Shonda Rhimes’ Commencement Speech Is the Perfect Antidote to Millennial Panic


There’s lots to love about Shonda Rhimes’ Dartmouth commencement speech, delivered IRL on Sunday and available in full here. I’ll start with my favorite: follow that link, hit control+F, and type in “millennial.” The M-word is nowhere to be found, and neither is the faulty logic or preachy tone that characterize most of the think-pieces that use it. Which is ironic, given that Rhimes’ address, unlike the aforementioned TIME cover stories and #slatepitches, contains some funny, heartening, and above all useful stuff. Stuff actually written with 20-somethings, not boomers and Gen X-ers looking for someone else to blame, in mind.

Rhimes starts off with some endearing but standard caveats about how nervous she is to be speaking to Dartmouth’s class of 2014, plus the zillions of Twitter users and NPR readers and bloggers (hi!) waiting in the wings to analyze what she says next (hi again!). After a shout-out to parents and a few poop jokes, though, she goes right for the jugular, paraphrasing the wisdom of graduation speakers past and ripping it to shreds:

Dream and dream big. As a matter of fact, dream and don’t stop dreaming until all of your dreams come true. I think that’s crap. I think a lot of people dream. And while they are busy dreaming, the really happy people, the really successful people, the really interesting, engaged, powerful people, are busy doing.

Worrying, right? Doing-not-dreaming is but a few steps removed from get-a-damn-job and the bootstraps school of youth underemployment shaming. To her eternal credit, though, Rhimes point isn’t that her audience needs to suck it up and stop “blue-skying” themselves. Or rather, her point is partly that — the admonishment “You don’t have a job? Get one” crops up — but it’s a criticism leveled as much as Rhimes’ past self as the class of 2014. “Blue-skying” isn’t a generational problem, it’s a being-a-person problem, because people are sort of lazy and conservative and more prone to staying put than traveling the world or writing a novel. Rhimes also happens to have a refreshingly practical solution for said problem:

Maybe you know exactly what it is you dream of being, or maybe you’re paralyzed because you have no idea what your passion is. The truth is, it doesn’t matter. You don’t have to know. You just have to keep moving forward. You just have to keep doing something, seizing the next opportunity, staying open to trying something new. It doesn’t have to fit your vision of the perfect job or the perfect life. Perfect is boring and dreams are not real.

Better still, it’s backed by evidence from Rhimes’ own experiences with dreaming vs. doing: evolving from an aspiring novelist to an actual TV showrunner.

I wanted to be Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison. That was my dream. I blue sky’ed it like crazy. I dreamed and dreamed. And while I was dreaming, I was living in my sister’s basement. Dreamers often end up living in the basements of relatives, FYI. Anyway, there I was in that basement, and I was dreaming of being Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison. And guess what? I couldn’t be Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, because Toni Morrison already had that job and she wasn’t interested in giving it up…Years later, I had dinner with Toni Morrison. All she wanted to talk about was Grey’s Anatomy. That never would have happened if I hadn’t stopped dreaming of becoming her and gotten busy becoming myself.

There’s no mention of entitlement here. It’s possible that those who bemoan narcissistic college grads who refuse to work their way up from the bottom are trying to get at what Rhimes is saying here. Yet Rhimes views her audience as people sitting exactly where she did two decades ago, facing exactly the same problems, and possibly about to go astray in the same fashion. That’s the opposite of Millennial Panic’s most obnoxious trait: the characterization of young people as an entirely different species, one that can’t be reasoned with but instead lamented before we’ve even hit 30.

The second of Rhimes’ self-described “Random Stuff Some Random Alum Who Runs a TV Show Thinks I Should Know Before I Graduate” speech is useful but not revolutionary; “Yes, it is hard out there. But hard is relative” is essentially “check your privilege” made more palatable for any Tal Fortgangs in the audience. The last chunk of the speech focuses on the myth of “having it all,” and for someone who holds hashtag activism in disdain, it reads remarkably like one giant subtweet of Sheryl Sandberg. Though passive aggression did, of course, precede social media, as did throwing shade.

Just as the first portion of Rhimes’ remarks is a rebuttal to the “kids these days don’t get it” strain of generationsplaining, the final bit takes down another: the Lean In approach to work-life balance, which she accurately sums up as the belief that aspiring working parents (including men, because “fatherhood is being redefined at a lightning-fast rate”) “just need to be organized or… just need to try just a little bit harder” to get it right. Like Oprah a few months ago, Rhimes bluntly states that child rearing and the entertainment business are competing priorities, and she’s repeatedly chosen the latter over the former:

If I am succeeding at one, I am inevitably failing at the other. That is the tradeoff. That is the Faustian bargain one makes with the devil that comes with being a powerful working woman who is also a powerful mother. You never feel a hundred percent OK; you never get your sea legs; you are always a little nauseous. Something is always lost.

BUT. Rhimes has something new to add to the Mommy Wars, something that hits home hard for readers like me, whose mothers also chose high-powered careers:

And yet. I want my daughters to see me and know me as a woman who works. I want that example set for them. I like how proud they are when they come to my offices and know that they come to Shondaland. There is a land and it is named after their mother. In their world, mothers run companies. In their world, mothers own Thursday nights. In their world, mothers work. And I am a better mother for it.

It’s a phenomenon I’ve often noticed as the child of a lawyer, but it’s one that’s rarely used as an argument against the kids vs. career false dichotomy. I’ve never really thought about how my work will affect my future family, and I suspect Shonda Rhimes’ daughters won’t either. That’s not because Sandberg or Anne-Marie Slaughter told me not to worry, but because my mom showed me not to. She showed me that women get graduate degrees and do well in the workplace and become moms. And it’s about time someone told grads that a career doesn’t mean giving up parenting — it means parenting by example.

Those of us who are exasperated by millennial bashing have always known that talking to young people about the things that freak us out isn’t as hard as Joel Stein (and, more recently, Frank Bruni) makes it look. Kudos to Shonda Rhimes for proving it.