Lena Waithe Gets Candid About Career Ups and Downs During Barnard Commencement Speech: “I Didn’t Know How to Exist as This Ideal Icon”

Lena Waithe took a moment to share what she’s learned from the successes and struggles she’s had throughout her career during a commencement speech for Barnard College’s class of 2023.

“Things were good for a while, but, eventually, the bloom fell off the rose,” she said. “I wrote a movie that people wished had a different ending, I put my foot in my mouth more than once, and I quickly realized I didn’t know how to exist as this ideal icon everyone wanted me to be.”

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She continued by explaining that it took her some time to realize that there’s no such thing as an ideal icon. “People aren’t meant to live on pedestals,” she said. “The air up there is way too thin, and I found it really hard to breathe.”

Waithe urged the graduates to create their own definition of success and not let society tell them what that means or what it has to be, saying that oftentimes people spend their lives chasing what they think success is and realize that when they get there, it’s not what they expected.

“We often find ourselves feeling empty and alone,” she said. Elsewhere in the speech, she added, “You, just like me, probably feel a ton of pressure to always say the right thing — to always do the right thing — and you never want to offend anyone. But if you decide to live your life for other people — especially folks you’ll never meet — you will spend your entire life feeling stifled, anxious and unable to be yourself, because no one wants to be disliked.”

She stressed to the graduates that it can be more important to be disliked by some people for being wholeheartedly yourself than to be liked by everyone for being a person who isn’t real. Later, Waithe pointed out everyone will know success and failure in their lives.

“They are both equally important to your growth as a human being,” she said. “If you have a long season of failure, success is on the way. And if you have a long run of successes, watch your step ’cause chances are you’re gonna stumble at some point. It’s balance. Don’t chase one while trying to run away from the other. Embrace both with open arms if you can stomach it.”

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