gradspeech

Lately I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about confidence. I think I’ve got some. I take risks, I speak up, I don’t quit. But sometimes I feel like there’s a certain thinness to my confidence. I am reminded of it when I hear Taylor Swift’s new song. “Haters gonna hate hate hate hate hate. Baby, I’m just gonna shake it off!” That’s confidence! But…you can almost hear Taylor chicken-scratching for a belief in her own words. There’s a thinness to it. I’m not criticizing her, I actually think it’s perfect and is what makes the song so great. She’s young; she’s playing dress-up with confidence. She’s trying it on in the hopes it will become real. She’s taking all that dark self-doubt and suffocating it inside the beats of a perfectly composed pop song. It’s the ultimate fuck you not only to her real-life haters (let’s be honest: they are few and powerless over her), but to her own self-hate (which is the real enemy). It’s something we all (especially women) struggle with. At what point do I stop playing dress-up?

So, I’ve been studying this thing called confidence. I’ve been interested in cultivating a deeper, more authentic version of confidence. One that emanates from inside of me, a glowing ember that never snuffs out – even when I’ve been put through the ringer. One that ignores the mean girls in my head, one that truly, authentically, shakes it off, like a wet dog happily shaking off after getting pummeled by the surf.

One thing I’ve learned in my research is that I am deeply self-critical, to the point where I don’t take certain risks. I take myself out of the running sometimes, because I have convinced myself I’m not good enough. And when I do believe I’m good enough, I won’t get aggressive about it. When that dumbass Microsoft CEO made his stupid comments about women in business and “karma,” I was really angry. (He basically said that women shouldn’t ask for raises or promotions – but instead wait for the system to recognize our hard work, as that would be good “karma” for not speaking up. ?? Yes, I know, it’s insane.) But I wasn’t just angry, I was embarrassed. I can look back on my life and career and see many instances when I unconsciously followed his bizarre logic. I would say to myself “don’t make a stink, just be perfect, be the best, and they will see, and they will reward you.” Meanwhile, I would be passed over and ignored, while louder, and often times less competent, people would get ahead. And I would only blame myself. I naively believed the world is merit-based, and that if I had been good enough, they would have chosen me. And then I’d just feel worse. On top of all of that, when I do succeed at something, I often walk away from it believing it wasn’t up to par. That it was a mistake, a fluke, luck.

A perfect example of this happened this summer. I was asked to speak at my high school’s graduation ceremony. I was the first alum to ever give the speech (I was in the second-ever graduating class, so I guess I’m the first alum to ever nudge my way into the public eye). It was a total dream come true. And a nightmare at the same time. The school has grown since I attended – it’s now ranked in the top 20 high schools in the nation. I felt so much pressure. I also felt like I had seen/read too many famous graduation speeches – Amy Poehler, Conan, Patton Oswalt – all their speeches had blown me away and inspired me in my adult life. I felt pressure to create some perfect piece of oratory art on the level with these greats. Well, I am not currently one of these greats, but I worked very hard on the speech, and I’m not gonna lie, it killed. I got like 5 minutes of applause, and afterwards I was told repeatedly by parents and teachers that it was the best graduation speech they’d ever heard. So why, hours later, was I sitting alone in my childhood home mentally beating myself up over it? Some folks asked me to post it on-line, but I worried it wasn’t good enough. So I never posted it.

Fuck that noise. No more. It’s time to toot my horn. I’ve built a substantial foundation of experience and accomplishment – one tiny step at a time. My resume is textured, surprising, self-made and original. I can’t believe it’s mine, and I feel like I’ve just begun. The things I’ve achieved, the skills I have, it’s downright impressive, and when all the planets align (because I use my superpowers to align them), I will be unstoppable. Just you* wait.

*You = voices in my head.

So, to stoke that tiny spark of true confidence starting to glow inside me, I’m going to suffocate those bad voices in my head and post that damn speech. (Basically, this was a long speech about how I’m going to post my high school graduation speech. It’s not perfect – but anything good was never perfect.)

