Speaking to Princeton’s graduating class of 2019, Ellie Kemper shared stories from her youth—insisting she still looks about 17 even though her own graduation was 17 years ago—and a few NSFW jokes. But she also gave some classic and earnest career advice.
Coming from an actress and comedian who struggled to make it in New York before becoming famous for her role on The Office and later as the star of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, it’s hardly surprising that her speech mixed humor with insight about how “things never go quite according to your plan” and “that just being good at something does not guarantee success.”
The 2002 Princeton grad shared some of her own experiences from the days when she was working at a bakery and tutoring while also pursuing improvisational comedy. During that time, her friends and their friends were launching more straightforward careers in medicine, politics, and education. One of those second-degree connections was a friend of a friend working in finance after graduating from Dartmouth. He told her—five minutes after meeting her and learning she was trying to be an actress—“that’s ridiculous. If I have a daughter, I’ll never let her be an actress.”
“Your ego takes a blow,” she said, when you’re comparing your progress to everyone else’s—and even more so today with everyone shouting their successes (and conveniently forgetting to share everything else) on social media. “I was having a very difficult time getting started and I felt like I was encountering roadblocks from all sides.”
One day when she was feeling especially discouraged, she wrote to a friend, who gave her some very wise advice she passed on in her commencement speech. “You’ve chosen a very difficult career path, but it’s a great one and all great jobs are really hard to get,” he wrote. And most importantly, “stop hanging out with people that make you feel bad about what you’re doing.”
Which brought Kemper to her next and most earnest point. “More important than any career accomplishment is your ability and inclination to help one another. That might sound trite, but what graduation speech doesn’t?” she said. Still, “without supportive friends and family, I might have gone to prison for punching too many Dartmouth guys in the kisser,” she added, like that one who’d called her career path ridiculous.
So yes, Kemper reminded the graduates and everyone else tuning in that there will be curveballs, and times when you need to change course, and moments when the comparisons you make to your peers feel crushing—none of that is particularly novel. But she also urged everyone to consider that how they carry themselves and treat others in the process is just as indicative of their success in life and at work as what’s in their bank account or email signature, perhaps more so. “None of this means anything, if you don’t have one another’s backs. If you want your friend to succeed, then I think you’re a successful person.”
Now quite successful herself in terms of external markers—take that, finance guy—she touched on what matters even more. Don’t forget to support the careers of the people you care about, even if they don’t look exactly as you or they imagined. And carry that same sentiment into your workplace, whatever kind it is. Sure, you may want to do great work and get raises and climb the ladder and make a name for yourself. But don’t forget to be a good person while you do it. Ultimately, that’s what will make you most deeply and sustainably satisfied with your career.
“We are all driven, competitive, intelligent people… But being sensational is not the same thing as being happy,” she said. And whether you graduated today, 17 years ago, or never at all, “trying to be a kind, thoughtful, hardworking person will ultimately make you much happier than trying to be an impressive person.”
So, she concluded, “go be nice to one another.”