Commencement Speech to the Class of 2014
This past week I gave the keynote address to the WVU Honors Class of 2014. This was an awesome opportunity, and one that I realize is unique for someone as inexperienced as I am to have. I was likely, at most, only five years older than these students. And because of that, I couldn’t go up there and pretend to be exceptionally wise and have all of the answers for them. So instead, what I did was give them advice as if I were giving advice to myself, five years ago, when I was in their shoes.
And five years ago, when I was graduating from my undergrad University, I was way too concerned with grades. I was obsessed with adding things to my resume and finding that sacred path to success.
So first and foremost, I would have told myself to stop obsessing over being successful, because success is a relative concept and it’s a constantly moving target.
Instead, I would have told myself to focus my attention on three specific things. I’d give myself three key pieces of advice that may not directly lead to success, but will instead ensure that the you five years from now is more experienced, more passionate, and more confident than the you that is sitting here today. And that’s definitely a step in the right direction.
My three pieces of advice are (1) get uncomfortable, (2) get outraged, (3) and have an adventure.
1. Get Uncomfortable
So, first and foremost, you should get uncomfortable right away. And by uncomfortable, I mean put yourself in a career position where you feel intimidated; where you’re afraid that you’re not smart enough or you don’t quite have enough experience. Just get out of your comfort zone as soon as possible.
This is basically how I felt whenever I took on any big new project. When I decided to do engineering at WVU, when I joined the honors college, when I studied abroad, and when I applied for scholarships.
But I was never more uncomfortable than when I went to MIT for graduate school.
I was surrounded by students who had come from Ivy League schools and were from families that had bred engineers for generations. These kids knew that they wanted to get a PhD from MIT since they were like, five years old.
And in the first week, I went to the official MIT orientation with all of my new Ivy League, engineering-bred friends. At this orientation, I expected to hear things like “Welcome to MIT! This is where you launch your career! Go out and learn all the things!” But instead, they basically told us to prepare to hate our lives here. They warned us that depression caused by stress can be very dangerous and to seek out help before taking any….drastic actions.
Not really the warm embrace I was hoping for.
And when I eventually made my way to my specific research group, I discovered that there were only two new students accepted into our lab. Myself and one other guy who had just spent his summer working for the one and only Buzz Aldrin. He literally worked with, knew personally, and every once in a while received a call from and chatted with the second man on the moon.
So here I was, surrounded by Ivy League kids, Buzz Aldrin’s best friend, and the school itself was telling me I was going to hate my life.
I was definitely uncomfortable.
That was until I actually got to know those Ivy League, engineering-bred friends. And what I discovered was that they were feeling exactly the same way I was. They were intimidated by me, by each other, they didn’t feel smart enough to be there. They were also very very uncomfortable.
And it’s because when you decide to do these new and difficult things, it’s natural to feel scared. And you should take comfort in knowing that everyone feels that way too. We all, at times – especially women – suffer from something called Impostor Syndrome. Impostor Syndrome is a psychological phenomenon where you internalize your accomplishments. That, despite external evidence of your intelligence, you’re convinced that you’re a fraud and that you do not deserve the success you’ve achieved.
And sometimes this “I’m not good enough” fear is so great, that we trap ourselves in our comfort zone. So that we don’t apply to that new job, or move to that new city, or start a blog, learn a language, ask for that promotion – whatever it is.
Fear is a great excuse to be a very boring person.
But don’t be that boring person. Be a person that you’d like to grab a beer with. Be a person that has interesting stories to tell. But the only way you’ll get those stories is by doing things that scare you.
And so while I was scared to go to graduate school, the only way I got over that fear – or, over it enough that I was able to finish my thesis and graduate - was by doing the same thing I did at WVU to make it through engineering, and it’s the same thing I do any time I take on a big, intimidating project – and it’s probably the same thing that you all did to make it here today.
I surrounded myself with really incredible friends who were going through the same thing.
There’s a piece of advice that’s great for situations like this, and it’s that:
“You are the average of your 5 closest friends, so choose wisely.”
Surrounding yourself with positive, smart, and motivated people is the single best way to get through these new, challenging, uncomfortable experiences.
They’ll make the terrible days more bearable and the great days even better, and they’ll help you get to the finish line.
After you leave here today, I encourage you to get uncomfortable right away. Do things that scare you. Because that fear that you feel? That fear is a good thing. Because you’re not supposed to know everything right now.
By putting yourself in these positions, you are guaranteed to learn something. You are guaranteed to come out smarter, more experienced, and more confident than you went in.
So go out there, do things that scare you, and get uncomfortable.
2. Get Outraged
My second piece of advice really comes from my high school history teacher who once told our class “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”
At the time, I thought this was the most melodramatic thing I had ever heard. Because, I mean, I paid attention. I knew who the president was, I stayed pretty up-to-date with American Idol, and I wasn't outraged about anything.
This of course was due, in part, because I had a relatively easy life. I, like most teenagers, complained about having to go to school. I didn't realize that people in other parts of the world, like the Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai, were literally risking their lives for their right to an education.
I wasn't outraged because I didn't realize that later in life, some of the closest friends I would make at WVU were going to be told they couldn't marry the person they loved simply because of their sexual orientation.
