Chase Your Dreams, but Chase Them for the Right Reasons (A Commencement Address)

Keynote speech delivered on April 26, 2017, at the Dixon High School 65th Annual Scholastic Honors Banquet coordinated by the Kiwanis Club of Dixon…

graduation speech

Photo Credit: shock (Bigstock)

Students, twenty-two years ago this spring, I too was on the brink of graduating from Dixon High School, and I too was invited to attend this honors banquet. And do you know what I remember most about the speaker that night? Nothing. I can’t remember a single thing about the speech. I have only two memories of the night: trying to appear confident amongst a bunch of strange adults, and trying not to spill food on my dad’s tie. So, if you’re a little nervous or feeling a little clumsy, you’re doing just fine. That’s how you’re supposed to feel on a night like this. If you’re not feeling a little nervous and awkward, come talk to me afterward. I want to check your pulse.

So, twenty-two years ago, I was in your position, feeling nervous and awkward, with graduation coming into view. My future was uncertain, but there was one thing about which I was totally certain. I wanted to get out of this town. I wanted to do something that mattered, and deep down, I wanted to be someone that mattered.

And, though you come from a relatively small town, you have good reason to believe great things are possible. After all, our little town has produced some larger than life figures, such as Charles Walgreen, DHS Class of 1889, who started the wildly successful Walgreens company. And of course, Ronald Reagan, DHS Class of 1928, who became a film star and went on to become the 40th President of the United States. If you’re looking for reason to believe that your wildest dreams might actually come true after you depart Dixon for college and destinations beyond, look no further than the Gipper. Not to mention the countless men and women who have graduated from DHS and gone on to shape our world in ways that are much less visible, much more ordinary, but just as important and valuable.

Speaking of which, here’s a slightly lesser known story about another DHS graduate. He graduated, oh, approximately twenty-two years ago, and legend has it that, despite his best efforts, he returned home after his senior Kiwanis banquet with dark splotch on his father’s tie that smelled suspiciously of salad dressing. Approximately four months after he sat nervous and awkward, not really listening to the speaker up front, he departed Dixon for the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. Pulling out of the driveway, his car packed with clothes and towels and a thirteen-inch TV/VCR combo that had cost him most of his graduation money—and his stomach packed with a nauseous feeling—he thought to himself, “Why did I decide to go to college? This is terrifying. If I wasn’t doing this, I could still be in bed right now.” High school graduation, it turns out, had not perfected his confidence. It won’t perfect yours, either. I’m sorry to be the bearer of this bad news.

I’m assuming you’ve figured out who I’m talking about, so I’ll switch back to speaking in the first person now.

Growing up here in Dixon, I thought something magical would happen when I left. I thought when my Friday nights included something more than pining for the same girls that had been rejecting me since the fourth grade, and cruising up and down Galena Avenue listening to Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg and trying to feel tough, that something would change inside of me. I left for the University of Illinois thinking I’d find that magical thing there.

And I did find many, many good things at the U of I. I made a number of good, lifelong friends. I was mentored by smart and caring professors. I figured out that I wanted to be a psychologist. And, once again, I graduated with honors.

But, as they say, wherever you go, there you are.

On the day of my college graduation, I still wondered if I was good enough. I was still haunted by loneliness and a desire to be truly seen. And I still felt like I needed to do something great in order to matter in the grand scheme of things. So, I did what we all do: I kept searching for the next potential solution to these nagging problems. More specifically, I figured if the bachelor’s degree didn’t fix all my self-doubt, maybe a doctoral degree would do it! And I figured I wasn’t far enough from Dixon, so I chose to go to graduate school in Pennsylvania, at Penn State University.

Perhaps youve heard this popular definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. It turns out, in this way, were all a little crazy. Over and over again, we look for outside solutions to the problems inside of us.

You see, I hoped high school graduation would be a solution to my self-doubt and insecurity. Then I hoped college graduation would solve the problem. Then I hoped becoming a doctor would solve the problem. Somewhere in the middle of grad school, it became clear that wasn’t doing the trick either, so I quickly married the woman I was in love with, thinking that perhaps marriage would be the solution.

Nope.

I love her to death, and she is the best thing that has ever happened to me, but no woman or man has the power to remove our self-doubt. I wondered if becoming a dad would do the trick. Again, my kids are the best gifts I have ever received, but becoming a parent can’t fix our self-doubt and insecurity, either. It just creates more questions and more decisions to be uncertain about.

