So I got asked to give a speech…

June 12, 2017

A wonderful writer I know, Ken LaZebnik, who helped found the MFA in TV and Screenwriting at Stephens College, invited me to speak at the graduate level commencement ceremony that would mark the culmination of the program’s first class. I had met these students during their first year, speaking on a panel, and I accepted the chance to celebrate their major accomplishment with them. It was an extra-special opportunity to share some of my personal experiences as a female working in the entertainment business at Stephens, which is an all-women’s college (though the master’s program does admit men as well).

As you’ll see in the text below, I found the task of coming up with something to say a bit daunting at first. And I was a nervous wreck when speech time came! But I was moved by the response of the students and so grateful to be a part of their shared experience, and I will always be happy I made the trip to Columbia, MO, for that beautiful day in May.

A few people have asked to read the speech, so I finally just decided to post it here… for what it’s worth to anyone else who might find some use in it.

Congratulations again to the Stephens graduates. They are going to do the world proud!

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Hello. Congratulations to all of you, and thank you for letting me be a part of this important day in your lives.  I’ll be honest – when I was invited to give this speech my first thought was, “am I grown-up enough to tell anyone anything about what comes next?” I mean, my collection of Marvel Pop figures and comics and my obsession with “Agents of SHIELD,” would make you argue that I definitely am not. And I was a little afraid when I sat down to write this, feeling an intense doubt that I had anything to say that might matter to you.

As a writer by trade, my career-centered fear often manifests itself in “oh, no, what if I have nothing to write this time!” When I am in that place, I take the advice a good friend gave me… remind yourself you’ve done it before. So I re-read a blog I posted, hoping to inspire new writers the way others have inspired me. I happened upon this bit I had written and knew I wanted to share it with you.  It was meant to give some perspective to diverse writers… but the truth is, it applies to women, in all workplaces, just as perfectly.

In fact, in my industry, where there is so much talk about bringing diversity in front of and behind the camera, the truth is… being a woman has always been a bigger deal than my being black. If you don’t believe it, look at how few female showrunners and directors there are in TV. That is a sad state of reality in many industries, not just entertainment. Wrestling with that reality and your response to it is something you can’t avoid as you embark on your careers. And so this is the thing I wrote, for what it’s worth:

You will meet people who will see you as less than, who will think you only got the job because you fill a quota. They won’t know anything about you… they won’t know about how you worked graveyard shifts to put yourself through college and how you took responsibility for and pay thousands of dollars in student loans because your education was that important to you…

they won’t know that you wrote till 3 a.m. on weeknights and all weekend long around day jobs because that was all the time you had and you knew you had to write to be a writer… they won’t know about the twelve specs and six pilots and the dozen short stories you wrote to prepare yourself when opportunity came…

they won’t know about the literally thousands of pages you wrote that no one will ever see because they were never about making money. Their value was in making you a better writer. They won’t know these things about you… but you will. And you will show them that you earned your job by being the best you that you can be… by proving that you belong, no matter what they think. (That’s the end of the thing).

I wish I could stand here and tell you that your gender won’t matter. But it will. There is this thing I refer to as the “assumption of greatness” that follows most men into the workplace. “He got the job; of course he can do it.”

But for women, it’s somehow always a pleasant surprise when we’re amazing at the jobs we were hired to do. Have you been there? Where you could almost see the thought bubble over someone’s head thinking, “Wow, you’re pretty great at this for a girl”?  I know I have.

So as infuriating as it is, your gender will matter. Your race will matter. It’s okay to be angry about it. But you should also embrace it. Accept it. Then be who you are. Be the person that you are in the deepest levels of your gut and your heart.

Be the person your soul aches to be.

And know that most of what you need to be that person and live in her skin – those are the same tools you’ve used to get to this day, right here… graduating with a degree that you worked your butts off to get despite every obstacle that tried to derail you.

I came from a military family. Spent years surrounded by the sailors and soldiers who made up my parents’ circle of friends. Some of what I learned was about following orders and the importance of doing your duty. But I also picked up invaluable lessons in reading a room, understanding people, and how to be myself even in a situation where my views or opinions are not always welcome.

I learned to tell the difference between someone testing me with a pointed comment and someone truly targeting me with malice. I learned when I needed to fight back and when I won by just shrugging and walking away. And I learned a hell of a lot about football. That never hurts.  Nothing announces your presence in a room like reminding everyone you probably know more about football than most of the men. It’s how I stay true to myself, stand up for myself, while still being part of the group I want to belong to.

Whether you mean to follow me into a writers’ room or head into business or dive into the hard work of helping families, your task is to find out what you can do to stay true to yourself when things get hard.

Then do that.

It sounds ridiculously simple, but it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It took time and trial and error… but I learned to live in my own skin. To not take everything personally and to worry more about what I think about me than what everyone else does.

My family couldn’t afford to help me through college at USC, and to keep a roof over my head — and to do something that felt a little more important and inspiring than answering phones in an office — I got a gig as a police dispatcher, working graveyard shifts to put myself through the ridiculously expensive but totally amazing school of my dreams.

