My Words To The Graduates & Others Who Want To Live

Speech Outline (sort of):

It was crazy to me when I was invited to Mt. Zion to speak to you. I rarely get nervous when I need to speak to anyone, but instantly, I had a million questions. Do the people of Mt. Zion follow me on facebook? Do they know the crazy things I say there? Of course my mother follows me, but she’s my mother, she doesn’t count. Do they know my views on education?

Pastor Edwards and I sat down and he assured me he knew who I was and that’s why I was asked to speak.

Though I’m speaking to the graduates and their families, if it applies to you, too, keep it.

My mother. I’ve done many interviews, talked to millions of people around the world, and the same question comes up. “Why are you like this?” Some are asking because they think I’m absolutely insane. Some are asking because they’re intrigued with the idea of who I am. Either way, I tell them it’s because of my mother. My mother is crazy, too. My mother, allowed me to be whoever and whatever it was I wanted to become. When every report card I received since Preschool said “talks too much in class,” my mother made sure I was also using those powers for good. When I was in and out of the principal’s office and school board meetings in high school because I demanded that they start an African American History Class, my mother didn’t tell me to chill. Instead, she was sitting right there in the meetings. That’s what love is, after all, isn’t it?

To the parents:

Love liberates.

When Maya Angelou went to her mother to tell her she was moving out of her house and into a place of her own, her mother told her, “when you walk across my door sill, you have been raised. Don’t let anyone raise you. And if the world beats you up, just know you can always come back home.” Love liberates.

It’s the ego that holds. It’s the ego that won’t allow us to let our children go into the world and be great. That makes us look at our children in the face and say “no” when they tell us they are ready to go. Ego holds.

My favorite person in the world was my grandmother, Irene Jones. When I graduated high school and got accepted into a college a thousand miles away from home, my parents packed the car to drive me down. The last stop before pulling out of Charlottesville was Irene Jones’ house. It was a quick stop. I hugged her and she said, “you go down there and be great and make me proud like you always do.” I made it to the car, down the driveway, and on to main street before the tears came down my face. Not once did my grandma, my favorite person in the world, tell me to stay or ask me why I needed to go so far. This was a liberation. She understood what life was and that I needed to experience it and that meant I needed to be liberated.

In 2011, I got a few calls from family while I was home in California, telling me my grandmother was really sick. They stopped the dialysis, and she was no longer eating. I booked a flight and made my way home. Everyday, I was at the hospital, then at the nursing home. Weeks passed, and she wasn’t talking, so I talked. I told her all about what was going on in California, and I apologized for not being able to buy her that house on the hill she wanted, and not getting married yet so she could dance at my wedding.

One day, while I was there, things felt different. Suddenly I remembered a conversation she and I had years ago when she started dialysis. She told me she didn’t want to wait around for others when it was time for her to go. I hated the thought of it, but I couldn’t let it go. I grabbed her hand and said “ If you’re ready to go, go. You’ve done an amazing job here, and everyone is better because of you. You go if you really want. I will be fine. They will be fine.” Then I played the Coldplay song, “Fix You,” kissed her, and left.

I drove to my dad’s, sat on the couch, turned on the TV, and the phone rang. I knew what the call was.

Love liberates. It doesn’t hold. Love says “go and be happy, and when you are ready to come back, come back, I will be happy with you.”

Parents, I’m going to assume these children of yours, no matter how the world sees them, are your favorite people. It’s your job to liberate them, so they may liberate you one day.

To the graduates & other students:

You’re the children of social media and short attention spans, so try hard to listen.

1. Who are you and what are your intentions?

Why are you here? What will you do? What makes your heart beat faster? What makes your palms sweat? What’s keeping you from going out into the world and conquering it? How are you going to make someone else life better? What or who did you want to be before someone crazy came along and told you it wasn’t possible? Who are you?

It’s important you know this answer soon, and it’s important that the answer changes often. Who you were in 9th grade is not who you are now, and if it is, you just wasted too much time. Who you are now cannot be who you are at 21.