Then, seventeen years after I graduated from DHS, while I was working as a psychologist in the Chicago suburbs, I decided to start a blog. It began as a way to market my services to potential therapy clients, but then something interesting started to happen: I realized I loved writing. In fact, I realized I’d always been passionate about writing, but I’d never actually done any real writing, because, really, who can make a living as a writer? Within two years, though, two of my blog posts had gone viral and, on an ordinary Thursday afternoon, my office phone rang. I picked it up, and on the other end of the line was a producer from NBC. She told me she wanted my daughter and I to come on the TODAY Show.

Finally, the solution I had been searching for presented itself.

The ultimate affirmation of my writing and therefore my worth. A national television audience and all of the attention that comes with that. And some absolute certainty that I was doing something that mattered. After all my searching, I had finally found the solution to my self-doubt and insecurity. Now, I would love myself, feel loved, and make a difference in the world by doing what I love.

The end. Just kidding.

That’s not the end, is it? Because appearing on the TODAY Show wasn’t the outer solution to my inner problems, either. Sure, I basked in the glow of it for a couple of weeks afterward, and it did eventually lead to the publication of my first book, Loveable, one month ago. But gradually, in the weeks after the show, my self-doubt and insecurity came creeping back in. During those weeks, I finally had to face a truth I’d been telling others for years but avoiding myself. I’m here to share that truth with you tonight. Here it is:

The solutions you are searching for do not exist.

Comedian Jim Carrey, in a speech at the 2016 Golden Globe awards, humorously communicated this truth in his own way. He said, “I am two-time Golden Globe winner, Jim Carrey. You know, when I go to sleep at night, I’m not just a guy going to sleep. I’m two-time Golden Globe winner, Jim Carrey, going to get some well-needed shut eye. And when I dream, I don’t just dream any old dream. No, sir. I dream about being three-time Golden Globe winning actor, Jim Carrey. Because then I would be enough. It would finally be true. And I could stop this terrible search, for what I know ultimately won’t fulfill me.” Of course, he was being tongue-in-cheek.

Young people, graduates, do chase your dreams. Don’t just dream them, actually chase them. The world doesn’t need more dreamers; it needs more dream-chasers. And if someone tells you your dream is a little far-fetched—say, for instance, you want to start a wildly successful drug store chain or become President of the United States—tell them it may be far-fetched but it’s not impossible, because it’s been done before, in your very hometown.

Young people, chase your dreams. Try to recall what you’ve wanted to do with your life since the beginning of your life, and then give yourself a shot at doing it for the rest of your life. Remember what makes you feel fully awake—and I’m not talking about Monster or Red Bull here—I’m talking about the things that make your soul feel awake. For instance, writing. Or being on stage. Or building things. Or caring for children. Or caring for our planet. Or repurposing old barn wood for home decorating. Whatever it is, remember what arouses a passion deep inside of you, and then figure out a way to work it into your life. But for heaven’s sake, do not try to make it the solution to your inner problems. Do not think for one second that it will magically cure your self-doubt and insecurity.

Do not chase your dreams because they will make you feel perfect; chase your dreams because they will make you feel alive.

Or, in the words of author and civil rights leader Howard Thurman, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

As you chase your dreams, there are three other things I want you to remember. First, you’ve never met anyone who is totally confident and secure. In fact, the more confident someone looks, usually, the more insecure they are underneath the surface. We’re all making it up as we go.

Give yourself permission to feel uncertain, doubtful, and insecure at times. That is what were all doing, whether we look like it on the TODAY Show or not.

Second, don’t plan too far ahead. Our world is changing rapidly. Even if you know where you want to go with your life, the route for getting there will be constantly in flux. For instance, if I would have admitted to myself twenty-two years ago that I wanted to be a writer, I couldn’t have possibly planned for how that happened, because twenty-two years ago, blogs didn’t exist and, when something went viral, people gave you Kleenex not a television appearance.

Be clear about where youre headed, but embrace the mess of getting there. It doesnt mean youre going wrong; it means youre going forward.

And third, I want to come back to the original problem—that whole self-doubt and insecurity thing. While it’s true we’ll never find a true solution to that problem outside of us, we can find something like a solution inside of us. Yes, I still have doubts and insecurities—public speaking like this, for instance, is not easy for me to do. But my doubts and insecurities are much quieter and much less terrifying than they were twenty years ago. For instance, twenty-two years ago, when I gave my salutatory speech during our graduation in Lancaster Gymnasium and then later watched the tape, I thought it had been recorded at the wrong speed. I spoke so rapidly, it sounded like I’d done some kind of illegal drug just before donning my mortar board. Now, I’m confident enough to give a speech at normal human speeds.

How did that happen?

