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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

How to Be the Hero of Your Own Life, According to Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg commencement speech

Steven Spielberg has spent over four decades creating, producing, and directing a huge number of timeless motion pictures, from science fiction hits such as Jaws, E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, and Jurassic Park, to heartwrenching films like Schindler’s List and The Color Purple. But last week, he came out from behind the cameras to address Harvard’s class of 2016. The advice he provided applies to everyone, not just those who were decked out in a cap and gown—even if you took 37 years to graduate (like Spielberg did).

First, he touches on character-defining moments. His first was when he left college sophomore year for an amazing opportunity at Universal Studios. The most significant, though, was when he married his wife, Kate. You’re going to come across a lot of these moments over the years, Spielberg says. Because “life is one strong, long string of [them].”

And when you encounter them—when it comes time for you to define who you are—you need to listen to your internal voice. It’s when Spielberg started to do this that “certain projects began to pull me into them, and others, I turned away from.” He started listening to his intuition, and his movies transitioned from the fantasy genre to being based on historical events.

When it comes to figuring out who you are, he says, it’s so important not to allow your conscious to drown out your intuition, as it tends to do. While the former is telling you the things you should be doing, the latter is murmuring what you could be doing, instead—like pursuing what you truly enjoy, like following your dreams. It’s imperative to listen to yourself instead of all the outside opinions (parents, teachers, bosses, etc.) that have occupied your mind for years.

But Spielberg doesn’t think you should ignore your conscious entirely. When it comes to how you treat other people, you should be all ears. Because, unfortunately, there are still “villains to vanquish” in this world, and part of the future you create is not only about the career path you go down, but also about improving the world you live in.

And to do that, we need to move away from the habit of creating sides, sectioning people off, isolating and persecuting individuals and entire populations for religious beliefs, sexual orientation, skin color—you name it. All hatred must be eliminated. We must band together—we must find the “we,” rather than the “us” and the “them.” You have the power to be a hero, even if you don’t have a cape and a mask.

“In your defining moments,” says Spielberg, “do not let your morals be swayed by convenience or expediency. Sticking to your character requires a lot of courage. And to be courageous, you’re going to need a lot of support.” So, don’t forget to phone home (no matter what home means to you).

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