate… and how to forgive. Today, he is involved with a production company and even has a few acting credentials to his name. This was his starting place.
This is a community that supports you, pushes you, and will welcome you back whenever you crave a taste for home … Or just a Tommy Turtle.
Your legacy is built on your actions every day— in how you treat a stranger, in how you respect your parents and in your willingness to love and be loved. Understand you will get hurt. You will be played. You will feel lost. The world doesn’t hate you— it’s merely building your courage. Forgive, and keep moving— because the world needs you moving.
I hope you encourage your peers to embrace their quirkiness, rather than labeling those quirks as flaws. Remember to define yourself by your actions, rather than by the photos you share. And remember to immerse yourself in new opportunities, rather than simply posting about them online.
I hope you feel inspired to go after a future that both excites and frightens you. Most importantly, though… I want you to be thrilled with what’s happening right now. Because in a few minutes, you will walk across this stage, move your tassel to the left… and become a high school graduate. Celebrate this moment. Remember it. Instagram it. . Congratulations to each of you… and to your parents, educators and mentors who helped you get here. You’ve done it.