Greetings and congratulations to the 2017 graduating class of Bard College at Simon’s Rock. Greetings and congratulations to faculty, parents, and siblings. Embarking for early college was a risky choice that has now been transformed into an achievement. A bunch of high school dropouts are becoming college graduates today. You should all be ridiculously proud.
After I accepted the invitation to speak to you today, it occurred to me that most commencement speeches are terrible. They really are. Just tapestries of platitudes riffing on inspirational ambiguities, with rare exception. It’s all reach-for-the-stars fluffy nothing, until it’s not. The rare quality commencement speeches seem to capture clarity in a vial. If only for a moment, everything clicks into view, and you know, while listening—or watching on YouTube—that the overarching message is a piece of advice you will never, ever forget. I wanted to write a commencement speech like that, so I decided I was going to.
I pored through the archives of the best graduation speeches, reading Aaron Sorkin on failure, Joan Didion on seizing the day, Al Gore on climate change, Margaret Atwood on creative perception, and Steve Jobs on connecting the dots. I thought about David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon commencement so much, I was practically waking up from nightmares, gasping that, “This is water.” Eventually, it occurred to me that I am not David Foster Wallace, or Joan Didion, or Steve Jobs, and that what this speech had to be—the only thing it could be—was what I needed to hear, when I was sitting in your seat four years ago.
Quick true story from that day. Faced with an un-inspiring speaker, I turned to the guy sitting next to me, and complained that this was unfair. My best friend’s brother had gotten Toni Morrison for commencement. “Toni Morrison?” my fellow graduate said. “That’s amazing. How was he?”
On my graduation day, all I knew was that I wanted to be a writer. It’s been four years now, and I’ve hurdled over every item in my five-year plan. I always thought that once I reached a certain level in my career, I’d stop being dogged by professional anxiety. I was prodding along in relative obscurity, and suddenly found myself catapulted into the public eye. Each new piece became increasingly vulnerable. Discussing politics, feminism, and journalism on panels, podcasts, and cable news was like having my values forged in the fires of Mordor.
At first, the needling self-doubt continued. I kept waiting to be found out for not being good enough. In the age of WebMD, we all know that’s some imposter-syndrome type shit, but awareness of pain only makes the hurt brighter. It felt like it’d stepped in it. Like something had happened to me. But then my husband reminded me that all of the attention had come from my work. Or, as he put it during pep talk #307, “You decided you wanted to write about politics, and a volcano opened in the center of the Earth.”
Before, he had tried to comfort me with proof of my accomplishments, presenting lists of awards and compliments, as if they were receipts. But it never worked. It turns out, when you achieve all of your goals, you still wake up as you. This may be a strange thing to tell you on your graduation day, when you’ve just earned a thing that you’ve been thinking about for several years, if not much longer. There’s no discounting this achievement; I really meant my opening-remark congratulations. What I mean to say is that you have never required permission. External signifiers of success have never determined who you are, and now that school is over for many of you, you should know they are about to become less frequent and more ambiguous. There are still awards and promotions, but they are fewer and farther between.
Once you leave this beautifully-landscaped utopia of higher-learning, you are entering Real Life. Real Life is, for the most part, a good place, and I recommend you go there, but the constant incentives will soon be a distant memory. There are no more grades and GPAs. A capitalist contrarian might object that the concrete number by which we are measured is our salaries, but I don’t know if I need to show my work for the argument that money can’t buy happiness. And neither can awards. Or promotions.
Don’t be ruled by the hallmarks of traditional success. This is a white supremacist patriarchy, my friends, we did not create these rules. Accomplishments are simply acknowledgements of your drive and focus—a sign that you are on the right track, but not the whole picture. The force of life is in the doing, the making, and the becoming. If you can go through those dynamic processes in a way that is unapologetically ambitious and true to yourself, you will be better at the thing you want to be good at, and maybe even a little bit happy sometimes. Take a big red marker and cross out the word “aspiring.” If you want to be a writer, start writing. Don’t ask for permission.
Self-identified aspiring writers often ask me how I got to where I am. I’ll share part of that story in a minute. While it’s impossible to retrace my steps, I will say this: Being a writer requires writing. Stop waiting for someone to tell you can, and do the thing you want to be doing. Beyond that, the practicality: You can’t plan for opportunities, you can only be sure you’ll be ready when they happen to show up. Steve Jobs nailed this part in his commencement: The dots can’t be connected before they appear. What I’d like to give you today, is a renewed focus for thinking about the process of getting between them. The future is full of landmines, so stop wasting time trying to avoid them, and focus on running head first into the good stuff. Promise yourself you’ll power through the bull shit.
This can be done by following three simple guidelines:
Number 1: Never let anyone tell you who you are.