2. Everyone important in your life, everyone, is going to hurt you. I challenge you to find the ones worth suffering for. It’s difficult to be an individual without other individuals standing by cheering you on, and you doing the same for them. I dedicated one of my books to those friends who whisper in my ear “you are only a man” when I sometimes think I’m god. I need them. You need those people.

You will not get far walking with losers.

3. I didn’t know any writers, directors, producers, artists, or photographers growing up. Everything I wanted to be, and everything I became was new for me. I spent a good amount of time confused because I didn’t want to do what my parents or friends did. My friends became teachers because their mothers were teachers. They became drug dealers because their cousins were drug dealers.

Your dreams are your dreams. Hold tight to them. There will always be dream killers along the way to tell you how dumb those dreams are. They will tell you how those dreams won’t make money, and how they’d do them differently. Let them talk, then still create it the way you see fit. Nothing you create should be based on how others think it should be done.

Also: stop sharing your dreams with those who aren’t supporting them.

4. You must always be a student. Your mind must always be open. How many times have you heard “Education is the key to freedom?” It’s true. This is why slaves weren’t allowed to read. This is why so many of these school to prison pipeline schools have removed required reading. Education is what will free you. And not necessarily the education you received in those classrooms from those people, because honestly, there are lots of slaves with diplomas and degrees. You become a slave when you close your mind.

Most of what I know I learned on street corners in my hometown, in alleyways, in coffee shops, and on trains, planes, and busses around the world.

Freedom has a price you are obligated to pay. When you are free, you must free others. That is your fee. I teach anyone willing to listen on those same corners, alleyways, busses, planes, and trains. No textbooks, just conversation with open and opening minds.

But understand this, everyone is not ready to get free. Harriet Tubman said, “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.”

You are here now because you’ve achieved something many have not. You’ve earned a level of education many lost their lives trying to reach. I don’t have to ask because I know there are parents in here now who have sacrificed more than they imagined just to see you wear that cap and gown. You must pay for that. With education comes freedom. Freedom is not free. What do you have to offer now?

You may not get all you pay for in this world; but you must pay for all you get.

5. Listen to no one who claims to have the manual to your life. The manual they’re offering is to theirs and only theirs. Every map drawn for you by someone else is trash. It will lead you nowhere.

6. The playing field is not leveled. To get the flag at the end of the field, you will have to work harder than everyone else. To be visible, you will have to work harder than everyone else. Don’t over think it, just remember it, and do it. While working that much harder, you must also being working to level the playing field at the same time. You do this by freeing others.

7. Learn to recognize good teachers. Those folks who, even when you think you’re tired and worn out and know everything already, will keep on teaching you because they know your potential. Until you are dead, you will find teachers along the way. Don’t be the fool who sends them away because you think you have nothing left to learn.

8. This may hurt a little, and you may take it the wrong way. You are not special. You do not hold a monopoly on pain, happiness, hurt, anything. You are like everyone else, searching for happiness. I believe strongly that if we abandoned our selfishness and opened up to others so others could open to us, there’d be no one we hated. I challenge you to talk to strangers, smile at others, eat in strange places, and share your stories.

Teach yourself to be vulnerable. Wear yourself on your face. Wear your heart on your sleeve. Manage your own emotions, and be able to identify the emotions of others.

Parents: stop telling your child they will be killed if they trust strangers. Stop telling them that the world beyond the stop sign is dangerous because you were too afraid to go out there. I’ve been out there. Most people are good. Ego holds. Love liberates.

It’s not okay to be afraid to live, and what they don’t tell you is that it takes more courage to be afraid than it takes to go out there. To be afraid is to be so courageous, that you’re prepared to see your dreams, your passions, and your life pass you by. To wake up everyday and tell yourself, “it could have been,” is a painful thing. Never let other voices be stronger than your own. If you find the courage to walk with others to the edge of the forest, you need to find the courage to leave them there and run into the unexplored territory.

