2018 Commencement speech by Stanford alumnus Sterling K. Brown
Following is the prepared text of remarks by Sterling K. Brown.
Nerd Nation! Class of 2018! How we doing this morning?! You hung over?! Did you even go to bed last night?! (Bwahahahaha)
That’s what’s up!
President Tessier-Lavigne, thank you so much for sharing those beautiful words with us this morning. And thank you for such a gracious welcome … it’s good to be home. In the future let’s try to “under-promise,” and “over-deliver,” you know what I mean? We don’t want the people expecting too much. Then, when I come off sounding halfway decent, everybody’ll be like, “Oh, my goodness, wasn’t that refreshing? That young man was so articulate. What’s the name of his show? I’m gonna watch it just for him!”
Before I get into the speech, I need to make one statement, and then pose one question.
Statement: I will, from time to time, be slipping into a dialect known as AAVE – for the uninitiated, that is African American Vernacular English. In some sections of the country they will refer to this dialect as “Ebonics,” but here, at Leland Stanford Jr. University, where it was taught to me by Professor John R. Rickford, we call it AAVE.
I utilize this dialect because it’s something I’m familiar and comfortable with. And since I’m home, talking to all my future fellow alumni of “The Farm,” I figured I might as well make myself as familiar and comfortable as possible.
I also use it (periodically), because sometimes, when driving a point home, I find “The King’s” to be somewhat lacking … Dost thou apprehend my perspective?
I wanted to make this disclaimer upfront, just in case anyone was concerned about where Randall Pearson – he does not have a Mohawk, he was still raised by Jack and Becky with the good hair, and he does not utilize the dialect of AAVE quite as much as ya boy (… but he might … who knows?).
Now for my question: Have any of you ever been asked to do something, that everyone automatically assumes you’ll be great at, but in the back of your mind, you have no idea what you’re going to do? You’re absolutely terrified of looking foolish, and loathe the fact that you ever agreed to do it in the first place? That for some reason or another, people consider you to be this deep thinker with profound insights to share with the world, while all along you feel about as deep as the shallow end of a kiddie pool?
If so … then welcome to the 127th Commencement address at Stanford University as delivered to you by Sterling K. Brown! (MTL – this is the way you “under promise.”)
Yo, real talk? I must’ve started this speech ’bout fifty-eleven times! Every time I started, it would be ah’ight … but I wanted it to be great. I wanted to give you all something special.
Because I’ve sat where you’ve sat. I’ve imagined what the next phase of my life would look like. I’ve celebrated with my friends and family. I’ve struggled through the quarter system for four years and I made it through to the other side. (Admittedly, as a drama major – but the struggle is still real.) You young people are the best of the best … and you deserve the best from me … and I have had a really hard time finding it.
The biggest hurdle that I’ve had to overcome in preparing this speech is one of my own creation. It was an unconscious story that I had about myself which has been forced to the surface through this particular exercise in public speaking, and it goes something like this:
“Brown (I say to myself), you are not a writer. You only got a 600 on your best verbal SAT score (#SoStanford #NeverWouldHaveAdmittedThat20YearsAgo). You haven’t written a speech of any significance since your junior year of high school when you ran for student council president. (I did win, by the way.) What makes you think you can just pull 15 minutes out of your backside when you haven’t put pen to paper for a public address in over 25 years?”
Now, I can already see your beautiful John Forbes Nash-like minds at work preparing your rebuttal. Allow me to give them voice: “Mr. Brown (because you’re respectful), you’ve won all these awards over the past couple of years for these roles you’ve played … and we’ve heard your speeches! What are you talking about?”
To that I say, “Yes, I’ve been blessed to win a few things, and yes I’ve GIVEN a few speeches … but I did not WRITE THEM DOWN!” Bullet points. I make a few bullet points then I shoot from the hip. That’s pretty easy for me. That’s familiar. But THIS … this is very new …
And anytime you do something new, usually, inevitably, there is fear. Especially if you’ve ever suffered from perfectionism – I wouldn’t imagine any of you Nerds who have busted your hump to get into the dopest university in the country would know anything about that.