Number 2: Embrace the greatest version of the person you know you were meant to be.
And, Number 3: Work your goddamn ass off.
This is a thrilling and often terrifying way of living, especially for those of us who are riddled with near-crippling anxiety and self-doubt (hi). I also firmly believe it is the only way to take up space on this Earth without shriveling into the fetal position. I’m a little type A, but existential dread is definitely not just a me a thing. Living with intention doesn’t heal the fear, but it capitalizes on the moments of greatness, unlocking your ultimate potential, and leaving little room for regret, no matter how many boxes get crossed off that checklist. You decide how you define yourself, and that definition doesn’t need to include reference points from LinkedIn.
Now, this has all been very blabbery and vague. To get into the specifics, I’d like to share with you a story about a Fox News potato head named Tucker Carlson. And, to go back slightly before that to an event some of you may remember, the election of Donald J. Trump.
It’s funny, with each passing week, more people tell me that they knew he was going to win. Hindsight is so awesome, right? Thanks for the heads up. Anyway, I had no idea. I thought Hillary Clinton was going to be our first female president, until she wasn’t. I remember watching the results come in with my father, who voted for Trump, and just blubbering into a mascara-stained mass. For my dad, at one end of the couch sat a caricature of a bleeding-heart liberal, and also his crying daughter. He waited for me to blot my eyes, and then said, calmly, reassuringly, “It’s not going to go back to the 1950s, if that’s what you’re afraid of.”
I think I started crying even harder at that point, and the poor guy just looked helpless, you know, very awkward stepfather in a Lifetime movie. I was genuinely shocked that he didn’t know what I was afraid of. On a personal, and, OK, selfish level, I was feeling sorry for myself that the confounding evils of a world in which men regularly rape and kill women was not changing any time soon. Beyond that, I was mourning the things that wouldn’t directly affect me, but would make the world an uglier, less equitable place: the racial justice, LGBTQ, immigrant, and Muslim rights, among the other progress on the verge of sudden reversal. My own father had decided I was a whiny drama queen who had watched too much Rachel Maddow, and while that’s not wholly untrue, I decided that I was no longer willing to be ashamed of my opinions. Previously, I had doled them out cautiously, even at the dinner table with my parents, who love me very much—testing them out, I was often dismissed as emotional, idealistic, and unserious. After a while, I believed it.
It was hard to put a stop to that hamster wheel of cyclical self-sabotage, and I’m still working at it, but the key to a strong sense of self comes down to this: It is scary to express a strong opinion, but the only thing required of you is being fully informed. Young people have an investment in the future of this country. You have a right to the political conversation, and, I might even argue, an obligation to it. Expressing yourself in this toxic moment can be terribly vulnerable, but democracy is at stake, so I’d really urge you to get over it.
Of course, that’s easier said than done. In my past life, I was never not writing about the political, though it was less explicit. I used pop culture as a conduit for discussing social issues. For example, in my first job at the Huffington Post, I wrote a piece on the “woman-child,” looking at the way directionless women in their late 20s and early 30s like the ones in “Girls,” “Obvious Child,” and “Young Adult,” are seem as dark, depressing, and sad, but when Adam Sandler or Seth Rogen plays the same role, it’s hilarious. That was strong work that I was proud of, not only because it won an L.A. Press Club Award, but it still wasn’t enough to give me a clear path to more traditional political writing. Sports writing somehow flows effortlessly into politics, but for most women there is no analogous entryway. If anything, working in entertainment, beauty, and fashion are used to discount female writers. Let’s be real, a woman could have 10 years of experience as a White House aide, and they’d still wonder if you had the expertise to publish a blog post.
On November 9th, I was no longer willing to accept that. Everything changed for me on election day, and I knew I had to be using my work to process this cultural moment. I simply didn’t know how to write about anything else. I had close friends tell me not to bother. Take a break, they said. Everyone’s freaked out right now, this will go away. I ignored them, and it didn’t.
I crossed out my list of potential features for 2017, including a profile of Mandy Moore and a piece on how sleep is trendy now, and began work on a book proposal that countered all of the cultural factors that led to the election. There was a piece on the social media strategy of the alt-right, one on the endurance of the Hillary Clinton corruption narrative, and my sample chapter: Donald Trump is Gaslighting America, which would go on to be the most-read piece at Teen Vogue, and lead to me win a Shorty Award, and meet living-legend Dan Rather.
That was a bit of boasting. People tend to get pretty itchy around women boasting, but I’ve done some cool things and I’m choosing to be proud of them.
Now, there’s an obvious feminist thread to this story, but the core of it is ungendered: They will tell you can’t. Don’t listen.