I wasn't outraged because I hadn't yet experienced sexism in academia and in the workplace.
I wasn't outraged because I didn't yet know that there were people out there that completely disregard science and instead claim that the universe is merely 6,000 years old and that evolution isn't true. And worse, that this is taught to some children in publicly funded schools.
But then I started paying attention.
And I slowly learned that the world is a messy place and we have a lot of work to do. But it’s work that you can do right now. You can work to change these problems.
I’m not just saying that because commencement speakers have been telling graduates to “go out and change the world” for decades.
Honestly, I think those people – years ago – were being a bit optimistic. Because it was vastly harder to inspire any type of significant change at our age before this era of Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube and this concept of something going viral.
But you have all of these things at your disposal and you should be taking advantage of all of them. Use them to learn about new things, use them to gain perspective from those around the world, and use them as a platform to express your opinion.
And if you follow me on twitter - @EmCalSpaceGal, you know that I try to do this myself. It’s a great way to communicate information about science and technology that people would otherwise find boring or confusing. But I also take a lot of selfies. So on that note, I think we should all take a selfie together.
In the pursuit of learning and sharing your opinion on these important issues, you can’t strive and shouldn't strive to be well-liked by everyone, because it will be impossible. I have an interest in science and technology policy and I once wrote an article about the dangers of spreading pseudoscience, or false science, about vaccinations – essentially calling out non-medical public figures like Jenny McCarthy for giving non-scientific, medical advice to vulnerable parents.
The article received a fair amount of attention. It had over 20,000 views, was shared hundreds of times on Facebook and Twitter, including shares by medical doctors who shared my opinion. But you should read the types of nasty comments I got on this article. You would think that I had written an article about selling drugs to babies. One of my favorite comments was from a lovely young woman who called me a “profit greedy whore of medicine.” Very classy. Many of the comments, actually, sounded a bit like that.
When you share your opinion online about important topics, you should expect that some people are going to disagree with you, and that internet trolls like this will rear their ugly heads.
But if everyone always agrees with you, you’re probably not saying anything that’s going to make a difference.
Intelligently expressing your opinions online is a very powerful strategy that you can use right now to change the world.
So I encourage you to learn about all the ways the world is imperfect, get outraged, share your opinions online and bring out your own internet trolls.
3. Have an Adventure
So you’re going to get uncomfortable, you’re going to get outraged, and now my last and most important piece of advice that I would have given myself five years ago is to have an adventure – and more specifically take time for adventure.
Find adventure in many ways. Find them in late nights with new friends, find them in side projects that have nothing to do with your day job. But the hands-down, best, most fun way to collect adventures is by traveling.
So travel now. Travel often. Travel with friends, and travel by yourself. But most importantly, travel while you’re young.
There will be so many excuses not to do this.
You’ll tell yourself it’s too expensive – you’re just a poor graduate student. That you’re too busy. That you can’t afford to leave research, school, or work, or your boyfriend or your girlfriend right now.
But these excuses are dangerous, because you’ll continue to make them.
"And the most dangerous risk of all is the risk of spending your life not doing what you want on the bet that you can buy yourself the freedom to do it later." - Randy Komisar
But later comes with more responsibilities, more obligations, and less flexibility.
So find ways to travel now. Save up. Make time. Prioritize adventure. Because the experiences you get while traveling will fundamentally change how you think and how you approach life.
Those of you that have studied abroad or have already caught the travel bug know that the time and money you spend on traveling is an investment. It’s an investment in yourself.
You will become more independent, more confident, more flexible and more patient.
And when you find yourself at a conference or a business trip or at a college graduation sitting beside people you don’t really know and you feel really awkward because you have nothing to talk about - the conversation can always turn to traveling. Where are you going for the summer? Where have you been? Where are your favorite places around the world?
When you invest in traveling, you invest in stories that can defuse a lot of awkward interactions and they can also kick start a lot of new friendships.
So go bike around Prague, explore Dracula’s castle, repel down Brazilian waterfalls, and have a Guinness in Dublin.
Fall in love in front of the Eiffel Tower, and have your heart broken at the Anne Frank house.
Smell the spices in the Grand Bazaar and then stand in wonder in Istanbul’s 1500 year-old Hagia Sophia as you start to grasp how young the United States really is.
Trek along the beautiful Great Wall of China, but then learn that 400,000 people died in order build it.
Eat the street food, sip the wine, and always say yes to gelato – because calories don’t count when you travel.
And when you can, travel on someone else’s dime. Get your advisor to send you to that conference in Italy – because it’s really important that you go – or volunteer for that international business trip. Make friends from every corner of the world and stay in touch with them.
But do this now, while you’re young, because it can’t afford to wait.
So when you leave here today, I hope you’ll get uncomfortable – do things that scare you.
I hope you’ll get outraged – learn about the imperfections of the world and share your opinions on them - bring out your own internet trolls.
And above all, as you embark on this next chapter of your life – I hope you’ll invest in adventure. Go out there and make your life so interesting that someone’s going to want to write a book about you.
Congratulations to the class of 2014 and thank you all for allowing me to share this day with you.