I had the honor of delivering the 2016 commencement address at my alma mater, The Ellis School, an independent all-girls school in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Here is the text of my speech about confidence, bravery, and the angst of doing things worth doing. Video here.
Good evening everyone. I’d like to start by congratulating the class of 2016. Apparently, nine of you were finishing kindergarten here when I was in your place twelve years ago. Even though this makes me feel a little old, it means a lot to me that you wanted me here.
It’s been an eventful few months. When Ms. Newham first invited me to speak, I was so excited. I started brainstorming right away. The graduating class has worked so hard and they have so much ahead of them, I told myself. They deserve the wisest, most insightful speech I can give.
To help me prepare, Ms. Newham showed me Beth Horn’s speech from last year, a speech considered to be among the best in recent years. Friends showed me their favorite commencement speeches — David Foster Wallace at Kenyon, Aaron Sorkin at Syracuse. Surely I could learn from all these and produce something great.
At that point, I had a few months — enough time to write the best speech ever. I wrote draft after draft. But it all seemed too preachy, too cliche. It didn’t help that another video of a commencement speech seemed to go viral every other day. Watching these videos, I found myself more inspired about life and excited about my own future — but less satisfied with anything that I wrote for you.
Months passed. All I had to show was half a dozen aborted drafts and a crushed confidence in my ability to write speeches. I felt stuck and defeated.
If I couldn’t write a speech as good as Beth Horn’s or David Foster Wallace’s, then why should I be giving a commencement speech at all?
When I talked about this with my friend Seth, he said, “Well, yeah. You’re ‘Sething it.’”
My friend Seth is an amazingly accomplished economist and writer who often becomes paralyzed by the desire to become even more accomplished. Seth writes for The New York Times and is currently working on his first book. For months, though, he stopped working on his book completely. He spent his days re-reading Freakonomics, a best-selling popular economics book, and his nights beating himself up for not writing a book as good. We talked about his angst so much we coined a new phrase, “Sething it.” You’re “Sething it” when your desire to do something great prevents you from doing anything at all. You’re “Sething it” when you get so caught up in not being as good as other people that you can’t do what you’re supposed to do.
I had been hard on Seth, wondering how he had gone through his whole life without realizing that you can’t always be the best. What writing this speech made me realize, though, was that everyone who does something they care about is susceptible to “Sething it.” And from what I hear about how passionate and driven you ladies are, I’d be surprised if you managed to go through life without ever “Sething it.”
You might think you’re immune. I had thought this too — about myself. After all, I didn’t grow up used to being the best at everything. Something I loved about Ellis was how people supported us in doing the things we chose, even if we weren’t the best in the world. When I was at Ellis, I decided I wanted to play field hockey despite having really poor hand-eye coordination. Mrs. K and my teammates worked to help me find my place on the team. It turns out that I make a decent defender, because even though I have a lot of trouble making contact with the actual ball, I’m pretty good at running after other people and taking the ball away from them. I became good enough at running to be on a varsity field hockey team that made the WPIAL finals twice. Even though I was far from being the best player, some of my best memories are from playing on the team.
Getting used to not being best prepared me for college. At Ellis, I had won my share of math and science prizes, but at my university, I was lost in a sea of people who held medals in international math and science Olympiads. At the end of my first semester, I asked my math professor to write me a letter of recommendation. He politely suggested I ask someone who knew me better. There were a hundred people in the class and I simply did not stand out. I was disappointed but not crushed. If I could play varsity field hockey with such poor stick skills, then surely I could become a scientist without having impressed my freshman math professor.
All this prepared me to cope with failure in graduate school. When I started my PhD, a professor told me, “If you want to be a great scientist, you need to learn to fail.” And fail I did. During the next few years, the academy pummeled my ego to an unprecedented degree. My first paper submission was rejected four times over the course of my first three years of graduate school. When I was looking for a faculty job, it seemed like school after school declined to interview me. Someone even said to me at one point, “I thought you would have more interviews.” People were often surprised that I took the rejections so well, but I was surprised that they were surprised. After all, I had learned at Ellis that sometimes you don’t succeed the first few times you try — and that’s fine.
But somehow, nothing prepared me for the angst of writing this speech. The truth is, if you care about doing a good job on something, especially something you don’t have a lot of experience doing, it’s going to be difficult. It helps to be in a supportive environment. It helps to focus less on what others are doing and more on what you are supposed to do. But no matter what, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to prevent the angst that comes from doing something worth doing.
What my experiences did prepare me for was realizing that I should not stack-rank my speech against other speeches. Though I was not the best student in freshman math, I found areas of research that I could contribute to in meaningful ways. Though not everyone likes my work, enough people find it important that I was able to get a professorship at one of the best research universities in the world. And — thinking about how it was often the small conversations, rather than the grand speeches, that changed my life most, I became excited again to speak to you.
As for my friend Seth, he also realized that the value in his book is that it’s different from any other book. After two months he got back to work and even reached out to the authors of Freakonomics for advice. His editor was very pleased with his first draft and the book should hit stores sometime in the next year.
Congratulations once more. I’m not worried about any of you. As Ellis women, you have something nobody can take away: the experience of having been part of a community that supports you no matter what you do. You may not think much of it now, but later you’ll realize that this is a big part of what makes you so confident, so brave. But you are human — and there are times you may lose your confidence and your bravery for brief periods. When you find yourself “Sething it,” remember that it’s not because you are not good enough, but because you care. And if that doesn’t help, go to any bookstore or museum and remind yourself that, behind any work you admire, there was doubt and there was struggle.
With thanks to Nick Stroustrup, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, Victoria Yang, Nadia Polikarpova, and Alison Hill for comments.