Yes, Mindy Kaling admitted, the culminating advice from her speech to the class of 2018 at Dartmouth College is a song from the animated Disney film Frozen: “Let it Go.”
Kaling—best known as the the creator, writer, producer, and star of The Mindy Project as well as her previous work on The Office—graduated from Dartmouth in 2001 having done all the things she’d set out to do as a freshman. She’d joined an a cappella group and an improv troupe, she’d written a play that was performed at the school’s Warner Bentley Theater, and she’d done a cartoon for “The D” (or The Dartmouth, the campus’s daily student newspaper), and more.
“But before you think, ‘Wait, why is this woman just bragging about her accomplishments from 17 years ago?’ Keep listening,” she said. She went on to describe the next checklist she made after graduation, consisting of things she wanted to accomplish in her 20s. That list included items such as “get married by 27, have kids at 30, win an Oscar, be the star of my own TV show, host the MTV music awards.”
Unlike her college list, which she’d completed just as planned, most of the boxes on her subsequent list remained unchecked. She’s only accomplished one of the things she’d envisioned for herself when she was the one in a cap and gown, she said, and that might not change.
“And that is a really scary feeling, knowing how far that I’ve strayed from the person I was hoping to be when I was 21,” she said.
Her own experiences have taught her something she passed on to all those sitting where she was 17 years ago, imagining their own futures and making their own lists: “Don’t be scared if you don’t do things in the right order, or if you don’t do some things at all,” Kaling said. “If you have a checklist, good for you. Structured ambition can sometimes be motivating. But also, feel free to let it go.”
And she didn’t say so but I will: This pearl of wisdom in the middle of her strand of jokes doesn’t just apply to fresh-faced college graduates. It’s a useful reminder for anyone at any point in their lives and careers—even the parents and grandparents of those students for whom she felt compelled to stop early in her speech to explain who she was (not Priyanka Chopra, not Padma Lakshmi, but “the other Indian woman we’ve allowed to be on television”).
It’s okay to have a list that changes over time. It’s okay to abandon one list and make a completely new one. And it’s okay not to have a list at all. The point is that you shouldn’t make a list and spend your career assiduously and blindly checking off the items you put on it years ago because you think you should. Use those goals as map if it inspires you and makes you happy. But if it doesn’t, let it go.
As Muse writer Kat Boogaard has pointed out, it’s okay if the things you thought would make you happy didn’t. “Not only are you allowed to try things and then determine that you don’t experience the sense of fulfillment or enthusiasm you were hoping for,” she wrote, “but you’re also usually allowed to drop them like hot potatoes when you come to that conclusion.”
It’s not just okay for your goals to change in small and large ways over time, it’s to be expected. And it ties back to another pearl from Kaling: “Don’t trust any one story of how to become successful.” Imagine your own story. And then let it go and reimagine it.
Want to watch some more inspiring commencement speeches? Check out:
- Oprah’s words of wisdom to the class of 2018 at USC Annenberg.
- Apple’s CEO Tim Cook at Duke University talking about speaking up at work.
- Hillary Clinton explaining the importance of resilience in your career to Yale graduates.