Commencement Speech to the Creative Class of 2016: “Do What Makes You Come Alive”
On May 19, I gave my first commencement address to art and design students graduating from my alma mater, Washington University in St. Louis. In engaging this opportunity, I was asked to speak from the perspective of a young alum and share inspiration for how to live a radically and consciously creative post-graduate life.
In reflecting on this task, I tapped back into my 22 year old self and asked: what would I have wanted to know? What would have made my journey easier? What were the biggest challenges in transitioning from a life-long role as a “student” to becoming a creative adult? How did I learn how to live a life with meaning?
With many tears wiped aside, I shared the following:
Thank you for welcoming me to share in this experience with you tonight.
It is such an honor and privilege, as I am not that far removed from being in your very seats.
But I am here. YOU are here. And I would like to take a few moments while we are together to talk to you about stepping into your creative calling.
Since graduating from SamFox in 2010, my life has opened pathways to some of the most joyful, insightful, and unimaginable adventures a young artist could ask for.
And I see this moment as a chance to excite you about all the possibilities of what’s to come.
But you see, many of the most profound epiphanies that have gotten me to this place over the past 6 years have actually come from moments of challenge and hardship.
In fact, when I was sitting in your seats, I was on the verge of what would become a huge 2-year anxiety attack. How many of you are feeling a bit anxious right now?
Yea, a lot of you. I get it.
I empathize with you because in the midst of all the excitement about finishing school, I left with a big and embarrassing burden: I had not prepared as well for my next steps. I had been accepted to Teach for America, though I knew deep inside this was not the job or path I really wanted.
By the summer, I went on a journey to find what I really wanted to do. I got a job as an in-house designer. That didn’t work out. I worked at a marketing firm, and I was so good at it that I rose quickly to become a senior account manager. I learned a lot, but it didn’t feel right.
And deep down, I knew what I wanted to do. I just couldn’t articulate or figure it out how to do it.
And it caused me to go into a deep state of depression to the point where I cried so much that I ended up on bed rest. For weeks, I couldn’t talk, so my mom would write notes to me. One day, I wrote a note to myself. It was a prayer that said…
God, I need your help. I don’t know how I got here, but I don’t think this is the life for me. I want to stop running from myself and my potential. I am ready to commit, but I’m stuck. If you could help me find myself out of this predicament, I will be obedient to my creative calling. Use me for something greater than this. Something greater than me.
I wrote this in May of 2012, and I share it because since that moment–since making that commitment–my life has been forever changed.
That was the moment I first chose to no longer be stuck or afraid to follow my own greatness.
I’ve since gone to grad school, won countless awards for my work, shared stages with presidents, keynoted conferences with people whose books we had to read for studio, and travelled all across the nation helping other creative people change the worlds around them.
And, I share all of these moments with you to say this: there will be more times coming in your life when you are going to be a this crossroad, where a chapter is going to end and you will have to make a decision to either follow your gift or venture off into something else.
I encourage you to explore, experiment, fail and iterate, to learn as much as you can from everything you do, and meet as many people as possible. Do all that you must, but do not get stuck. Do not fail for fear your own greatness.
When I was down south, the process of digging my way out of my mess equipped me with a lot of practices that helped me regain creative control over my life.
One was learning how to articulate who I am and what I stand for. You are the owner of your story, and you have to learn how to tell it. Do this by finding ways to stay in tune with yourself. Build in time and space in your life to regularly check-in with yourself about where you are and HOW you are and how that influences your work. If you can harness this, you won’t get stuck. In fact, you may just attract people and opportunities that will stick to you.
As well, getting unstuck requires staying well-connected to others, like the people–your classmates– sitting beside you and the people–your mentors and leaders–on this stage.
For me, it wasn’t just grad school that helped me find my way. It was a multitude of people who served as bridges in my life. One was a woman by the name of Molly Needleman. She’d graduated from SamFox a year before me, and around the time of my crisis, she posted on Facebook that she was looking for someone to replace her at her job, and long-story-short, she selected me as her successor. This was how I first got unstuck. It was a fellow alum of THIS SCHOOL who became the bridge that I needed at that time.
So, sustain the connections you’ve made, and continue to connect with connectors as you go out into the world.
A third lesson of getting unstuck was learning how to be strong enough to be vulnerable, to embrace failure and rejections, and bounce back.
Because one thing is true: You’re going to fail, and it’s going to hurt, and that is okay.
Take lessons from those mistakes and use them to catapult you towards success.
Fourth, if you get stuck, start breaking the rules of what you’ve been told and explore the intersections of where your creativity aligns with other passions that you have.
I knew very early on that I wanted to use my art and my skills as a designer to impact the world around me. But when I was in school, the pathway I was shown said that I either had to get a job at a design firm, an in-house position, a fellowship, or more school. Once I made the commitment to bridge my passion for social change with my creativity, it was then that opportunities arose, and I became confident with building a unique path for myself. Saying “Yes, and” in my life became a space for opportunity. YES, I am an artist AND an advocate for social justice. YES, I am a designer AND changemaker.
YES, you can be both creative AND catalytic.
In fact the world is looking for people just like you, who can think about systems and causes in a different way and problem-solve creatively in order to spark new ways of approaching ideas and issues.
You have a tremendous wealth of value that you bring, and the world is yearning for you. What you have–that creative magic– is needed.
So finally, I encourage you: Do what makes you come alive.
The most amazing moments of life exist when we are the most obedient to our unique creative calling. And I believe that each of you are sitting in your seats today because you–too–have discovered at least an inkling of what your unique creative calling might be.
So even if it’s just a whisper–I urge you to listen and answer it.
Beyond today, you may not have group critiques or the luxury of a dedicated studio space, but you will always have your gift.
Use it. Work your creative magic. Be consciously creative. Don’t run from yourself. Continue to do what makes you come alive, and you will not get stuck. I promise you, a world of awesomeness will unfold before you.