Here’s the thing I had to remind myself about Fear. As a human being, it is my goal in life to become the best version of myself, which is ultimately (I believe) divine. If all of my life is comfortable and convenient, I rob myself of the opportunity to grow, to stretch, to expand.
When I feel fear, as uncomfortable as it may be, I know I’m in the right place. Whether you’re 22, or 42, never allow fear to keep you from expanding your definition of self.
MTL, and Senior Class presidents, by inviting me to be your commencement speaker today, you have provided me with an opportunity to step into the unknown where possibilities are limitless. And while I may have silently cursed you a few times while I was writing this thing, please allow me now to thank you for providing the landscape for my own individual growth. (Namaste.)
Now, back to the hell of actually writing this thing!
Since we’ve already established that I was working under the rather destructive, self-inflicted narrative of “I am not a writer,” I turned to the writings of others. And this was very helpful. Freshman year, as part of what was then known as CIV, my focus was philosophy, and it was a personal revelation.
Particularly, as a young man who was raised Christian in St. Louis, MO, I was quite stunned to find that no one religious group, nor individuals who subscribed to no particular faith at all, have a monopoly on wisdom. There was a wealth of philosophers, and philosophies to consult besides The Gospels and Proverbs. The latter still hold a special place in my life, but so too, now, do the former. From the perspective in which I live my life today, the divine is accessible to all.
So I consulted my “Big Three.” “Big Three; Big Three!” (Chest thump) Socrates, Plato, and Lao Tzu. Quite a few pearls of wisdom from these sages. Allow me to read just a few that helped me get the ball rollin’.
An unexamined life is not worth living.
#StayWoke. Do you ever think about what you’re thinking about, or do you treat your thoughts as if they’re real and you have no control over them? No answers here. Just questions. I think that’s how Socrates would have preferred it. Next quote …
Beware the barrenness of a busy life.
There will be an enormous pull when you enter into the real world to be busy. Always doing, always hustling and bustling. Have you contemplated the importance of stillness? Is being busy the same as being productive? Hmm …
I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world.
Ooh, I like this one! Nationalism v. Globalism. This is very … Black Panther! Who you responsible for? Are you your brothers’ and sisters’ keeper? Or are you responsible for only your “own” people? Or your own path, for that matter?
And lastly, the one that really landed on me …
I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance.
Can I get an amen?!
Do y’all know some of the people you’ve had deliver this commencement address?! I’m talking Multiple Supreme Court Justices, Multiple Mayors of major metropolises (I looked that up. It’s the plural of metropolis, but it sound funny, right? “Metropolises”). Tech Titans who only need one name – Gates, Jobs. And of course, The Queen … or at least that’s what we call her in “the community,” but for the uninitiated … I’m talking ’bout Oprah.
Now from where I’m sitting, these people know something. They make laws, run cities, make BANK, move the culture!
While me and Socrates, on the other hand, are swimming in a sea of ignorance as vast as the Pacific itself. Just don’t know nothing.
People … I’m the dude, who takes the words of another dude, and makes it seem like he came up with them himself … that’s what I do for a living! (I really can’t believe y’all got me up here talking to these young people, man. This is crazy! )
But then I take a breath, and I remember, my speech doesn’t have to look like anybody else’s. My speech, is MY speech. They can’t do what I can do, any more than I can do what they do. So why try? And it’s not FOR them. It’s not even for me … it’s for you. It is a reflection OF me, and hopefully, it is AUTHENTIC to who I am as a person. But when I place the focus on where it truly belongs, on this gorgeous opportunity to be of service to the future of this country, the future of the world, I stop worrying about how I compare to others, and I just give you the best that I got.
Let’s move on to Plato, shall we? First quote … this one inspired me throughout the entirety of my speech …
The beginning is the most important part of the work.
“Just write something, Brown! It don’t have to be perfect. It don’t have to be pretty. You can tell ’em you write in AAVE later and make it seem like a conscious choice – they won’t know! But write something!”
One more from Plato…
We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.
This one was big. It was big because it reminded me of another quote that changed my life.
The quote is by Marianne Williamson and it goes like this …
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us most. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and famous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in all of us. And when we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
Graduates of the Class of 2018: Do not be afraid to let your light shine! It is your birthright … it is your responsibility! Because we grow together.
