Valedictory Exercises, May 20, 2016
University of Virginia
Thank you, Courtney for that generous introduction. Thank you Class of 2016 Graduation Committee for inviting me. Thank you President Teresa Sullivan. Proud parents and grandparents, friends and family. And most especially Class of 2016.
I am so honored to be here with you today. So glad to be back home in Charlottesville! This view is pretty overwhelming. My memories of this place are still so vivid. Lunch dates at Newcomb Hall. Late nights in the Drama Department. 3 Am Trips to the Waffle House. Bodos Bagels: Chicken salad with lettuce, tomato and mayo on a Toasted Everything, thank you very much. I distinctly remember an unhealthy obsession with all things a capella, especially the Virginia Gentlemen. What can I say, I’m a superfan.
I got married right over there in the Chapel. Alas, not a Virginia Gentleman… but he would have been if he’d gone here. My man can sing! We had our reception in the Colonnade Club, in Pavilion VII. I streaked this lawn. Yup. Did that. Not AT my wedding, although several members of our wedding party couldn’t resist after the rehearsal dinner. Thankfully all before the advent of social media.
Ok I just need a minute here. This is crazy. I have to be honest. I don’t really know what I’m doing here. I mean, when I think of who you’ve had up here efore: Peyton Manning, Ed Helms, Stephen Colbert… What Am I doing here? Honestly, when I got that letter, four months ago, from Jasmine Chiu of the Class of 2016 Graduation Committee, I was shocked. Of course I said yes. And then I panicked. For 4 straight months. I tried to stave off the panic by plunging into preparation. I started by binge watching TEDtalks and commencement speeches. Which were super inspiring, and also totally depressing. Because, how could I compete with THOSE people? I started, like, a dozen different documents on my laptop. I wrote 45 pages of notes, singlespaced The makings of something like a two and a half hour address… So buckle in, it’s gonna be a long afternoon.
Just kidding. I didn’t use any of that stuff. I spent hundreds of hours preparing to fall flat on my face. I so wanted to impress you. To inspire you. To step onto this stage and be a star of this show. But then it struck me. This isn’t my show. It’s yours. This isn’t about me. At all. And that recognition called to mind a defining moment from early in my career when I received a piece of advice that I have been trying to take every day since.
A few months after my graduation, I found myself on the set of a major movie. It was my first time in front of a camera. I was working with some of my absolute idols Ed Harris, Debra Winger and Cuba Gooding Jr. Between the lot of them, they had accumulated a hefty number of fancy awards, including Oscars, Golden Globes, and Emmys. I did not want to screw up. I remember shooting this one scene that was really charged emotionally where I was supposed to break down in tears. I arrived that morning with my WalkMan blaring my saddest mix tape.
Just kidding. I’m not that old. It was a CD and a discman.
I was pumped. I was ready to cry. I was gonna cry. It was gonna be awesome! During our first shot, the camera wasn’t even on me. It was on Ed. But it didn’t matter. When the director said, “Action!” I let ‘er rip. There were tears and fireworks and it was all coming out of me all at once. The director yelled, “cut”, and there was this sort of awkward silence, as I tried to compose myself. I felt like everyone was trying to look like they weren’t looking at me. And then I heard someone say, “Honey, save it for the camera. You’re gonna run out of tears before anyone even sees them.” “Got it. Thanks”, I said, bracing myself for another take, grabbing a tissue to staunch the flow of my now completely unnecessary tears.
I felt so humiliated.
But before the cameras started rolling again, Ed Harris leaned over to me and he whispered, “That’s bullshit. I do my best work off camera. If you’re not giving 110% even when you’re off camera, you’re not doing your job – and in the worst way, because you’re failing your scene partner. You just gave me exactly what I needed, to do what I needed to do. Good work, kid.” And when I recalled that moment with Ed, I knew exactly what I wanted to share with you guys today.
And it starts with a question: What do you do when the camera isn’t on you? Who are you then?
I believe that the way we answer that question will either set us on a path to freedom, joy, and impact, or will catch us in the grip of a neverending Chase for Recognition; the driving desire to impress, the Tyranny of Achievement. I know the stakes are high for this question, because I’ve felt the consequences of getting it wrong (more times than I’d like to admit), and I’ve also experienced the joy of getting it right.
When the camera isn’t on you, what do you do?
In real time, in real life, when people really NEED you in order to do what THEY need to do how do you show up? And I mean the real you – not the carefully curated social media version of you. Because, let’s be clear – all that world is a stage. And when we step onto it, we are players, performing for our audience.
