Dear Graduates, Never Wait Your Turn

For those who strive to be more than average, discomfort is a source of strength.

An illustration of a graduation cap with speakers.
Getty / The Atlantic
Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series of commencement addresses commissioned by The Atlantic for students who will not be able to attend their graduations because of the pandemic. Find the collection here.

Congratulations to the class of 2020. This is the point where I’m supposed to project calm and confidence, and reassure you that everything you’re experiencing right now will be a tiny footnote in the life you’ve imagined for yourself. But I would be lying. The last thing you need is someone else trying to sell you certainty in these uncomfortably fluid times.

But the uncertainty shouldn’t make you panic or heighten your anxiety. Instead, it should infuse you with endless bravado. For those who strive to be more than average, discomfort is a source of strength.

“Failure doesn’t exist,” the Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant told me when I sat down with him in 2015.“Seriously, what does failure mean? It doesn’t exist. It’s a figment of your imagination.”

“Why do I feel,” I asked, “like you just pulled a Jedi mind trick on me?”

Bryant replied:

Everybody wants a happy ending. Now let’s go to the reality of it. Let’s look at Snow White. She gets a happy ending. She finds Prince Whatever. She goes on, she lives happily ever after. Well, I call bullshit on that. Two months later, the fact is, they had an argument and he’s sleeping on the couch.

The point is, the story continues. If you fail on Monday, the only way it’s a failure on Monday is if you decide not to progress from that. That’s why failure is nonexistent. If I fail today, then I’m going to try again on Tuesday.

Bryant was right: Fear does not grant you permission to wallow, to fold, to buckle, to flounder, or to be disillusioned. Uncertainty is just opportunity that’s been marinating in anxiety.

Like many of you, I had never experienced—until now—any event that brought life to a complete standstill. We are walking around with heavy hearts and worn spirits. And more than ever, we seem obsessed with our failures and also frustrated by our perceived powerlessness. But human beings are at our best when we are uncertain.

If you think back on your own life, you’ve already proved that you’re built to withstand uncomfortable moments. I remember back when I was fresh out of college and single——if my husband is reading this, he should know it was a long, long, long time ago— and I didn’t like approaching men. I was consumed with fear of rejection. I also worried that I would come off as overzealous.

I was working in Raleigh, North Carolina, at the time. One night I went with some friends to Buffalo Wild Wings. Because I was broke and in my early 20s, I of course went on a Tuesday night, when wings were just 20 cents each. I was having a great time and, out of the corner of my eye, saw a tall, handsome man who didn’t appear to be there with anyone. I had three choices: I could sit and covertly stare at him the rest of the night. I could try to catch his eye and then hope that he approached me. Or I could stop fretting about the possible negative outcomes and approach him.

I chose the last option. My opening line to him was “Hey, I like your hat,” because he was wearing one. I didn’t really care about the hat, though. I never said I was smooth.

The end result was that we exchanged numbers and later went out on a couple of dates—before I determined that I would have been better off enjoying some chicken wings and not engaging in my generation’s version of Tinder. However, the point of the story isn’t that women shouldn’t approach men with hats on a Tuesday night at Buffalo Wild Wings. The point is that I didn’t let insecurity or uncertainty stop me. And over the years, I consciously refined my approach. I made myself bolder and smoother. Just ask my husband.

While I can’t erase the current reality, I can’t help but notice how much we’re all being forced to retrain ourselves in this moment. We are learning to eschew normalcy in a positive way. Who could have anticipated that one of the coolest discoveries during this pandemic would be watching mega-artists such as Babyface, Teddy Riley, Nelly, and Ludacris battle one another song-for-song on Instagram Live, and consequently learning that they can put together a hit song far better than they can operate their own Wi-Fi? We’re seeing businesses adapt on the fly. We’re seeing people reevaluate how they create. We’re learning to think differently, act differently, and even love differently from how we did just three months ago.

You should look at entering this nebulous space known as the real world as an opportunity to rewrite rules that are not holding up. When I graduated from college, there was a long list of dos and don’ts that my generation never really questioned. Don’t leave a job before you’ve been there for two years. Forget what you’re worth, and settle for what they give you. Don’t make demands, because doing so is too aggressive (especially if you’re a woman and especially, especially if you’re a black woman). All of these taboos were supposed to convince young people that they had no right to insist on more for themselves, especially early in their career. As a budding sports journalist, I was told to wait my turn and bide my time.

But who is thinking that way now?

Wrenching changes happen abruptly. The first president many of you remember is Barack Obama. And now you have Donald Trump. If that hasn’t prepared you to navigate unpredictable times, then pretty much nothing will.

I know this is not the commencement you had in mind when the semester started. The only thing some of you were expecting to worry about, I’m sure, was whether there would be money—and not just corny messages—inside all those cards you’d be getting.

Here is the part where I can relay something inspirational—something that won’t be a lie. Life will always be unpredictable and uncomfortable. And sometimes that discomfort will seem suffocating. But you’ll get through it, not because you have all the answers, but because you are wise and experienced enough to realize that you’re not supposed to.