I remember working on a commedia piece in grad school, and my teacher was asking me to do something that was incredibly uncomfortable (as are frequently the requests made by faculty in an acting conservatory program). Let me remind you, I loathe looking foolish. And he knew that, and did not allow me to recede into my fear. He would not allow me to use that as an excuse to keep from moving forward. He told me, “It’s not about you, Sterling. We’re all learning from your experience.”
Have you ever walked into a room and felt the energy of the room change? Better yet, have you ever been in a room, and had someone walk into that space and felt it shift for the better? … or for the worse? My Momma always told me, “When you visit someone else’s house, leave things better than the way you found them. That way you’ll always be asked back.” You wanna be that person that changes the room for the better. You wanna be that person that they keep asking back. You do that by turning on your light!
Sometimes when I’m at the gym, on the treadmill, getting in my little cardio, frequently I say in my head, I say, “This stuff is for the birds! I wanna go home. I’m done!”
And then I’ll look up, and I’ll see someone letting their light shine, and I am reminded of the luminescence that is me.
Some people will say that’s my competitive nature coming out. Sure, that’s one way of looking at it. But I choose to see it as my inspired nature coming out.
I am inspired by the excellence of others.
I strive for personal excellence. There is no sense in doing something if you’re not going to try to do your best. But also, because I know that it inspires excellence in others! I gotta pay it forward. The inspiration can’t stop with me!
You guys, my friends from Stanford are some baaaaaad men! I got two lawyers (one who’s transitioning into standup comedy because he knows that’s where his light shines brightest), a judge, a urologist (great at dinner parties, btw), and a doctoral student in communications with a sub-discipline in performance studies.
Rarely having an explicit discussion about it, we are exceptionally proud of one another. By challenging ourselves, we challenge each other to be the best possible version of ourselves. I surround myself with people who let their light shine!
Yo, not to mention the hottest chick in the game, rocking my chain, fellow graduate of the class of ’98, double major in English and African American studies, proud member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority incorporated, Omicron Chi chapter. Writer, singer, actor, producer, and proud mother of two future Stanford graduates to boot, Ryan Michelle Bathé … you are the brightest light in my life! Thank you for shining with your boy!
Almost forgot the third of my big three, Lao Tzu. That’s like leaving Randall at the hospital, man! My bad.
The author of the Tao Te Ching’s wisdom is so pure and simple, it requires very little explication. Here we go…
When you are content to be simply yourself and don’t compare or compete, everybody will respect you. (Right?)
When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.
Briefly, when I first got to Stanford, I thought I had it all figured out. Major in Econ, go into business, or finance, make BANK … and take care of my family. It made sense. It was the prudent thing to do. And while I had always loved acting, it just wasn’t practical.
In my mind, a career in acting was reserved for the children of the wealthy who didn’t have to worry about making a significant contribution to the livelihood of their communities …
Of their families.
But the call of the stage never waned. The desire to illuminate the human condition was always the thing that gave my life the greatest sense of purpose (see what I did there, MTL?). I had to let go of who I was, in order to become who I am. And, if you wish for your light to shine continuously, it is a process you’ll have to go through over and over again.
A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.
Now, this is for my homies, similar to myself, who battle/have battled with perfectionism. Goals are good. They give us a sense of accomplishment. They help establish a road map of the general trajectory of our lives. And hopefully, that trajectory is onward and upward.
However, do not be so obsessed with getting the pudding made, that you forget to enjoy the process of making it. Because most of life is the process. You spend way more time on the journey than you do at the final destination.
Think of perfection like an asymptote. The journey towards it is infinite, but the destination can never be reached.
If you’re able to take that journey and enjoy it, knowing that there will always be endless room for improvement, then you be ah’ight.
If you still fool yourself into thinking the end point of perfection is something that exists, and can be attained, I worry that you may miss the beautiful curve of a life well lived, never enjoying where you are in the moment, always wishing you were someplace, something, or someone else.
In conclusion …
Fear can be a great motivator, so long as it doesn’t overcome your desire to move forward.
You have an opportunity/responsibility to leave this world better than you found it. And you do that, by being brilliant! By letting your light shine!
And don’t worry about anybody else’s light. Don’t try to compare yours to anyone else’s. If you have found that thing, that purpose in life that gives you access to maximum enthusiasm, trust that!
