As I rushed toward the doors of the Olympia Theater, I suddenly recalled my first visit nearly 30 years ago. I remembered marveling at the contrast between the industrial façade and the gilded interior. Yet, what mesmerized me that humid Saturday afternoon was the painted ceiling that was a perfect replication of a clear evening sky. "Stop looking up, Raquel, you are missing the show," my mother scolded. I continued counting the stars. As we left I asked my mother if we could visit the theater every Saturday instead of McCrory or even Burdines. "No," she laughed. "But maybe one day you'll be on that stage." I shuttered at the thought, from acting lesions to ballet, my mother had strived to make me an artist, but thankfully failed miserably.
Today, as I sat on the stage of the Olympia, amid the bright lights, I strained to see the painted ceiling twinkling in the distance. I stood and walked over to the podium: "Good morning graduates, parents and faculty. It is a privilege and an honor to address you this morning." "I want to speak to you about a Miami-Dade County Public Schools alumna, who after growing up in North Miami Beach, has touched your lives on a daily basis; an alumna who has started a national conversation about women and leadership -- Sheryl Sandberg, the CFO of Facebook."
As I glanced up from the podium at the sea of white caps and gowns, I spoke about Lean In, about the educational success of women and the lack of females in leadership positions. I paused: "Graduates, today marks 21 years since I sat where you now sit and so I take this opportunity to share with you nine things that I wish someone would have told me at 18."
1. When someone pays you a compliment, just say thank you. It took me years to understand that people follow people they admire and responding to a compliment with "it's no big deal" or "anyone could have done it" inhibits your ability to lead. So stand up straight and be proud of your awesomeness, you can thank your mom, best friend and first grade teacher when you give a commencement speech.
2. On the topic of awesomeness; stop apologizing for your ambition. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be successful, nor is there anything wrong with letting people know what you want, after all, if you don't tell them, who will?
3. The timing will never be just right, nor will the "opportunity" come under perfect conditions. It will always be complicated, that's why it's called taking a risk. In fact, the greatest opportunities come at the most tumultuous times. So if you sit around waiting for everything to be in order, I guarantee that you will miss out. Moreover, as Sandberg states, "when someone offers you a ride on a rocket ship, don't worry about which seat you are assigned, just get on board."
4. While we are on the subject of rocket ships, Sandberg also notes that success isn't a ladder, it's a jungle gym. On this point, I would add that this is the greatest mistake I've made in my life, I walked around with a personal and professional to do list, thinking that if I checked everything off in a timely manner, I'd get to be happy. Lists are for tasks and groceries, they are not for life choices. So ditch the list, because there is no one path to success and yours, like mine, may be unconventional.
5. No matter how successful you are, everyone feels like a fraud. Have you ever sat in a room and feared that someone is going to walk in and tell you that you don't belong there? Well everyone has. We all have moments when we fear that someone will recognize that we are not as smart as our mom thinks we are. It's fine, get over it, your mom is right.
6. There is a difference between reputation and what people think. What people think isn't important and thinking about it is a waste of time as there is nothing you can do about it. Stick to what you can control and focus on establishing a reputation as a hard worker, a team builder and most importantly, someone who doesn't tear other people down, but rather builds them up.
7. Don't make a decision until it's time to make a decision. Sandberg spends an entire chapter on this, but the end result is: go big or go home! Don't factor in things that haven't and might not happen into making a decision. When those things happen, you'll deal with them. Stick to your actual reality.
8. In the business world, "no" often just means "try again." There is a difference between following directions and doing what you are told. It's important to follow directions, but no one will ever follow you if you spend your life doing what you are told. So please, bring your brain to work with you. Original thoughts delivered in a respectful manner will make everyone's day. On that note, no matter how educated or brilliant you are, please don't roll your eyes when you are asked to make a copy or get someone a cup of coffee. I promise it won't kill you.
9. Finally, on the topic of people skills, I believe that the greatest challenge of our time is to be present. So try to be present at least a few times a day. The people who make the decisions won't remember your smart text, or witty email. They will remember a face, a smile and a handshake. So put your smartphone down and be human.
Sadly, I don't remember much of what was said at my high school graduation, but I do recall that as I walked out, one of my AP teachers made reference to the Man in the Arena, a quote from a speech that Theodore Roosevelt delivered at the Sorbonne in 1910, which has helped me over the decades face my fears, my critics and press on:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasm, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
So today, Class of 2013, I invite you to enter the Arena! To set aside your fear of failure, to forget about what people may think, to walk out of this stadium and let go of the lives you've planned and allow yourselves the opportunity to live a life that will exceed all of your expectations. Congratulations!