Sterling K. Brown, award-winning actor, tells Stanford graduates not to be afraid to let their lights shine
Calling upon philosophical muses and his own experiences, Brown delivers the 127th Stanford University Commencement address.
At Stanford’s 127th Commencement, Stanford alum and multi-award-winning actor Sterling K. Brown told graduating students of the Class of 2018 that if they find that purpose in life that gives them access to maximum enthusiasm, trust it.
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Before launching into his Commencement address, Brown confessed to the graduates that he must have started writing his speech more than 50 times because he 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.”
Apropos to his struggle getting his speech just right, he also told the graduates to think of perfection like an asymptote. “The journey toward it is infinite, but the destination can never be reached,” he said.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1976, Brown grew up in nearby Olivette and came to Stanford in 1994 as an economics major with plans to work in business. During his freshman year, Brown played Joe Turner in August Wilson’s play Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and he found that his desire to illuminate the human condition through acting was the thing that gave his life the greatest sense of purpose. He graduated from Stanford in 1998 with a degree in drama followed by an MFA from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in 2001.
Brown’s professional career took off within a year of graduate school, beginning with small film, television and stage roles that grew into larger and recurring roles followed by his breakthrough, award-winning television performances, including his role in the dramatic series This Is Us.
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Two-time Emmy winner, Brown is the first African American man to win the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Drama Television Series and the first African American man to win a Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Drama Series.
This year, Brown’s film credits include a pivotal role in Black Panther and he was chosen by Time magazine as one of the 100 Most Influential People of 2018.
Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne introduced Brown as someone who discovered early in his years at Stanford the power of his own offering to the world and whose performances “attest to the fundamental truth that in art, the universal may be found in the individual.”
Calling upon his freshman-year focus on philosophy, Brown chose quotes from his “big three,” Socrates, Plato and Lao Tzu, to share with the graduates.
Brown chose the Socrates quote, “An unexamined life is not worth living,” to prompt graduates to, in Brown’s words, “stay woke.”
“Beware the barrenness of a busy life,” also from Socrates, was Brown’s warning about the enormous pull to always be doing, hustling and bustling in life.
From Plato, Brown chose this quote: “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.” He told the graduates that it is their birthright and responsibility to shine.
From the author of the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu, Brown offered this quote as it related to his journey as a Stanford student: “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.”
Brown ended his Commencement address with a personal remembrance of one of his dearest friends from Stanford, Andrew Jacob Daher, who died the year after they graduated. Looking to Daher as an example of shining brightness, Brown said that he still finds himself saying to himself, “One day, when I grow up, I’m gonna be just like Andrew.”
Write your own story
Presiding over his second Stanford Commencement ceremony, Tessier-Lavigne shared his hope that Stanford prepared the graduates for a life of purpose and continual exploration.
To explain what he meant by a life of purpose, Tessier-Lavigne told the story of Edith Mirrieless, Class of 1907 and later professor of creative writing at Stanford. One of Mirrielees’ students was John Steinbeck, who was seeking the secret to writing great short stories. Mirrielees dissuaded Steinbeck of the notion that there was a secret to writing. She told Steinbeck that effective stories had to convey something from writer to reader and “the power of its offering was the measure of its excellence.”
“What Steinbeck learned, is what I hope each one of you will remember in the years ahead,” said Tessier-Lavigne. “Just as there is no magic formula for writing a great short story, there is also no magic formula for living a life of purpose and of exploration.
“As Sterling himself has shown, a life can take any shape, and can explore any direction, any career, any path at all,” Tessier-Lavigne said. “But ultimately, it acquires its meaning through its purpose – through the power of the offering.”
By the numbers
Stanford conferred 1,673 bachelor’s degrees, 2,433 master’s degrees and 1,000 doctoral degrees across the university’s seven schools.
Departmental honors were awarded to 305 undergraduates; 291 graduated with university distinction; 79 earned multiple majors; 29 graduated with dual bachelor’s degrees; 442 completed minors; and 187 graduated with combined bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
Among international students, there were 121 undergraduates from 32 countries and 1,143 graduate students from 81 countries.