Sterling K. Brown hadn’t planned to be a professional actor. But he is. And a great one at that. This year, the Emmy-award winning star of The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story and This Is Us made history when he became the first African American man to win a Golden Globe for a lead role in a TV drama and the first black actor to take home a Screen Actors Guild Award. And he’d never have gotten there if he hadn’t allowed himself to change course.
“Briefly, when I first got to Stanford, I thought I had it all figured out. Major in Econ, go into business, or finance, make bank, and take care of my family. It made sense. It was the prudent thing to do,” Brown told the class of 2018 during his commencement speech, delivered two decades after his own graduation from Stanford University in 1998.
“While I had always loved acting, it just wasn’t practical,” he said. “In my mind, a career in acting was reserved for the children of the wealthy who didn’t have to worry about making a significant contribution to the livelihood of their communities, of their families.”
In preparing a speech for his soon-to-be fellow alumni, he consulted the philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Lao Tzu, the last of whom said: “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.”
Brown auditioned for a play his freshman year, and ultimately earned a degree in drama in lieu of one in economics. “The call of the stage never waned. The desire to illuminate the human condition was always the thing that gave my life the greatest sense of purpose,” he said. “I had to let go of who I was, in order to become who I am,” he explained. “And, if you wish for your light to shine continuously, it is a process you’ll have to go through over and over again.”
That means Lao Tzu’s wisdom applies not only at a pivotal moment like college graduation, but throughout your life and career. Not that it’s easy—changing course and trying new things is scary. “Anytime you do something new, usually, inevitably, there is fear,” Brown said, explaining how he’d felt when he was asked to deliver this very speech.
But “if all of my life is comfortable and convenient, I rob myself of the opportunity to grow, to stretch, to expand. When I feel fear, as uncomfortable as it may be, I know I’m in the right place,” he said. “Whether you’re 22, or 42, never allow fear to keep you from expanding your definition of self.”
And finally, he urged, don’t forget to relish the journey itself while you let go, expand your definition of self, and become who you might be. Because if you heed his advice and always strive to repeat that process, then it follows that the vast majority of your life and career will be spent on the way toward something.
And he couldn’t help but make an analogy fitting of a student body that proudly refers to itself as #NerdNation. “Think of perfection like an asymptote,” he said. “The journey towards it is infinite, but the destination can never be reached. If you’re able to take that journey and enjoy it, knowing that there will always be endless room for improvement, then you be ah’ight.”
This nerd, my fellow alum, makes a point worth putting in your pocket and carrying with you. Don’t be afraid to try something new or to reimagine yourself while in search not only of a job or career, as he said, but also a calling. And most importantly, don’t forget to enjoy the process. Otherwise, Brown said, “you may miss the beautiful curve of a life well lived, never enjoying where you are in the moment, always wishing you were someplace, something, or someone else.”
Want to watch some more inspiring commencement speeches? Check out:
- Mindy Kaling quoting Frozen to the 2018 Dartmouth class.
- 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.
TopicsBreak Room , Syndication , Trending Topics , Exploring Career Paths , New Grads , The Muse Editor's Picks
Photo of Sterling K. Brown delivering his commencement speech at Stanford University on June 17, 2018 courtesy of L.A. Cicero/Stanford University.
A longtime word nerd and bookworm, Stav studied history and dance at Stanford and later journalism at Columbia. Before joining The Muse, Stav was a staff writer at Newsweek, where she wrote about everything from Nazi hunters to Chinese adoptees to Good Girls Revolt, the real story and fictionalized TV show about a 1970 gender discrimination case at the magazine. She prefers sunshine and tolerates winters grudgingly.More from this Author