I just had the privilege of delivering the commencement speech to the very first graduates of the phenomenal charter school, Wildwood Environmental Academy, in Perrysburg, Ohio. I hope you will agree that its message is worth repeating here: An American independent film maker, Woody Allen, once said: Ninety per cent of success is showing up. So to all of you, dear graduates, for showing up, today, and all the days and years of your education, congratulations on your success! You did it! And this is your reward…If 90% of success is showing up, according to Allen, the New York Times recently explained the other 10%. According to their article, the necessary ingredient for a healthy life filled with joy and a sense of well-being (how I define success), is something called, “self-compassion:” the ability to love and forgive yourself even though you are not perfect, you aren’t right all the time, you make mistakes, you even fail.
Now this may not be the way you define success. You may be like the many of my generation who defined success by material possessions, money in the bank, or celebrity status. About that I have to say this: Whatever enjoyment we experienced from these superficial measures of success was short-lived because of the mistakes we made driven by greed. In fact, some really good people are in jail right now, or rehab, even mental institutions, because of the mistaken way we defined success and the selfishness with which we pursued it.
People in jail or rehab are good people who have made mistakes. It simply isn’t true that there are people who are “all good” – who get it right all the time and therefore deserve all the rewards, just like it isn’t true that there are people who are “all bad” and therefore deserve to be locked away. This false good-bad split is what drives us to beat ourselves up every time we experience a failure. We say, “What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I get it right?” We take the short leap from making a mistake to believing we are bad.
Every time we make that leap, each time we beat ourselves up for our mistakes, we keep ourselves from the peace of mind, health, and well-being that we need not only for the marathon of education, but also for the marathon of life. If you want to not only get your education but also have a healthy relationship, be a great parent, and contribute to your community in a way you can be proud of, you will need to be gentle with yourself when you’re down, loving, and forgiving. Believe me: you’ll get up a lot quicker that way.
This is true for every one of us. We all find it easier to love ourselves when we’re doing well and are “getting it right.” It’s easy for you to love yourself on a day like today, for instance, of course! You’re doing so well! But you know you won’t always do well; you won’t always “get it right.” Your true success, your ability to rise and keep going and finish the marathon will be determined by how well you love yourself even when you don’t get it right. When you’re able to do that, when you are able to make peace with your imperfection, then and only then, compassion will grow…in you…for you…for others…and THAT…is what will light up the world.
Compassion is the cure…Something I wish someone would have told me on my graduation day. Knowing that then would have saved me so much money in therapy! I look to you now, and to your generation, with such hope for your capacity to redefine success so that it has meaning and depth and true power. I look to you and your generation to see and understand that we are all the same.
So without further adieu…on this most auspicious day and always, I invite you to celebrate ALL of what you live: success, failure, and everything in between. Through each and every experience you have you will learn well.