May 11, 2018

Thank you, Dr. Irving, for the honor of inviting me to be part of this ceremony, and for your leadership here at Hennepin Tech.

To the faculty and staff of this wonderful place, to the family and friends who have joined us here today, and, most of all, to the Class of 2018: Congratulations. No matter what path you took to get here, and no matter where your journey takes you from here, today is a day to celebrate.

But it’s also a day to be a little anxious. After years of hard work to get to this point in your lives, today you have very little to do other than clap and cheer, take lots of pictures with your diploma — and start to worry about what comes next.

“Commencement” is a funny word. In this context, it represents the long-awaited last step in a long journey. But the word “commencement” also means “beginning.” And the question is: The beginning of what?

To be fair, you guys are in a great place to answer that question however you want. The skills you learned here at Hennepin Tech will allow you to find the kinds of jobs that help you build not just a career, but a life. And the traits that made you successful here — hard work and creativity, grit and resilience, self-discipline and self-confidence — will help you succeed in whatever challenges you take on.

That’s the good news. Here’s the bad news. You still have to decide which challenges you’ll take on, and what kind of life you want to build — and no matter how many skills you acquire, no matter how much education you get, making those decisions never gets any easier.

Today represents just one of those moments where one chapter ends and another mysterious one begins, but there will be more of those moments, and they won’t all be commemorated with a big ceremony like this one. In fact, many of them will come without warning.

I had a moment like that when I was about 35. And, at the time, my life was going great.

I had moved to Minnesota about a decade before to take an exciting job at General Mills, using the skills I had gone to school for to make a contribution to a big company I really respected. And I’d been able to build my career to the point where I could start my own business working with all kinds of companies and non-profits on a variety of interesting challenges.

Meanwhile, I was married to the love of my life, and we had two adorable, funny, healthy young sons.

I was happy! I was fulfilled! I had everything I’d ever dreamed of!

And then, one morning, I just woke up and said, “Wait a minute. What the hell am I doing?”

It’s not that I wanted to abandon my family or go back to school to become a veterinarian or shave my head or anything like that. I just had this moment where I suddenly realized that I’d been working so hard, I’d lost track of what I was trying to accomplish — what it all meant.

So, without getting into the gory details of my little mid-life crisis, I started reading a lot of books by people — especially women — who had found themselves at that kind of crossroads before. And the one that really hit home for me was called Composing A Life, by an anthropologist named Mary Catherine Bateson.

She’s the daughter of Margaret Mead, who came up with one of the most widely-quoted lines in commencement speech history: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Anybody heard that one before?

Well, anyway, her daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson, wrote this book about herself and four other women about how they each worked through the challenges of deciding how to build your life. So there was a dancer and artist, and a psychiatrist who worked with homeless people, and an electrical engineer who ran a high-tech firm, and a college president — the first black woman to serve as president of Spelman College in Atlanta.

So, a pretty interesting and very diverse group of accomplished women. And the book is about looking for the common threads between all of their lives. And the one that jumped out at me was that all these women were constantly improvising.

Now, if you hear that word “improvising,” and you think about jazz or improv comedy, you’re probably thinking that it’s mostly about being quick on your feet or having an active imagination, and those things are certainly true of great improvisers.

But I think improvising is also about finding a level of comfort with uncertainty and indecision. You can’t improvise a jazz piece or a comedy sketch if you’re worried about playing the right notes or remembering lines. The most satisfying lives cannot be scripted. And sometimes, instead of worrying about finding the right answers to questions like What the hell am I doing with my life?, it’s better to give yourself space to live with doubt and ambiguity.

Not knowing where you’re going in life can be anxiety-provoking. But in those moments, instead of seeing your future as a blank page that must be filled with details and plans in single-spaced, 12-point font, try to seek it as a blank canvas to be filled with whatever ideas and dreams that come to you, whenever they come to you.

Now, if you were hoping to hear some helpful advice from me as you begin this next chapter in your lives, and “don’t worry about it” seems kind of underwhelming, I understand. And the truth is, there’s more we can learn from improvisation than just “learn to be okay with making it up as you go.”

I’ll share two thoughts that have been at the front of my mind lately. The first is that, as you go through life, you’ll start to learn more about yourself. What you like. What you’re good at. What makes you feel like you’re really making the kind of contribution that you feel matters.

That’s how I wound up in public service. I first did it as something like a hobby, volunteering for a candidate in my community during my free time. But I loved the conversations it allowed me to have with my neighbors. I loved listening to people’s stories, and learning about how their lives were similar to, and different from, my own. And I loved thinking about helping them to solve problems.

Years later, when the mayor of Minneapolis asked me to come work for him as his chief of staff, it seemed like a radical idea. It meant giving up my business and jumping into a whole new world. But I knew that there was something about public service that made me feel good, something that felt comfortable, something about it that just felt right for me. So I took the leap. And I’ve never regretted it.

The other thought is that, just like improvising in jazz or comedy, improvising in life requires that you lean on your teammates. This can be comforting — it means you don’t have to navigate through life alone. But it can also be a challenge, because it requires you to give up some of the control you enjoy when you go it alone.

Teamwork’s been on my mind a lot these days because, as you know, I just started a particularly challenging new chapter of my life.

Until a few months ago, the idea of being a United States Senator had never even crossed my mind. It was a big leap for me. And I’m glad I had it in me to say “yes” when Governor Dayton asked me to start a new and unexpected chapter in my life.

The Senate, though, is a tricky place. Everybody who goes there goes there with the idea of making a real difference. Even me — once I got over the shock of imagining myself sitting in that chamber, I started getting excited about what I might be able to achieve. By the time I got to Washington, I was full of good ideas.

But then I had my own little ceremony, where I put my hand on a Bible and took the oath of office. And they took pictures, and everybody congratulated me, and I celebrated a little bit. And then it was time to get to work. Time to start filling up this new blank canvas.

And what I quickly understood is that the Senate doesn’t work without teamwork. Literally. One Senator can gum up the works all by him or herself, but if you’re actually trying to get stuff done, you have to build consensus. And some of that is about the value of your ideas and your talent as a politician, but a lot of it is about the relationships you’re able to build with your colleagues.

I’m still in the early pages of this new chapter in my life. And, like you, when I think about trying to fill those pages, I’m filled with a strange mix of excitement and anxiety.

But I’ve learned to like that feeling. I’m in a place where I feel happy, a place where I get to learn something new every day, a place where I get to do things I’m good at and make a contribution I feel proud about. And I get to go to work alongside 99 other smart, patriotic, hard-working Senators — most of whom I actually like! — not to mention countless staffers and activists and organizers who are all working to build a better future for our neighbors, and our state, and our country.

The truth is, you can fill the pages of your life any number of ways. But if you get to laugh, and you get to learn, and you get to do it all with people you like, you’re going to be proud of the book you write.

Thank you, congratulations, and good luck!

Written by

U.S. Senator Tina Smith of Minnesota

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