Well, it’s complicated, but I think I can simplify it a little bit for you. Over the course of the last twenty-two years—and, in particular, over the last twelve years as a psychologist—I’ve discovered that we all basically have two voices speaking inside of us all the time. The first voice, which is the loud and obnoxious one, I call the voice of shame. It has countless ways of telling us we’re not good enough, not loveable, all alone, and without purpose or significance.

The voice of shame is a crummy voice, and it’s the voice that sends us on our wild goose chase, looking for solutions to our inner doubt and insecurity in all sorts of outside relationships and accomplishments.

We have to get really good at doing two things with regard to this voice. First, we have to get good at noticing it and all of its many disguises. And then we have to get very good at calling B.S. on it. For instance, when I go home tonight, and I’m trying to fall asleep, and the voice of shame in my head starts telling me it was a really bad idea to say B.S. in that last sentence, I need to notice it as soon as I can, before it rambles on too long, and I need to tell it exactly where to go. And when it tells me no one will remember this speech, I need to tell it, “Of course no one will remember it. They’re all too busy trying to avoid spilling salad dressing on themselves.”

Then, there’s the other voice. I call this other voice the voice of grace. But you can call it whatever you want. The voice of your inner friend. The voice of love. The voice of God. It doesn’t matter so much what you call it; what matters is that you listen for it. Because it is quieter than the voice of shame. It doesn’t shout, it whispers. It is gentle and it sees all of the good things within you.

The voice of grace sees your truest, worthiest, most loveable self, and it is constantly trying to tell you about the beautiful thing you are. As we get better and better at listening to—and believing—this voice within us, our self-doubt and insecurity slowly begin to diminish.

Later tonight, if I start to feel insecure about this speech, I know now that I can listen for the voice of grace within me. And when I hear it, it will be saying something like this: “I don’t know how good the speech was, Kelly—who gets to decide that anyway? Besides, you’re not here on this planet to impress anyone or do anything impressive. You don’t have to prove yourself, you only have to be yourself. And you did a pretty good job up there tonight just being yourself.”

In closing, I want to tell you what happened after my daughter and I appeared on the TODAY Show, and I realized I’d been chasing a solution that didn’t exist. A little more than a year later, and one day before my twentieth high school reunion, I moved back to this hometown of mine, along with my wife and our three children.

Because when youre no longer searching far and wide for a solution that does not exist, you are free to ask yourself, “What do I really want to do with my life?”

And the answer to that question came quickly, and it was clear. I want to live in a town where community counts. I want to live in a place where people still wave to you and look you in the eye and have the space and time to pay attention to each other and love each other well. I wanted to come home.

Young people and graduates, I don’t know where the chasing of your dreams will lead you, but if you wind up chasing them back home, to this little town we all grew up in, we’ll welcome you back with open arms. And if you don’t, please know, we will be celebrating you from afar, because no matter what you do, you are loveable, and you are loved.

The end. For real.

You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Loveable is available in paperback, digital, and audio and can be purchased wherever books are sold, so you can also purchase it at your favorite bookseller.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • bonnie fuhrman

    I hope those graduates and loved ones had ears to hear Truth and Love speaking over them – bravo, Kelly!

    • Bonnie, that is really kind of you to say. I gave them each a copy of the book, so if they didn’t hear it last Wednesday, maybe they’ll pull it off the shelf in a decade or so and give it a read! 😊

  • Bob Keener

    Thanks Kelly! You helped start my day with a positive note, especially as I relate to my grandchildren who are teenagers and facing what you address here in this graduation speech. I finished your book and will probably turn around and read it again. Much thanks!

    • Bob, thanks for giving Loveable a read (and maybe a re-read)! I hope you can pass these sentiments on to your grandkids. Never have kids felt so much pressure to do something extraordinary. So important that they have permission to simply be themselves.

  • Jayne

    Thanks Kelly! Great way to start the day! Sharing ❤️

  • Anita Colanzi

    Anything that leaves a smile on my face that big makes me suspect others might be the same. What a fabulously written piece, BS and all. I look forward to reading your blogs. Kinda like listening to a friend from afar.

    • I’m glad it brought a smile, Anita! 😊 And glad to be your friend from afar.

  • Kathi

    What a great word to those kids…wish you had spoken at my banquet. Oh, but wait, you weren’t born yet! ;o) Seriously, we all need these positive reminders of encouragement every day…because some us don’t hear them very often. We really need to train ourselves to quiet the shouter and strain for the still small voice. And, thank you for transparency.

    • Ha! It was humbling to realize those kids I was speaking to weren’t born yet when I graduated college. 😉

  • Kelly

    Omgosh, I LOVED this!! Made me truly laugh out loud! Isn’t that exactly what we all do?? You gave a beautiful, encouraging speech, and the one thing that would ping your mind later would be…maybe I shouldn’t have said B.S.!!
    Wonderful speech!!