Who are we out of the spotlight, when we’re not performing for an audience? Are we 110% present even when it is just us and one other person? When the camera pans away from me, do I immediately feel invisible or irrelevant? Do I power down and tune out? Do I wait, and plot, and obsess about MY next moment in the sun? OR, do I get out of my own head and NOTICE the scene that is unfolding around me? Do I see myself as a valuable and essential part of a Bigger Story?
Do I recognize that it’s not my moment but it’s YOUR moment. And if I don’t show up for you, you miss. I miss. We all miss that greater thing that is only possible when we are ALL IN for each other.
I chase the spotlight all the time. I’m constantly looking for recognition. And even though I know it’s a trap, I am still drawn to the chase, like a moth to a flame. Every step of my journey from your seat to this stage, this has been my struggle. And when I find myself drawing too close to that flame, I try to remember Ed’s advice and I try to take it. I try to stop obsessing about the camera, my career, the critics – and whatever they’re saying about me. Or when they’re not saying anything about me at all. And I try to focus instead on being present. Giving 110% to whomever I am with, on or off the set, on or off camera. Because most of the time, there are no cameras rolling. But life is always rolling. And if you’re paying attention, In your spirit you’ll hear the words, “And… Action!” All the time. Every day. With all the people in your life. Whether you are the intern or the CEO, whether you are running your household or running a company, living in a basement or living in a penthouse. Whether you are doing the grunt work or getting the glory. Life is always rolling.
So the question is, how will you show up? Over the years I’ve discovered that, when I get that wrong, when I miss the moment, because I’m focused on the spotlight, it’s usually for one (or both) of two reasons. I want to matter and I want to belong. Somehow I believe that if I’m noticed enough, important enough, celebrated enough, that validation will give me value, and it’ll secure a place for me at the cool kids table. I will be in the club, inside the inner circle.
Above all else, I want to be seen, to be known, and to be loved.
The people I work with are so amazing. I track them all on Instagram and Twitter. When I see them posting from award shows, fancy parties in Hollywood, or even dinners with the Obamas at the White House… I’d like to say that I just feel happy for them, proud to know them, excited to see them shine. And sometimes I do, truly. But more often than not, I don’t. Instead, I get insecure, jealous. I focus on myself being on the outside. Not important enough to get that invite. Even though I have had plenty of OTHER moments in the spotlight, even though they are my friends and I love them and I know them and they know me, my first reaction is to feel left out, because in this moment, they are up front and center and I am at home in my yoga pants, covered in toddler snot. Because that’s the thing about the spotlight. No matter how much it shines on you, it will never be enough. Ever.
There will always be fancier people doing fancier things than you. The only freedom is to stop living for that recognition, for those fleeting moments on camera. Freedom only comes when you stop needing to be seen; and instead, when you let yourself truly see and be present to the people you share your life with, whether they are your best friends, your coworkers, or even the strangers you encounter on a daily basis.
Sometimes the camera turns to you when you are present in this way. Sometimes the camera catches value. But it doesn’t create value.
Over these fourteen years, in my journey through my career, there have been several extended periods of time when the camera didn’t catch me at all, when I stopped working completely– not by choice. 6 months here. Three months there. 9 months when I didn’t book a single job. These seasons were pretty discouraging, and during them, I had a really hard time taking Ed’s advice.
One of these long periods was after Everwood got canceled, and before I found my way to Greys. There was this one winter where I tested for 7 different pilots. I got to the final rounds for 7 different TV series, and I didn’t book a single one. The only part I did get during that period I didn't even audition for it. I just got it. I still have it actually. You haven't seen it. No one has. It wasn’t in a movie, or in a play. It won’t ever be on TV.
The part I was given was that of an honorary member of a gang of little kids on my street. Yes I was a grown woman and yes I played with the kids on my block. Don’t judge me. These kids are the freaking coolest. When their parents told them, “Go out and play,” their first stop was at my door, so they could drag me out. They showed me all the secret fairy hideouts that regular adults weren’t privy to. They had special names for each other; Flower Paw, Rain Spirit, Feather Step. They’d given me one too: “Lion Heart”.
I have a vivid memory of the day I returned home from my 7th pilot screen test. Over the course of 2 weeks, I'd been called back and back and back. Casting Directors, then producers, then the Studio Execs, and now Network Execs. I felt so good about this one. I was killing it at every call back, hitting all the right beats and loving every minute of it. I truly believed that this part was meant for me!
