In a high-energy speech Sunday, acclaimed actor and Stanford alum Sterling K. Brown ’98 called on graduates at Stanford’s Commencement to let their “light shine” by embracing their strengths and passions for the broader good while not worrying about matching others’ achievements.
“Don’t worry about anybody else’s light,” Brown said. “Don’t try to compare yours to anyone else’s. If you have found that thing, that purpose in life that gives you access to maximum enthusiasm, trust that.”
“I’m not talking about a job, I’m not even talking about a career,” he continued. “I’m talking about a calling — that thing that forces the metaphorical lampshade from your soul and mandates that everyone wear sunglasses in your presence because you just that damn bright.”
Sunday’s ceremony marked the awarding of 1,673 bachelor’s degrees, 2,433 master’s degrees and 1,000 doctoral degrees. After the traditional Wacky Walk parading graduates’ costumes — which mimicked everything from avocado toast to the blockchain — and an introduction from University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, Brown took the stage. His speech waxed both serious and funny while drawing on Brown’s Cardinal roots, from his unexpected major choice to the inspiration he still finds in a close friend from Stanford, Andrew Daher ’98, who died young after graduating,
Brown used Daher as an example of the metaphorical brightness that students should aspire to, someone who always did his “absolute best” while also boosting others.
“This dude… stayed with me till damn near the sun came up,” Brown said, recalling a time when Daher helped him on a p-set. “He wouldn’t let me fail.”
Brown kicked off his address with a rousing “Class of 2018, Nerd Nation, how we doin’ this morning? I’m a little hype, I’m a little hype.” First, Brown gave the audience a statement and a question.
He said his speech would include elements of AAVE, short for African American Vernacular English – because that’s what he’s comfortable with, and because he’s “home” talking with fellow Farm community members.
The question: “Have any of you ever been asked to do something that everyone automatically assumes you’ll be great at, but in the back of your mind, you have no idea what you’re going to do?”
He was referring to his invitation to speak at Commencement. Brown’s speech was often self-deprecating, and he emphasized the difficult time he had writing it. He said he ultimately drew inspiration from quotes by what he called his “big three” philosophers: Socrates, Plato and Lao Tzu.
“#StayWoke,” he said after presenting the Socrates quotation “An unexamined life is not worth living.” “Can I get an amen?” he said about another one of the Greek thinker’s sayings, “I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance.” Brown linked the quote to his own struggle drafting.
“Then I take a breath, and I remember my speech doesn’t have to look like anybody else’s,” Brown said, “My speech is my speech, and they can’t do what I can do, and I can’t do what they can do. So why am I even trying?”
Brown found an unlikely passion for acting at Stanford. He entered college planning to major in economics and go into business, but after encouragement from Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education and former drama professor Harry Elam, he became a drama major.
“Students will choose majors not because they love a subject, but because that’s what they’re supposed to do or that’s what will get them a job,” Elam told The Daily earlier this year. “[Brown is] an example of choosing a major differently — [pursuing] something that you believe in, something that you want to work at and are committed to.”
Now, Brown’s starring role as Randall Pearson on the TV show “This Is Us” has won him an Emmy, a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award, among other honors; he is the first African-American man to win either of the latter two awards in the categories he was recognized for. As Tessier-Lavigne noted in his introduction, this year the actor also made TIME magazine’s list of 100 most influential people.
Despite his accolades, Brown urged students to avoid perfectionism and treat it as an asymptote, prioritizing process over product: “The journey towards [perfection] is infinite, but the destination can never be reached,” he said.
He also emphasized individuals’ role in a greater good, drawing on a quote of Socrates’ — “I am not an Athenian or a Greek but a citizen of the world.”
“This is nationalism versus globalism, this is very ‘Black Panther,’ right?” he said.
In the course of discussing the philosophers’, Brown related another quote from author and spiritual teacher Marianne Williamson.
“It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us most,” he quoted Williamson saying. “We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and famous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world.”
Brown used that language of light throughout the rest of his speech, urging graduates to be the person that “changes the room for the better” when they walk in — the person who, in Brown’s mother’s words, is asked back.
Brown emphasized that excelling to one’s full potential isn’t selfish, but rather, beneficial to everyone around. We should celebrate others’ success, he said, while not being afraid of our own.
Later, Brown also cautioned against “vilifying people who don’t see the world through the same lens as ourselves.”
“Intolerance is still intolerance, even if it’s for the intolerant,” he said.
Brown echoed Tessier-Lavigne’s earlier advice to students to pursue what makes them feel purposeful, whatever that may be. Tessier-Lavigne described how famed writer and alum John Steinbeck ’23 asked a Stanford professor about the secret to writing a good short story; the professor replied that “a story could be about anything and could use any means and technique at all – so long as it was effective.”
“Just as there is no magic formula for writing a great short story, there is also no magic formula for living a life of purpose and of exploration,” Tessier-Lavigne said.
Brown, whose credits besides “This is Us” include films “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” “Marshall” and “Black Panther” as well as the TV shows “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” and “Army Wives,” reflected on his move to acting as a shift toward the calling that he hoped all the graduates in the audience would find for themselves.
“The desire to illuminate the human condition was always the thing that gave my life the greatest sense of purpose,” he said.
Wrapping up, Brown listed who he “shines” for — his city of St. Louis, his family and friends, Daher and “Chocolate Cardinal” (This wasn’t Brown’s first speech-shoutout to Stanford’s black community: “Stand up, Chocolate Cardinal in house!” Brown called out while accepting his Emmy in 2016).
“Class of 2018, it is your time now,” Brown finished. “Take your light and show us the way.”
Contact Hannah Knowles at hknowles ‘at’ stanford.edu,