MAGGIE WALKER GOVERNOR’S SCHOOL COMMENCEMENT SPEECH 2014

Hello everyone! Thank you to the class officers for inviting me here today, to everyone on the faculty, and of course, all of the graduates of the class of 2014. I am truly honored to be here.

You’ll forgive me, I’m actually a little nervous. The last time I spoke at a high school graduation was this one, only it was in 1996. I was the one graduating, and many of you still had your umbilical cords attached. I was Class Secretary, and I had the privilege of delivering a short speech. I remember that day so distinctly: I was filled with excitement, I had pink eye in both eyes, and I wrote my speech in the car on the way to the ceremony. Wow, how things have changed. This time, I don’t have pink eye!

Governor’s School has changed so much since I attended. For starters, you guys got to attend school in a building that wasn’t one toilet explosion away from being condemned. Remember what the fridge in your senior commons smelled like? Imagine your whole school smelling like that. Also, I’m not sure what happened, but somewhere down the line, you kids got suuuuper smart. Number 14 in the nation? Whoah. When I attended, it was like the most recent season of Dancing With The Stars. They were lettin anybody in. Back then, we were a rag-tag group of outcasts from the county schools who were willing to be guinea pigs in this little educational experiment. Obviously, the experiment went very very well. If I tried to apply to Governor’s School right now, as a full grown adult human, I would not get in. If I challenged any one of you to a game of Boggle, you would make me cry with your vast knowledge of obscure three letter words.

But I totally get why you asked me to speak here today. While other Maggie Walker alum are currently curing cancer, I have touched all five members of One Direction. I’m glad to see you guys have your priorities straight.

One thing that clearly hasn’t changed is the spirit of learning, giving, and community that this school fosters. The Maggie Walker kid of yesterday and today has a certain fearlessness (I heard about that little stunt you pulled to get out of mid-terms!). We have a desire to know more, do more. Personally, I credit Governor’s School for giving me the confidence and skills I would one day need to make prolonged eye contact with Justin Timberlake. Without Mr. Waller’s insightful teaching of The Catcher in The Rye, I would never have been able to figure out the symbolism in the song “Happy” by Pharrell Williams. It’s actually a stark commentary on dystopian society. Without Mr. Wilkes’ dedication to American history, I would never have known that Captain America: The Winter Soldier wasn’t a documentary.

In all seriousness, these teachers here, they’ve taught you things you probably don’t even know you know yet. Remember to thank them when you figure it out.

But now, the task at hand: you’re preparing to enter the next chapter of your life.

For those of you attending college, you’ll arrive on campus and immediately realize, that because of your vigorous AP studies, you’ve already taken all the courses they offer. Don’t worry. There will be some higher level quantum mechanics and rhythmic ribbon dancing courses left. Obviously I’m kidding. Without a doubt, you’ll be faced with lots of exciting choices for your education. However, no matter what path you take after this day, there won’t be many classes that actually teach you how to be a functioning adult. So I’ve come up with a handy list of courses that I think you should “sign up for” and master for yourself. Classes like

Laundry, The Hows & The Whys

Talking To A Cute Person Who You Would Like to Possibly Kiss, Level 1

Intro to Filling out a W-9 and Other Terrifying Forms

Living A Little 101, which of course is a prerequisite to Intermediate Running Naked Across the Quad

I particularly want you to take Intro to Day-Dreaming Level 1. Some of you probably have big dreams already. Some of you may have no clue what it is that you want do with your life. That’s okay. The people who think they’ve got it all figured out, will probably change their mind about two hours into college. This is the time to let your dreams run wild and try new things. For instance, for about three hours during my freshman year, I wanted to be an anesthesiologist. Then I found out you had to take chemistry and I was like nevermind. It worked out though. I get to put people to sleep all the time with my jokes! In fact, I think I’m doing it right now. Somebody’s grandma is snoozin back there. Maybe give her a little nudge.

Another class you should take is something I like to call Fumbling Around In The Dark 101. And no, I am not referring to you trying to find your bed after a long night of partying. I mean studying.

