Taylor Swift has earned a lot of accolades. She has a dozen Grammy Awards, a Primetime Emmy, and a few hundred awards I'd never even heard of. She also managed to record and release two full-length albums in the second half of 2020. You remember 2020, right? You know, the year when finding a store with toilet paper in stock was an accomplishment.
On Wednesday, she added one more. New York University awarded her an honorary doctorate. At the commencement ceremony, Swift gave a 20-minute address to the graduating class, during which she shared what she called life-hacks.
Billboard magazine shared a transcript of the entire speech, and it's definitely worth the read. Commencement speeches--especially the ones given by celebrity guests--are often dull and full of platitudes and cliche advice about how this group of graduates is going to change the world. Swift, on the other hand, is as gifted with words as anyone and uses them in a way that makes her relatable to just about everyone.
That's why, even if you don't have time to read the entire thing, you shouldn't miss this section, right there in the middle:
I became a young adult while being fed the message that if I didn't make any mistakes, all the children of America would grow up to be perfect angels. However, if I did slip up, the entire earth would fall off its axis and it would be entirely my fault and I would go to pop star jail forever and ever. It was all centered around the idea that mistakes equal failure and ultimately, the loss of any chance at a happy or rewarding life.
This has not been my experience. My experience has been that my mistakes led to the best things in my life.
We should pause for a second because most of us have no idea what the pressure must be like for someone who has lived almost all her life with the type of public exposure Swift has had. She talked in her speech about all sorts of circumstances that would make anyone want to give up. She shared about disappointment, loneliness, and the cost of making mistakes.
The thing is, if we're really honest, we can relate. I mean, sure, there are plenty of things about being a teen country music star that are completely unrelatable for most of us. But, we all do dumb things. We mess up and break things. We hurt people, we make bad decisions, we take risks, and sometimes we fail. Or, so it seems.
Swift's point is that mistakes don't equal failure. And, if they do, it's only because we let them. On the other hand, mistakes are often how we learn to succeed. It's how we discover the boundary of our capabilities, and how we find ways to push even further.
The key is--and this is important--that Swift made a choice. Following the path from your mistakes to the best things in your life is a choice.
That might be the thing you need to hear: The key isn't perfection, it's whatever the next step is for you. And, if you make a wrong step--if you put your foot in the wrong place--you pick it up and take another. And another.
Eventually, you figure out your way. Eventually, your idea becomes real. Eventually, you make the thing and it works.
But, only if you don't become consumed by your mistakes. When that happens, you stop trusting yourself to know where to put your foot so you stop taking steps altogether. Instead, learn from your mistakes--or, better yet, find someone else who has made them before you and is willing to help you. As Swift said:
Every choice you make leads to the next choice, which leads to the next, and I know it's hard to know sometimes which path to take. There will be times in life when you need to stand up for yourself. Times when the right thing is to back down and apologize. Times when the right thing is to fight, times when the right thing is to turn and run. Times to hold on with all you have and times to let go with grace. Sometimes the right thing to do is to throw out the old schools of thought in the name of progress and reform. Sometimes the right thing to do is to listen to the wisdom of those who have come before us. How will you know what the right choice is in these crucial moments? You won't.
That's OK. Chances are, you'll make a few mistakes. And those just might become the best parts of your life.