I said to you earlier that I don’t ever offer advice unless someone asks me for it, and now I’ll tell you why. As a person who started my very public career at the age of 15, it came with a price. And that price was years of unsolicited advice. Being the youngest person in every room for over a decade meant that I was constantly being issued warnings from older members of the music industry, the media, interviewers, and executives. This advice often presented itself as thinly veiled warnings. See, I was a teenager in the public eye at a time when our society was absolutely obsessed with the idea of having perfect young female role models. It felt like every interview I did included slight barbs by the interviewer about me one day ‘running off the rails.’ That meant a different thing to every person who said it to me. So 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.
And being embarrassed when you mess up is part of the human experience. Getting back up, dusting yourself off, and seeing who still wants to hang out with you afterward and laugh about it? That’s a gift.
The times I was told no or wasn’t included, wasn’t chosen, didn’t win, didn’t make the cut…looking back, it really feels like those moments were as important, if not more crucial than the moments I was told ‘yes.’
Not being invited to the parties and sleepovers in my hometown made me feel hopelessly lonely, but because I felt alone, I would sit in my room and write the songs that would get me a ticket somewhere else. Having label executives in Nashville tell me that only 35-year-old housewives listen to country music and there was no place for a 13-year-old on their roster made me cry in the car on the way home. But then I’d post my songs on my MySpace and yes, MySpace, and would message other teenagers like me who loved country music, but just didn’t have anyone singing from their perspective. Having journalists write in-depth, oftentimes critical, pieces about who they perceive me to be made me feel like I was living in some weird simulation, but it also made me look inward to learn about who I actually am. Having the world treat my love life like a spectator sport in which I lose every single game was not a great way to date in my teens and twenties, but it taught me to protect my private life fiercely. Being publicly humiliated over and over again at a young age was excruciatingly painful but it forced me to devalue the ridiculous notion of minute-by-minute, ever-fluctuating social relevance and likability. Getting canceled on the internet and nearly losing my career gave me an excellent knowledge of all types of wine.
I know I sound like a consummate optimist, but I’m really not. I lose perspective all the time. Sometimes everything just feels completely pointless. I know the pressure of living your life through the lens of perfectionism. And I know that I’m talking to a group of perfectionists because you are here today graduating from NYU. And so this may be hard for you to hear: In your life, you will inevitably misspeak, trust the wrong people, under-react, overreact, hurt the people who didn’t deserve it, overthink, not think at all, self-sabotage, create a reality where only your experience exists, ruin perfectly good moments for yourself and others, deny any wrongdoing, not take the steps to make it right, feel very guilty, let the guilt eat at you, hit rock bottom, finally address the pain you caused, try to do better next time, rinse, repeat. And I’m not gonna lie, these mistakes will cause you to lose things.
I’m trying to tell you that losing things doesn’t just mean losing. A lot of the time, when we lose things, we gain things too.
Now you leave the structure and framework of school and chart your own path. 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.
How do I give advice to this many people about their life choices? I won’t.
The scary news is: You’re on your own now.
The cool news is: You’re on your own now.
I leave you with this: We are led by our gut instincts, our intuition, our desires and fears, our scars, and our dreams. And you will screw it up sometimes. So will I. And when I do, you will most likely read about it on the internet. Anyway…hard things will happen to us. We will recover. We will learn from it. We will grow more resilient because of it.
As long as we are fortunate enough to be breathing, we will breathe in, breathe through, breathe deep, breathe out. And I’m a doctor now, so I know how breathing works.
I hope you know how proud I am to share this day with you. We’re doing this together. So let’s just keep dancing like we’re…
… the class of ’22.