What I’m talking about is the mirky path to success. When you start to focus in on that big dream of yours, you’ll quickly realize that there is no road-map or step-by-step guide what will guarantee success. You’ll feel like you are fumbling around in the dark. There are basics, yes. And I encourage you to do some hard core googling to figure out these basics. For instance, I’ve heard that if you want to be a doctor, you have to go to medical school. (A licensed doctor, that is. If/when the zombie apocalypse comes, you might have to amputate someone’s leg in a pinch, before you’ve even started studying for the MCATs. Dreams sometimes come true in the most delightfully unexpected ways!) The point is, you’re gonna have to just go for it. Even if you have no idea how, just take a tiny step forward. Once you’ve decided, “I am going to invent the world’s first Donut Cannon, a device that not only cooks Sugar Shack donuts but also shoots them into a crowd of excited fans at a sporting event.” Once you’ve decided that’s your dream, if you truly want it, you’ll eventually get there. If you truly believe in your gut that you are in the inventor of the Donut Cannon, you’ll find yourself making tiny choices every single day that will inch you closer. Instead of pushing snooze on your alarm clock, you’ll think, nope, gotta get up and go to my job that will help me pay for my business license. Instead of blowing off class, you’ll say, nope, I will need to understand basic physics in order to build my donut cannon. Make it the fiber of your being, and trust me, you’ll get there. I can smell that sweet sweet Sugar Shack right now. Please, I’m begging someone here to make it happen.

The meandering ways in which you’ll get to your dream will surprise you. If you had told me while I was in high school, that one day I’d win not one, but two Emmy’s for blogging, first of all, I’d say “what is that word blogging?” I didn’t even have a computer yet. It was 1993. My Latin teacher Mrs. Sharp had just told us about a new invention called the “information super highway” and my brain couldn’t grasp it. I just pictured a bunch of cartoon numbers driving cars down a paved road. I’M NOT JOKING, that is literally what I thought the internet was for many years. A bunch of cartoons driving cars on a highway through space. I had no idea that one day, getting a job as a “blogger” would change my life forever, and help me get closer to the original dream of being a successful comedian.

I mean think about it, you might win an Oscar for “Best Dothagoob” What is a dothagoob? I have no idea. It hasn’t been invented yet. But you are going to be really really good at dothagoobing one day. Great job! By the way, it’s pronounced SHAY-FER – for when you thank me in your speech.

Now. The most important class I think you should take, above all else, is Failure Studies. In fact I think you should all major in Failure Studies.

I don’t know if you guys are aware of this, but I actually have a PhD in Failure Studies. I have spectacularly failed, many many times. Just ask Ms. Hawkins. She coached me on the softball team. Right now, I’m crashing down from one of the most incredible years of my life. I’m technically unemployed. My TV show got cancelled after two seasons. I just moved to Hollywood, where I’m pretty much acting like a door-to-door vampire begging people to let me in. I’m scared that my MTV show was nothing but a fluke. I’ve spent entire days binge-watching episodes of Pretty Little Liars, because figuring out who “A” is is somehow less terrifying than figuring out what my next career move is. I had to install parental controls on my computer so I wouldn’t waste an entire day refreshing Twitter. I’ve spent nights lying in bed wondering if I’ll ever get another chance, and if I’ll run out of money – again. And you know what? I’m having the time of my life.

Why? Well, it all goes back to a yellow piece of paper that my youth pastor handed out one night during youth group when I was about your age. On it read a simple sentence. “For all that has been, Thank You. To all that shall be, Yes.” It was a quote by Dag Hammerskjold, a thoughtful and brilliant Swedish man who happened to be the Secretary General of the United Nations in the 1950’s. I actually didn’t care who he was at the time. I was just staring at these words. I had never before been hit so hard by the perfect, beautiful simplicity of a sentence. It was as if everything existed inside these 13 plain words. I didn’t even fully understand it all those years ago, but it somehow made sense to me. I’ve kept that yellow paper with me all these years. It always has a place in my field of view when I’m working. So what does it mean to me? Well,

