The following is my commencement speech given to the Class of 2019 at Pine Point School in Stonington, CT.
Good morning! Class of 2019…
Do you want to know something funny? You all invited me here to speak with you because of my impressive resume and career accomplishments. And perhaps, on the surface, all of this is true. But life is complicated!
Over the past year, my entire life has been turned upside down by a category five-force hurricane called…my quarter life crisis. Here’s a quick recap:
I just quit my job in advertising at the peak of my career. Moved from a big house in the middle of Los Angeles to an off-the-grid cottage on a remote island in Maine. I ended my relationship with my girlfriend after being together for 10 years. Sat for over 30 days in silence at meditation retreats. And fasted for four days while camping alone in the torrential rain on a “vision quest.” I deleted all my social media accounts. Shaved my head. Got my first tattoo. And, to top it all off, I just decided yesterday to sell my house in Maine and live out of a backpack for the next year of my life.
So basically, the perfect time to give a commencement speech, right?! Actually, it is perfect timing, because this past year has been the greatest graduation of my entire life. I’m literally graduating my past and starting anew. And perhaps like you, I’m scared, excited, and confused.
Amidst the chaos of my rollercoaster journey, I’ve been constantly asking myself a question that may sound familiar: what makes me, me? Looking back on my life, what makes me, me are the risks that I’ve taken.
When I was just your age, in 9th grade, I decided to spend a month in the remote Masai Mara in Kenya on a volunteer project. I was 13 years old. Nearly everyone else was 17 or older. For 30 days, I cried like a baby, homesick out of my mind. I almost left and gave up countless times. But, in what remains to this day one of the scariest experiences of my life, I fell deeply, madly, inexplicably in love. Her name was Canon Rebel T2i, and she was the first camera I ever owned.
That month in Kenya, alone, afraid and on the verge of quitting, I discovered my soul’s calling: photography. And the thing is, I can say with a great deal of confidence, it’s only because I was alone, afraid and on the verge of quitting that my soul was stirred to action.
As I’d learn years later while creating documentaries on some incredible humans, it’s often only when we face our greatest challenges in life that we discover who we truly are. So remember, when everything in life seems to be going wrong — when you’re lost or depressed or on the brink of giving up — that is often when the magic happens. That is when God, or your gut, or the universe, or your inner angel, or whatever it is you want to call it will speak to you.
Don’t. Forget. To. Listen.
About a year after Kenya, I forgot to listen…I refused to follow my gut. I learned this lesson the hard way when I was exactly where you are today. After graduating Pine Point, I debated between two boarding schools: the Governor’s Academy and Berkshire School. My heart told me to go to Berkshire, but my brain and my ego wanted me to go to the Governor’s, because it had a slightly better academic reputation. In our society, we place so much emphasis on academics that we so easily forget that happiness, belonging and purpose are truly all that matter at the end of the day.
I went to the Governor’s Academy and had the worst year of my life, and because I wasn’t happy there, my grades suffered too. Luckily, I transferred to Berkshire the following year and learned an invaluable lesson I would soon apply to my college search.
I got into the arguably the two best art schools on the planet, RISD and the Pratt Institute, but I turned them both down. And this time, I listened to my intuition. I went to…drumroll please…the Corcoran College of Art + Design. Raise your hand if you had ever heard of this school before today? Nobody! Corcoran is a tiny school in the basement of a museum, and literally the year after I graduated it went bankrupt. But guess what, it was exactly where I was meant to go…I just felt it in my gut. Despite going to a no-name school, I ended up getting three of the most sought after internships in my industry. I excelled in my career and in my life because I took a risk and trusted my inner guide.
After college, I was offered a full-time job at CNN as a videographer. But once again my gut told me to take a risk and turn it down, and instead make minimum wage at a tiny production company that was run out of my boss’ apartment in Brooklyn. I was the first person in the office in the morning and the last one to leave at night. And slowly but surely, we grew Mssngpeces into one of the most recognized and admired production companies in the world. Ironically, when I won the Emmy Award last month, it was a CNN reporter who presented us with the award.
Today, what makes me, me, is that I’m taking another huge risk and trusting my intuition. I’m giving up all the money, awards and opportunities I’ve worked so hard to get since I was in 9th grade, and I’m starting anew. You may be asking, “Why Tucker, why would you do this!?” The truth is, I’m not quite sure, but my soul is telling me it’s time for my next great adventure.
For years now, I’ve been so busy documenting other people’s stories that I’ve forgotten to live my own. After sitting in silence for 30 days at meditation retreats this past year, I realized that the present moment is the only moment that matters, because it’s the only moment that’s real. The past is already gone…nothing but a fading memory. And the future is just a fantasy in our minds. So if all we’ve got is right now, the question becomes, how do we want to spend this moment? Not in the future. Now.
After I’d yell “that’s a wrap!” on a big shoot, the entire crew would start celebrating the successful day. I would put on a fake smile and pretend to be happy, but inside all I was thinking was what we could have done better or stressing out about the edit. I refused to live in the present. Maybe that’s because being present requires being vulnerable. Allowing your emotions, good or bad, to be fully alive. Accepting yourself and others as they are, and not trying to control things. I’m really bad at that.
It meant that for many of the most exciting moments in my life, I cut myself off from feeling anything. Looking back now, I would gladly exchange every award I’ve ever won for more moments of simply being present.
So, my challenge to you, class of 2019, is to stay present today. Not even the whole day, just stay present right now. You’re graduating. And if you’re not happy in this moment, don’t worry, this moment will graduate, too.
Class of 2019, what makes me, me are the risks I’ve taken. The willingness to listen to my intuition, even when it makes no logical sense on paper. To take a leap of faith and trust that the Universe will guide me. What makes me, me are the graduations I’m celebrating, not despite the fact that they’re scary but because they’re scary. Embrace the fear, hug the unknown, trust that pain can be a guide to your soul, and remember to stay present in the one and only moment we’re alive: right…now.
Thank you, congratulations, and go live an amazing story!
Tucker Walsh ‘05