Police dispatcher. Random job of random jobs for an aspiring writer, without doubt. It’s less random if I tell you my cousin was a cop and thought my ability to stay calm in a crisis would make me great at it. He was right. I was pretty great at it. And sitting in front of that radio taught me more about the power of words than anything I’ve ever written.

“Male, possibly intoxicated, talking to passersby.” “Man behaving erratically on a public street.” Two completely different ways to describe the same call that can change the entire tone of the police response.

I became immersed in a world where the words I chose could literally mean the difference between life and death for a citizen, a suspect, or my officers. It was a heady, huge responsibility. But the perspective those years gave me was a gift. In all my jobs since, when tensions are high and people are worried about deadlines and failure and money and whether someone’s going to get fired, I am the person who says, “hey, guys… I know this is important. I know we’re all stressed. But no one’s gonna die. So let’s take a breath and figure it out.” It doesn’t end the crisis, but those words usually stir the air just enough for us to get back on task, look at the problem with fresh eyes, and find a solution without giving ourselves an ulcer.

Most of you won’t have to live through high-octane police radio calls… but you do have perspective to draw on when you need it. What did you have to say to yourselves over the past few years when a deadline was looming and your project was only half done? What did you say to your friends when they encountered the same crisis?

Whatever those words are, you know them already. They will make you the calm in the storm. They will help you stay focused when the people around you start to spin. They will help you get through a day that feels impossible. So know yourself. Know what you need to hear or say to move forward. And never forget it.

I really wish I could tell you that you’re leaving fear of failure behind you with this huge achievement. Oh, how I wish I could tell you that. Instead, I want to tell you… it’s okay to be afraid. Be afraid you’ll fail. Be afraid you aren’t good enough. Fear isn’t something to run away from.

I just started work on my fifth TV show. It’s a job I spent four years campaigning for and working toward. And then I got it. And I was elated. I had worked impossibly hard for this opportunity, and it paid off. It was pure joy. For about a day. Then I immediately felt that gnawing worry that shows up every time I have a first day of work with a new showrunner who is putting their faith in me… “holy crap, can I really do this?”

The answer is, of course I can. I have documented proof. But I never want to believe my own press. Call it being humble or wanting to stay grounded. I find that constant need to prove myself is my friend. It keeps me from thinking I know it all. That I don’t need to work hard. That I should stop studying or learning.

Your version of that fear will come for you. But this… being here today… that’s your documented evidence that you can do it. Most of you balanced work and school or family and school or family, work, AND school to complete your degrees. You have already done what felt impossible. Conquered that fear. So let it motivate you going forward.

But if it ever starts to become a burden… tell fear how awesome you are… and to take a seat, because you’ve got this.

So the big ideas I’ve danced through today are: be who you were meant to be in the world, remember your strengths by reminding yourself of the victories that got you to where you are, and don’t be afraid to be afraid. Now there’s one more. Something I think every woman especially, but every person in general, has to know as they move through the world – at work, in your relationships, in life: know where your line in the sand is.

There will be moments when you can’t let something roll off your back, where an unfairness has to be addressed, where you must speak up because you won’t be able to live with yourself if you don’t.

That’s your line in the sand.

It may be a boss or a fellow employee or a client pushing you there. And sometimes you can’t walk away. You have to say “enough”. Sometimes a fight is worth fighting.

You are the only person who can decide that.

We all have things we can take and things we can’t let go. That’s being human. And you don’t forfeit your right to be a person because you have ambition and want to succeed. You especially do not forfeit it because you’re a woman and the system tells us to smile and play nice to get ahead.

I am a mama bear by nature. And I have reached my line in the sand as a working woman a few times. Usually because an untenable situation is affecting the people around me… my co-workers, my teammates, my friends. Those are usually the fights I choose to fight.

I do it knowing there will be consequences… because there are always consequences. But there will be times when what’s right is worth that risk.  And I implore you to be the kind of people who are willing to choose your battles and fight them.

Ninety-nine times you may say this is not a hill I want to die on. That’s your choice to make. But when the idea of letting something go seems worse than anything you might face for speaking your mind… be courageous enough to speak your mind. Because it is the only way anything ever gets better.

It is the way we slowly tear down those myths about how women should behave in the workplace. In the world. It’s how we destroy the idea that a woman should apologize for demanding her worth be acknowledged or for occupying her space when someone else wants to crowd her out.

You’re all here because you believe you can do something in this world. And you already know a truth crucially important to your success. You have a right to it. Not because you’re entitled. Because you’re willing to work, sacrifice and fight for it. You’ve earned the right to succeed. You will keep earning it.

But you’ll have days where you forget that you deserve success. Days you are afraid and think the fight to climb the ladder is too hard.

I hope on those days you will remember today, when you celebrated this huge accomplishment and some crazy writer from Los Angeles crashed your party and stood in front of you and told you to go out and be who you are in the world – be you proudly, strongly, hilariously, wondrously, and loudly. Be you.

Now go show the world you’re ready for what comes next.

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