“For all that has been, thank you.” – just simply means, wherever you are, whatever has happened, be grateful. Life has given you these experiences, and they have made you what you are. When things have gone terribly wrong in my life, it’s a funny thing – while all these emotions swirl around when you suffer a great loss – there’s one that bubbles up from the swampy pain: gratitude. Do whatever you can to cultivate gratitude. It is the mulch in your vegetable garden. It will keep out the weeds and let you grow. When I finally pulled myself out of $60,000 in debt, I was grateful for the number zero. When my marriage ended, I was grateful for what he had taught me. When my mom died, I was grateful to have known her for 30 whole years. When MTV cut down my dream job before it had even had a chance to really get going, I was grateful they’d even given me the chance at all. Because of them, I now know what Scarlet Johansson smells like.

For all that has been: thank you.

And To all that shall be, Yes. This is the key part of the quote. This is where the answer to finding success lies. Okay, so the caca has hit the fan. And you feel grateful for the mess. Good. But what do you do with it now? You say yes. You make yourself open to whatever is next. You don’t go rot in the corner and feel sorry for yourself. You don’t bury yourself in fear. You step forward into the yes.

I’m now an expert in volleying back and forth between the thank you and the yes. I process failure like a machine. But it took some hard lessons to figure out how to do it. I’ll tell you one story that happened to me not too long after graduating from high school. I attended the College of William & Mary. When I first arrived, I immediately attended a show put on by the College’s improv comedy group, simply named I.T. (short for Improvisational Theatre). It was the only outlet for comedy on campus, and its members were practically celebrities. The moment I saw them perform, I knew I wanted to be a part of it. It was a small group – 12 or so people – and there was only one opening for a new member that year. I boldly signed up for auditions. I had heard that it was very difficult for a freshman to get in, but that if you tried out and got them to see you, it would help your chances for the next year. So, I did just that, and to my delight, I got a callback. I didn’t get in, but apparently getting a callback as a freshman was a good sign. I also started going to a bunch of their shows and befriending members of the group. My only goal in life – seriously – was to get a spot on the team my sophomore year. I didnt care about boys, partying, classes, any of it. I just wanted to be on I.T.

Along the way, I was getting a lot of encouragement from my friends who were in the group. They told me that because there were lots of seniors leaving at the end of the year, I would have a really good chance of making the team. What I’m trying to say is: I totally had this thing in the bag.

So, come Fall semester of sophomore year, I was ready to join my people and entertain the student masses. Auditions came. I was nervous, but I was confident. I got a callback – naturally. I thought I did really well in the callbacks; I was getting laughs left and right. I could almost taste the victory. That night, I went back to my dorm room, ready to be inducted into the group. You see, everyone knew, the way you found out you got into I.T. went like this: The current members would come to your dorm late at night, knock on your door, bring you outside, dump a can of Natty Light all over your head, and party until dawn. It was an improv baptism of sorts. It sounded like pure glory. I didn’t even drink, and I wanted nothing more than a cold waterfall of crappy beer rushing down my face. Never before had I wanted anything so badly, and never before had I been so sure that I was going to get it. In preparation for my big moment, I made sure I was wearing the perfect outfit. Cute pajamas that covered all my parts – but not too cute so as to make it appear I had assumed they were coming. No need to get cocky, guys. I made sure the dorm door was propped open so as to disable the keycard access. (No.  The safety of dozens of young women was NOT worth slowing down a gaggle of improvisers seeking their new rookie.) I lay in bed, waiting for my initiation into comedy royalty. Here’s how it went:

It’s 3 am. I’m still waiting. Any noise I hear – a door shutting, footsteps, a leaf falling outside – is making me tense up in anticipation of the sound of a knock. My stomach is aflutter. Now is the time!

4 am. Okay, I’m getting a little nervous, but there’s nothing to panic about. The group is just deliberating into the wee hours. It’s fine, everything is totally fine.

5 am. Whut. Is. GOING ON? They should be here by now. Hello?! I have class in a few hours, is there still time to party? Come on, people, get over here!

7 am. Sunlight is piercing my room. I can smell shampoo foaming up in the showers down the hall. Girls are getting ready for class. What started as a pebble of fear in the pit of my stomach has started pulsating and bubbling like an alien egg.

