Scandal creator and writer Shonda Rhimes’s recent commencement address at Dartmouth College is the hard truth pep talk all of us need to hear in life. Because unlike the typical TV and movie commencement speeches where the protagonist (who may or may not be valedictorian) tells the graduating class that each of us is a special snowflake with dreams that can be achieved if we simply believe in ourselves, Shonda Rhimes called bullshit. She says:
When people give these kinds of speeches, they usually tell you all kinds of heartfelt things. They have wisdom to impart. They have lessons to share. They tell you: Follow your dreams. Listen to your spirit. Change the world. Make your mark. Find your inner voice and make it sing. Embrace failure. Dream. Dream and dream big. As a matter of fact, dream and don’t stop dreaming until all of your dreams come true.
I think that’s crap.
Because it is crap. For example, look at Elle Woods’ speech at the end of Legally Blonde. The movie follows the typical underdog plot: blonde sorority girl transforms into Harvard Law graduate with smart boyfriend. Because, y’know, she followed her dreams.
At the end of the movie, Elle, who somehow gets to deliver an address at graduation, tells us to “always have faith in yourself” because apparently her passion is simply what got her through law school. That’s well and good and makes for a fun popcorn movie, but it’s not really all that got her through three years at an Ivy League school — she must’ve forgotten that montage where she studied for her LSATs. It’s just super easy for Elle (and her optimistic cinematic cohorts) to say that wishing got it all done for her. She’s fictional. She wouldn’t sustain in the real world, because as Shonda says:
I think a lot of people dream. And while they are busy dreaming, the really happy people, the really successful people, the really interesting, engaged people, are busy doing.
Dreams are lovely. But they are just dreams. Fleeting, ephemeral, pretty. But dreams do not come true just because you dream them. It’s hard work that makes things happen. It’s hard work that creates change.
So, lesson one, I guess is: Ditch the dream and be a doer, not a dreamer. Maybe you know exactly what it is you dream of being, or maybe you’re paralyzed because you have no idea what your passion is. The truth is, it doesn’t matter. You don’t know. You just have to keep moving forward. You just have to keep doing something, seizing the next opportunity, staying open to try something new. It doesn’t have to fit your vision of the perfect job or the perfect life. Perfect is boring.
You want to be a writer? A writer is someone who writes every day, so start writing. You don’t have a job? Get one. Any job. Don’t sit at home waiting for the magical opportunity. Who are you? Prince William? No. Get a job. Go to work. Do something until you can do something else.
It’s probably a better idea to take a page from Shonda. Before becoming a showrunner for some of ABC’s most successful series, she worked in advertising and later took on day jobs, including working at a mental health facility, to pay bills while trying to work as a screenwriter. She’s come a long way since Britney Spears’ Crossroads or even Disney’s The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement, which were all box office slumps. And even when she started Grey’s Anatomy, critics didn’t think that the show wouldn’t garner interest and that the female lead wasn’t a smart direction. But it soon topped Desperate Housewives in viewership, and ABC trusted Shonda to churn out the addicting political series Scandal and a new show How to Get Away with Murder.
Of course, if Shonda were a movie character, we’d see all of this through montage, glossing over all of the hard work and showing us that dreaming is all it takes. Thankfully, she’s a real life example.
Check out Shonda’s entire speech below.