Commencement time at Harvard is overwhelming, much like anything else there. Both happy and sad at the same time – happy for getting your diploma, having your school show off your achievements there, and your parents to see it all, and sad for seeing the best era of your life come to an end, for not being able to see all the wonderful people you meet there again.
Harvard alumna and Oscar winning actress Natalie Portman was this year’s commencement speaker, and described it as “genuinely one of the most exciting things I’ve ever been asked to do”.
Watching her speech reminded me of all these emotions I felt during my own commencement. But here are a few of the real life lessons to take away from it:
1. When you feel insecure or unworthy of your achievement, remind yourself that you’re worth it.
Natalie described her insecurities on first coming to Harvard, “I felt like there had been some mistake, that I wasn’t smart enough to be in this company, and that every time I opened my mouth I would have to prove I wasn’t just a dumb actress.” So if upon your success, you ever feel unworthy, remind yourself that “you’re here for a reason.”
2. The prize can be dubious if you don’t understand its reason.
Natalie explained how when she first came to college, she thought acting was “too frivolous and certainly not meaningful”, and went on to try more serious things, until she realized that she loved acting and that was enough reason to do it. “I learned from my peers and my mentors that that was not only an acceptable reason, it was the best reason.”
“Prizes serve as false idols everywhere,” she said. “Prestige, wealth fame power, you’ll be exposed to many of these, if not all. The fruits of achievements can not always be trusted. Achievement can be wonderful when you know why you’re doing it, and when you don’t, it can be a terrible trap.”
3. Strive for perfection, and take enjoyment in creating, not the creation.
When we take pleasure in what we do, and spend time and energy in perfecting something, then we can truly strive for quality, not quantity. Natalie gave the example of the best local sushi restaurants in Tokyo that are very tiny. They try to perfect just one dish, so they can be the best at it. “The joy and work ethic and virtuosity we bring to the particular can impart a singular type of enjoyment to those we give to and of course to ourselves.”
4. Embrace your imperfections and quirks as they make your personality unique.
Natalie explained how she learned during the filming of her Oscar-winning film Black Swan that ballerinas can’t be perfect, so sometimes their imperfections set them apart as the best and most memorable. “You can never be the best technically, the only thing you can be the best at is developing your own self.”
5. Sometimes your inexperience and ignorance can help you take risks and act freely.
When we unrealistically believe in ourselves and blissfully ignore our challenges, we can remove self-doubt. That can help us overcome the difficulties and create solutions our own way. “Harness your inexperience to carve out your own path,” she said. “Your inexperience is an asset and will allow you to think in original and unconventional ways.”
“The very inexperience that in college had made me insecure and make me wanna play by others’ rules now was making me actually take risks I didn’t even realize were risks,” Natalie said of her experience in taking up a challenging role in Black Swan without realizing how hard it would be to learn professional ballet moves that take years to perfect.
6. Helping others can help ourselves more than anyone else.
When we take time out to help someone in need, we end up creating a better life for ourselves, too. “Getting out of your own concerns and caring about someone else’s life for a while reminds you that you are not the center of the universe,” Natalie said.
And finally, as I would have it, here are some pics from my own graduation a few years ago. (Sob, sob, I’m all tears remembering that happy-sad occasion!)
Also, watch this year’s full speech by Natalie Portman here: