Every couple of years around this time, I republish a commencement speech I wrote back in 2016, when my son was graduating. There are so many students who don't win awards, or where cords, or get scholarships, and I want them to know they are seen too. I would love to one day deliver this speech in person to a room full of graduates. If you know someone who is graduating, please share it with them. I hope you find it inspiring.
Let’s face it, it’s unlikely I will ever be asked to give a commencement speech, but this time of year all the You Tube links to inspirational speeches show up in my news feed and my very own son graduates high school in a few days, so I was inspired to give a commencement speech regardless of the lack of venue. Pretend we are in an auditorium packed with family, friends, and-most importantly-graduates. The Principal/Dean steps to the lectern…
Today we present our graduates with a woman who is a wife, a mother, an author, a daughter, a sister, an aunt, an employee, and a friend. Welcome Kai Strand.
Thank you to the faculty, staff, parents, family, friends, and students for the warm welcome. You may be wondering why I’m standing here in front of you today. I don’t have major accomplishments to tout; such as, organizing clean water for people in remote African villages, or providing warm coats for homeless children. I don’t even have an impressive degree to accredit me. I spend my days working a couple different jobs, raising children, coordinating efforts with my husband to keep our family functional, and picking up dog poop. I’m a very average person. Which is the point, really.
Of those of you who eagerly await the moment you move your tassel across the mortarboard, many of you have grand dreams and endless ambition. You hope to change the world. Maybe you plan to become a scientist, a politician, a doctor, or a lawyer. To discover new technology, pass groundbreaking law, cure cancer. And some of you will do just that.
But most of you, like me, will live ordinary lives. As the years progress, you’ll have several jobs, some of which you’ll like a lot, most that you wont. Maybe you’ll report to someone, or you’ll be the one others report to. I’ve been both. Over the course of your lives, you’ll buy cars, maybe a house or two, you might get married and raise a family. There will be points in your life where you’ll struggle to make ends meet and each meal will include either potatoes or pasta – the only foods you can afford. Luckily, there will likely be periods where you are flush and able to buy speedboats or tour Europe. Or maybe you’ll be satisfied with being able to afford a daily Starbucks indulgence. This ebb and flow in life is normal. Very normal.
But you know what? Even normal people make a difference. Each day, when you go to work, or stop to pick up groceries, or browse for your next pleasure read at the bookstore, you will interact with people. You will talk about important things or make casual observations. Your words, your attitude, your actions will impact each and every person you meet. You will inspire a person or tear them down with a simple response to the service they provide. Holding a door open for the weary person behind you might be all he or she needs to walk into the lab where they’ve seen countless failures. All they need to cure cancer.
Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, Eleanor Roosevelt, they did not live in a bubble. When they weren’t changing the world, they lived mundane lives and were impacted, inspired by every day people.
Recently a woman told me I inspire her. She has several novels started and not a single one finished. I believe, the fact that I can finish novels impresses her more than the fact that I have twelve novels published. When she admitted to her inability to finish novels, I felt a familiar tug of empathy. Finishing is hard. So, I shared some tips of how I push myself through to the end. It was a nice conversation. And you know, it isn’t the first time I’ve been told, “you’ve inspired me.” No matter how many times I hear it, I react the same way. I cock my head and stare, like a curious kitten. It always takes a little longer for the meaning of the words to compute in my head. Even more surprising than the fact that my actions or words have resonated within someone is the fact that someone is watching. As an author I have a public persona. One I work hard on. Being quippy on Twitter takes a lot of effort. Yet even after all the hours I pour into making sure people are watching me, I’m still surprised to learn people are watching me. Let me tell you, people are watching you too. Not just your mother, or the brother who loves to hold things over your head, but your four-year-old niece, the quiet employee you work with on Thursday afternoons, the sales associate at the bookstore where you buy all your reading material, the professor who you’ll eventually hit up for a reference letter.
Even my ordinary life has had extraordinary moments. At the tender age of thirteen I traveled alone to France to spend the summer with a family I didn’t know. In my mid-twenties I visited Dublin, Ireland to hire and train an employee at a brand-new manufacturing plant. Of course, as a mother, there were four life-altering moments when each of my children was born. But there was also my freshman year in high school when a boy I’d known my entire life, died from injuries he’d suffered from falling off his bicycle. Or when my roommates and I lost many of our treasured childhood belongings in a fire. There was that time my boss called me at home to ask me if the rumors she’d heard about me quitting were true – and that she was pretty sure the rumor about me sneaking off to empty hotel rooms with the bellboys, wasn’t true. Each of the extraordinary moments—whether good or bad—all had one thing in common.
I controlled my reactions. The words I used. The impression I left. I chose if I wanted to learn something from the experience or just be sad or bitter or gloating. As I rose to the occasion, or stayed strong, or restrained my anger—the whole time—there were people watching. Though I usually never thought about that aspect of it. If I was a homesick 13-year-old or, like now, a nervous 51 year old giving a (fake) commencement speech, I am the constant in the equation. And regardless of if your aspiration is to be an astronaut or a schoolteacher, or if you go on to inspire a cashless economy or work at the dollar store, if you achieve your doctorate or never step into a classroom again, our human experience is the common denominator. Always.
Every day, every one of you will make a difference in large or small ways. You will—you do—change the course of life by who you are. I challenge you to consciously be a positive influence on this world in your day-to-day life while you work toward that big change your livelihood will make. Go off and do big things, but in the meantime, do a lot of really great small things.