7:15 am. I’m shaking sobbing. I call my parents. They don’t know what to do. They offer to come and get me but I refuse.

10:30 am. The shaking sobbing has slowed to light weeping. I have now accepted the fact that I did not get into I.T.

 

I was completely devastated. I thought to myself over and over again, “But they basically told me I was going to get in!” “What did I do wrong?” “There is no God.” Every positive thought I had about my abilities as a performer, funny person, team player, and human being was obliterated that morning.

My best friend Mary Beth came to nurse me back to health. We skipped our classes and walked through the Sunken Gardens. I decided that I wanted to eat my feelings while also eating fresh, so we walked over to a nearby Subway. I got a foot-long meatball sub with chips and a drink. We sat on a bench under a big oak tree and ate quietly. I couldn’t keep the tears at bay. I just kept bursting. It was like a violent volcano of angsty lava erupting for hours on end. The mountain was angry, and this meatball sub was getting thrown in as sacrifice.

As I took a particularly sad and dramatic bite of the sub, tears lingering on my face, a huge dollop of red marinara sauce glooped out of the sandwich, onto my chin, and onto my light blue tank top, as if in slow motion. Mouth full, marinara lounging on my face, I just sat there and stared pathetically at my ruined shirt. A couple of seconds went by, and simultaneously, Mary Beth and I both burst into laughter. I was a hot mess, in all of the ways. It was just so sad. And sometimes, a sad plus a sad equals a funny. Suddenly, I had that feeling, I was grateful. Grateful that Mary Beth was with me. Grateful that even though it wasn’t on purpose, hey, I could still make someone laugh. In that moment, I knew I was going to be okay.

But lord, it sucked for a while. It hurt so much to see I.T. members walking around campus, being funny, promoting their shows. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I had built my identity around something that wasn’t even a sure thing. I wanted to know why, and there just wasn’t an answer. It never occurred to me that maybe I wasn’t God’s gift to improv comedy.

Fortunately, I said yes to something else. A few months later, I saw signs for auditions for a new comedy group. This one would be sketch comedy. It was founded by a gang of I.T. rejects, and they seemed funny, even if they were “losers” just like me. I auditioned. I got in, and yes, they came and got me out of my dorm room in the middle of the night, just like I had dreamed. I didn’t care that it wasn’t the prestigious I.T. – that beer on my face felt amazing. I knew I had found my home. By the end of my senior year, we had built a following and were just as popular on campus as they were. Over those few years, I had one vindicating moment after another, and I came to love my I.T. rejection. I used it to fuel my own fire. Anytime I felt sad about it, I would put my head down and work even harder on being funny. Plus, I found satisfaction in the wonderful people I met in the sketch group. I found love, I found life-long friendships, and I found the inspiration to move to New York and pursue my dream. And yes, I probably would have gotten many of those same things if I had made it into I.T…. but! I would have been deprived of the immeasurably valuable experience of a crushing rejection. For starters, I now knew not to assume that you’ve gotten anything until you’re getting the proverbial Natty Light poured all over your head. And most of all, it prepared me for what was to come: the virtual sea of rejection I would face when I decided to go for the big leagues. Thanks to I.T., I had learned how to handle it. All you need is one friend, a meatball sub, and patience.

You know, when you guys first asked me to speak here today, I worried that maybe this was happening too soon. Maybe we should wait a few years, let me get super famous. Let’s wait til I have a security detail and an entourage. What’s more, I’m sort of at a crossroads in my life, things aren’t perfect. What could I possibly have to say to all these bright-eyed smarties? But then I realized, no. This is exactly the right time to speak to you guys. I’ve always learned more from someone who’s in the trenches than from someone’s who’s sitting pretty in their mansion. I’m glad you met me while I’m still in the thick of it. I’m still learning too, and I get to come here and be inspired by all of you.

For me, “going for it” has become the dream job. And I feel quite lucky to be able to do that. So gather round, dreamers! Let. Us. Do. This. Thank you. And YES!