Run in and get scratched, bruised, and hurt, but don’t stop running. Who wants to live an unscathed life? Who wants to live a life so cautious that they never truly lived at all? I’ve found myself stranded with three criminals at the French/England border. I’ve been stranded in foreign jungle with a car in two feet of water and no phone reception, I’ve been held at gunpoint by police, and I’ve been 5000 miles away from home with only $3 in my pocket. Believe it or not, these were some of the greatest times of my life. I did not die. You will not die. Don’t get me wrong, it’s okay to be cautious, as long as your desire to discover and find yourself is stronger than your desire to live unhurt. Run in, get scratched, bruised, and hurt, but don’t stop running.

In a bathroom in DC, on the wall, I wrote: If you are not brave, say you are, then be it. As most speeches go, people will listen and remember for a while, then forget it all. Remember this. As a writer who lives, I’ve learned books and life are not about how long they are, but how amazing.

9. Be careful who or what you let steal your youth. Attempt to make it through life with as few regrets as possible. And the regrets you build are just proof you lived. Anyone who tells you they have no regrets are either lying or they were too afraid to live.

Always be prepared for death. Not in a way where you walk around saddened and afraid, but in an accepting way. In a way that makes us question our lives daily. In a way that makes you ask “is today the day? Am I ready? Am I doing all I need to do? “

A nurse working with dying patients, listening to their stories, their achievements, and sharing their lives, talks about the top 5 regrets her patients shared.

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
6. I wish I’d traveled more.

10. The best thing about graduating now, and maybe for the next few years, is that all the rules we’ve ever known are falling apart, being burned, and drowned. The walls are all coming down. This gives you the freedom to create the rules you want to live by and no one can grab your arm and tell you “that’s not how it’s done.” And if they try, you cut off their hand.

I simply disobeyed the rules, because each time someone felt it was important to tell me “that’s not how it’s done,” I met 20 people who were doing it exactly that way.

11. Failing does not mean losing. It means you need to look at your process, find out where it needs to be tweaked, and try it again, and again, and again.

And you must try again with everything you have. From the ground up, every piece of you must be in it. Every fiber of your being.

You have to show up! I had a job where 7500 people sent in their photos and resumes to be put on television. We had to pick 12 of them. Day after day I had to send people home crying, mad at me, mad at themselves, and some even ready to end it all. We finally found the 12 and called them in one last time. Each of them thought they were coming to another tiring audition. When they learned they were the new cast, One pulled me to the side, crying. His bank account was in the negative, he wasn’t sure how his rent was going to be paid, he hadn’t had a real meal in days, and when he got the call that morning he had to beg a man at the bus stop for change. “But I had to show up,” he said.

Pride makes us artificial. Humility makes us real. When you’ve knocked on so many doors your knuckles start to bleed, and the ground is so familiar because you’ve been knocked down so many times, and your pride, dignity, and possibly even your soul has abandoned you, you show up with whatever it is you have left, and knock again, and again, and again. There are times when you best will not be good enough. But give it your best, and give just a little more.

What are your intentions?

If your intentions are not to win, you deserve nothing. You don’t want the beach if you won’t want the crashing of the waves, too. But if you go in prepared to give everything you have, you have not failed.

“But I firmly believe that any man’s finest hour — his greatest fulfillment to all he holds dear — is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle – victorious.” – Vince Lombardi

In Conclusion, these 10 notes:

1. Accept what you aren’t able to do and take pride in the things you are able to do.
2. Yes, the past is the past, but never deny it or throw it away.
3. Ask yourself everyday “What if today was my last day on earth?”
4. Know when it’s time to believe what you see and when it’s time to believe what you feel.
5. Cling to nothing.
6. If your life isn’t about you chasing those things that give you purpose and meaning, start over.
7. If success means money, create a new definition of success.
8. Always forgive yourself, then try very hard to forgive others.
9. When you find yourself in a moment of pure joy, a moment so amazing, you have no words for it, stop for a second and be grateful for it.
10. Forget everything I just said and go discover life on your own.

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