The “Gaslighting” piece was published last December. I had been weekend editor of Teen Vogue since January of 2016. Often people ask me when we became so political. There wasn’t some pivotal moment when that decision was made. Women’s publications have always been political, and anyone who doesn’t know that hasn’t been paying attention. My editors took young women seriously from the start. We covered issues of police brutality, or stories like the terrorist attack at Pulse nightclub, frankly and honestly, right next to whatever Kylie Jenner was up to on Snapchat. Much like the environment here at Simon’s Rock, taking young people seriously was the standard.
Prestige media consistently finds itself uncomfortable around young women. There was something awfully patronizing about the praise coming from the middle-aged men of the mainstream media world—a kind of performative shock that teen girls care about politics, and faux confusion over whether or not I was a teen.
I’m not kidding. When I was in the CNN green room, waiting to discuss the gaslighting piece on air with Don Lemon, I met Carl Bernstein, as in, yes, Nixon, Watergate, Woodward, that Carl Bernstein. He had just come from a panel on safe spaces including two other older white gentlemen, and, having learned why I was going to be on the show, looked me up and down, and pronounced, “You don’t look like a teen.”
Actually, sir, I am an award-winning journalist, who was specifically chosen to be Teen Vogue’s weekend editor on account of a stunning combination of disciplined verification, a compelling voice, and fine-tuned news judgment, but thanks for acting like I’m some blogger who got lucky with a hit Medium post. To be fair, probably everyone under the age of 73 looks like a teen to Carl Bernstein. The point is this wasn’t a one-off thing; the overall reaction to the article was soaked in stealthy condescension. Still, I didn’t want to be painted as a “triggered snowflake,” and so, I kept my mouth shut. That is, until my aforementioned appearance on Fox News opposite Tucker Carlson, in which that undercurrent of sexism was translated into flashing lights.
I came on the show to discuss Ivanka Trump and transparency. After a “heated exchange”—and that is a very polite description of what happened—he dismissed me altogether by reciting the titles of entertainment and fashion posts that I’d written as the website’s weekend editor. One such post was about Ariana Grande’s footwear, and he cut off our segment, saying, “Stick to the thigh-high boots, you’re better at that.”
It was a genuinely shocking moment, and my reaction can only be accurately described as “cartoonishly agape.” Still, now that I’ve had some time to process the whole thing, there is a sense of relief in that misogynistic bull’s eye. It cast the sexism in sharper relief, confirming my sneaking suspicion about the sinister forces that had previously been manifesting themselves with the toxic subtlety of a carbon monoxide leak. The point is this: When my dad asked whether I was afraid things would “go back to the 1950s,” it became clear that he didn’t understand the reality I was living in. The reality that all young women have seen be further intensified each day since Trump was named president.
On November 9, I understood, for that and a myriad of other reasons, that it was my job to more fiercely communicate my understanding of the world. My journalistic background means I do that with a discipline of verification and objectivity of method that is often discounted with the phrase “liberal media.” Indeed, Trump, Tucker, and my dad would all agree on that dismissal. Various idiots and other naysayers will come up with other attempts to undercut me the second I publish my next column. I’m quite skilled at generating self-doubt all on my own. The thing that inoculates me to giving in to it is this strong foundation; a sense of radical confidence in the way I do my work, and, beyond that, the way I move through the world.
As a journalist, the way I’ve maintained this defiant determination in spite of all of that inevitable garbage is by aggressively tending to my worldview, always asking for more information, and being willing to learn. As a young woman who is constantly told she is not welcome or good enough, I have to pride myself on the dedication and intention. I am a great journalist because of the work I put into it. Not because of the next award, or viral article, or whatever, but because I have decided on my value system, and I know with 100 percent certainty that I commit to those values with every fiber of my being. It doesn’t matter if the next five years contain a Nobel Peace Prize or part-time job at a suburban Forever 21. If I guide and direct myself through it all with ethically-driven ambition, that is what will matter. And, anyway, it’s all I can control.
Commencement speeches are super subjective. This was either a transcendent realization for you or a bunch of ambitious mush. I’m choosing the former, and for those who feel the same, I leave you with this: If you can rigorously work at being the person you believe you were meant to be, it truly doesn’t matter what other people think. OK, there are no awards and promotions that come from within. Committing to fiercely being yourself, and giving the effort of being yourself everything you’ve got will be exhausting, and maybe take an impossibly long time before it crystallizes into an effort you are fulfilled by, but the great news here—the terrifying and comforting truth that I wish I would have heard on my own graduation day is this: You can and must decide to be defiantly empowered, to live up to the standards you’ve set for yourself, and to work like hell, not for a set of goals, but toward becoming the person you know you’re meant to be.
Allow me to grant you one more hearty congratulations on the diploma you are about to receive. Real life starts now, so stop asking for permission; it’s all up to you.