I’m not talking about a job, nor a career, for that matter. I’m talking about a calling! That thing that forces the metaphorical lampshade from your soul, and mandates that everyone wear sunglasses in your presence because you just that damn bright!
This is not a selfish act! Because now, those who fall within your sphere of influence, know that what is possible for you … is possible for them, as well.
And when you see someone shinin’, don’t hate! Do not tear that individual down! Celebrate their success as if it were your own! Because whether you realize it or not, we rise and we fall together.
Hey, the name of the show ain’t “Us vs. Them!” It doesn’t highlight the things that differentiate us. The show is called …”This Is Us.”
We spend so much time vilifying anyone that doesn’t see the world through the same lens as ourselves. And I include myself amongst that group. The dark side of the force is incredibly appealing. The possibility of being a Sith or a Jedi exists within us all. When folks disagree with you, welcome the opportunity to further clarify your own position for yourself. It doesn’t have to devolve into animus. And believe me, I say this as much for me as I do for you.
Dialogue with those of differing perspectives helps us develop empathy. As an actor, I do not have to like every character I play. It helps, but it’s not a necessity. But I do have to understand them. And I cannot judge them as I tell their story.
The Dalai Lama says, “Education is the proper way to promote compassion, and tolerance in society.” I remind myself of this frequently: Intolerance is still intolerance, even when it’s for the intolerant! Don’t give way to hating. Do not give anyone the power to rob you of your light!
One of my dearest friends from Stanford was Andrew Jacob Daher. We lived in Uj together freshman year, and, with the exception of the year he spent abroad at The London School of Economics, we spent every other year either across the hall from each other, or right next door. He had a beautiful mind. And an exquisite soul. I remember once freshman year, somebody tried to put AJD on front street and they said, “Yo, Andrew, why you always hanging out with all these black people, man?” Sans hesitation, Mr. Phi Beta Kappa in Econ, with his hat pulled real low over his eyes, said, “Because I’m down.”
Yeah, Andrew was white, and in just being himself, affectation-free, he had as much soul as anybody in that dorm … and in case you forgot, I’m talking ’bout UJAMAA!
In Andrew, I found a kindred spirit. Someone who was always looking for new ways to improve himself. We studied together, worked out together – the first time I ran the steps at this stadium, it was with Andrew.
I remember one night in Burbank, Stern (we got a bad draw number, what can I tell ya), Andrew and I were working on an Econ 180 problem set. And I Was Strugglin’! Frustration was getting the best of me. And this dude … who had finished his problem set long ago, stayed up with me damn near ’til the sun came up, and made sure I finished my work!
He would not let me fail!
I got a few stories like that about AJD. I won’t bore you with them all …
I wish I had a few more, but unfortunately … Andrew died the year after I graduated.
“Multiple traumatic injuries” sustained when he fell from the third story of the building where he worked.
Whether it was intentional or not is unclear.
There is a tree and a bench in Lagunita Court in remembrance of one of the brightest beings I’ve ever known in my life. Bright like intelligent, yes. But bright like LUMINOUS!
Andrew Jacob Daher is one of the only people I know who always did his absolute best! And even though he’s been gone for 19 years now, I still find myself saying, “One day, when I grow up, I’m gonna be just like Andrew.”
My son, his namesake, is here today. When I see my boy, and I say his name, I smile. Because my friend still gets to be a part of my life today.
Class of 2018, no one is an island unto themselves. We have all benefited from, and been supported by, the communities which have nourished us along the way. Our families, our friends, our teachers. The easiest way I can think of showing your appreciation for their investment in your “human capital,” is by shinin’!
You are Stanford grads now! You get to walk around with an S on your chest! – why NOT shine? And remember, this is not a selfish act. This is the way we give permission to the world to collectively step into the light!
I shine for my city! (Big up, St. Louis.)
I shine for my family!
I shine for my friends!
I shine for you #chocolatecardinal
I shine for you, #NerdNation
I shine for you Andrew Jacob Daher!!!!
Class of 2018, it is your time, now! Do me a favor, will ya? Take your light and show us the way!
God bless you …
I love you …
Thank you for having me.