    • Right?!? Scanning our lives for the smallest mistakes. We need to tell that voice exactly where to go. Thank you for your kind words, Kelly!

  • Darlene Underwood

    Thank You! I am so grateful for you posting this Commencement Speech.
    (I collect them by the way) When I saw the word COMMENCEMENT I was thrilled!
    This is the time to use all that you have endured, enjoyed, ran from, ran to and deliver this package to the hearts of our young people! Good Job, faithful servant!

    • Thank you for such a wonderful affirmation, Darlene, I’m honored to be in your collection!

  • Ginny

    Timeless-truth and grace. What we all need. Great speech-encouraging words for every person present and everyone that reads it. Thank you.

  • Judy

    Great speech! And a great intro to LOVEABLE, which I have srarted reading. It brings tears to my eyes in it’s poignancy! Than you again for the insight as to whomwe really are…

    • Thank you for ordering LOVEABLE, and for these words of encouragement, Judy. I hope the rest of the book continues to affect you and comfort you.

  • sniff, sniff. No, but a truly great speech, Kelly. Lucky the teenagers who heard it. Thanks for posting.

  • Zakyia Kyia Watkins Artist

    This is amazing. Thank you.

  • A. Julie

    I really, *really* need the permission found here:

    Or, in the words of author and civil rights leader Howard Thurman, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

    Not sure how to make it stick, and happen in a bigger way (i.e., what I do for work, of course).

    That said, it’s not like nothing changes. I’m doing my daily pursuits of joy-over-productivity (thanks to the reminder in my to-do app). And I t’s bleeding over into my job, where I’m finding myself being, well, myself, not the version of me that’s way too concerned about earning approval or respect, and gets a bit stick-in-the-mud as a result. I’m having more fun, regardless of what anybody else might think of my idiosyncrasies!

    Not sure… yet…

    • I love what you’re doing and how you articulated it here. Change happens from the inside out. So much wisdom in allowing your current job to be transformed by giving yourself permission to be who you are, and then being open to the many possibilities of what might happen from there. Keep being faithful to the process you’ve already begun!

      • A. Julie

        Thank you for the compliment and encouragement! It feels sooooo much better, easier, more fluid than the overly-self-conscious alternative.

  • Debbie

    I was honored to be one of the parents listening as you gave this very speech! Thank you for speaking from the heart and for sharing your story. Thank you for telling the kids to listen to their inner “Grace” and that being themselves is ok. Thank you for saying that moving home is ok, and moving away is too. I’m so very proud to have raised/be raising three girls in Dixon, and I do hope they all move back home as adults, but if they don’t, I’ll just have to visit them! Again, thank you for speaking to our students. And good job at not spilling any dressing on your tie. 😉

    • Ha! Indeed, no dry cleaning required this time around. 😊 It was truly an honor to speak, Debbie, thanks for your kind words about it. And I like your perspective: we’ll either celebrate our kids returning home, or have more good places to visit!

  • Eoin Brennan

    Really loved this. Thank you

  • Karen

    A wonderful speech and a much needed reminder to listen to the voice of grace….Just be yourself. Thank you for sharing.

  • Geoff Vanderlin

    Great to have heard this live, and great to read it again. Thanks so much for enriching all of us at the Honors Banquet.

  • rdwarf2000

    Dr. Flanagan,
    I have been reading your posts for some time now. All are uplifting and make me wonder how a single person can get it so right when so many others have tried and failed. I’ll share this one with our own daughter, who graduates this year and is, as are we all, still looking. Thank you.

  • Lindsey Norman

    It’s been 21 years since my graduation. (Yikes…how is that possible?!) Your encouraging truths brought a smile as I sipped my coffee. I’m certain you reached the HS seniors but perhaps, even more so, you struck a chord with the adults in attendance; give grace going forward and look for soft places to land. Did you ever see the movie With Honors? This absolutely made me reflect on the comment “graduate life with honor and dignity.” Thank you for sharing.

  • What a fabulous message to give. I think that if only one young person really heard you and took what you said to heart, you did your job very, very well. The message of encouragement to go out there, but always know that you can go home again is something my parents gave me, and what I tried to give my own kids. 13 years after kid #2 left home she’s coming back with her own family! She/they may “go out there” again, but I hope it’s always with confidence in what they’re doing to live out their life with purpose. Mostly I hope that they instill in our 18 month granddaughter that same “roots and wings” and back again confidence! Thank you for a beautiful, beautiful post!