I had spent my morning at ABC Studios, signing a contract tying me to the project in case they chose me over the other girl looking staring at the salary I’d be making if I got the role. Everything I wanted was just within reach. I could feel that camera coming to find me. As I pulled into our driveway, my phone rang. It was my agent.
“Did I get it?”
I hung up and crumpled. Banged my head on the steering wheel. But then I heard this tap-tap-tap on the window. My head was still glued to the steering wheel in selfpity, so before I could see who was tapping, I heard this little voice talking a mile a minute.
“Sarah! Sarah! We are gonna fill the ENTIRE sidewalk! Come on! Come see! We need your help!”
I pulled myself up, looked to my left and matched the voice to the bouncing, grinning, incandescent face of Eloise, and beyond her the gang Miranda, Iris, Ethan, Penelope, Mara, Dean and Zane. They were creating an epic sidewalk chalk drawing that had already spanned the length of 4 houses.
“Lion Heart! Let’s Go! We need you!”
She threw open my car door, her whole body humming with excitement. I took a deep breath, stepped out of my car. Took her hand. And walked, then skipped, then ran over. I picked up a piece of chalk and I started drawing. For the next two hours, I sat on the sidewalk drawing Dragons and fairies and suns and moons and stars talking to those kids, laughing with them and making art together. My disappointment transforming into delight.
I think that if I’m doing the fancy things with the fancy people in the cool kids club I will matter and I will belong, and here I am, pulling onto my street, and these kids who couldn’t care less what I do for a living are leaping out of their skin because they’re so excited to be with their “Lion Heart”. I belong to this club. This club of creative, playful, adventurous, present, kindhearted kids. Who love me effortlessly.
I matter to them simply because I’m a member of their tribe. Their community. And it is my larger community that has held me at every point where my career has let me down. Or when life has gotten harder than I was ready for. When my marriage was in a dark place, our community spoke hard and bold truth to us, and lifted us up out of the depths. When our daughter Hannah was born almost a month early, she was so small and vulnerable. She had issues breathing. She’d start to get better and seem to be growing stronger, but then she’d regress and just stop breathing altogether. So, it was oxygen and feeding tubes and medications and constant vigilance and stress in the NICU…
But our community brought us meals, and prayed for us, and left us love notes, and let us sob all over them, and celebrated with us when we were finally able to bring her home. All of this done for me, for us, off camera. Our community seeing me, seeing us, being present 110% in exactly the way we needed to put the next foot forward.
I will tell you, that I live the truest, most wholehearted, most joyful version of myself when I ignore the camera, when I’m oblivious to the spotlight, and when I stop waiting for recognition or approval. I am most alive when I do my work simply for the joy of doing my work, and when I am present in my community, looking for ways to celebrate them, to show up for them, and to bring something gorgeous out in them. When I’m in that space, I know that I matter, and I know that I belong, and although it is still a struggle for me to remember this, with the help of my tribe my community, I find my way back to the Truth a hell of alot faster now than I did 14 years ago.
And here we are today.
This is one of the greatest gatherings of your tribe you will ever experience – here on OUR sacred tribal grounds. Your classmates. Your friends. Your family. Your tribe.
Everyone who believes in you, and loves you more deeply than anyone else often times more deeply even than you love yourself.
What Ed taught me a few months after graduation and what I continue to learn is that I cannot do this life thing on my own. We are not meant to live on our own private islands. We are a tribal species. We are built for community. And it is only in community where we uncover our true value and our deepest worth.
On that theme, let me close with the words of one of the greatest leaders and teachers of all time on the subject of true community, what he called “beloved community”. Martin Luther King Jr.
He knew that, in the end, when all things are measured, what matters most is not your resume, not your impressive achievements, but who you are and what you do when the camera isn’t even on you. Here is how he put it.
A few months before he was assassinated, King actually wrote about his funeral – with guidance for how the service should go and the eulogy:
“If any of you are around when I have to meet my day,” he said, “I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy tell him not to talk too long. Tell him not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize—that’s not important. Tell him not to mention that I have 300 or 400 other awards—that’s not important. Tell him not to mention where I went to school. I’d like someone to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody. I won’t have any money to leave behind. But if I can help somebody as I pass along, if I can cheer somebody with a well song, then my living will not be in vain. In the end, the most important question is not, "Did I impress?" But, did I love?"
As you set off from these sacred grounds, you will need your tribe. Your tribe will need you. 110%.
Thank you! Thank you so much. I love you, UVA. Congratulations!