Scandal’s Shonda Rhimes Inspires Dartmouth Graduates: ‘Be a Doer, Not a Dreamer’

The popular TV writer kept it real with graduating students at her alma mater, sharing three lessons with them.

Shonda Rhimes speaking at Dartmouth University commencement June 8, 2014
Shonda Rhimes speaking at Dartmouth University commencement June 8, 2014 YouTube screenshot

Shonda Rhimes can now add “commencement speaker” to her résumé—not that the award-winning Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal writer needs much more in terms of qualifications.

Rhimes spoke at Dartmouth’s 2014 commencement ceremony on Sunday, imparting her own words of wisdom and three lessons to live by. Her speech was peppered—mostly at the beginning—with references to her being so terrified of speaking in public that she could “poop” her pants.

The first message the esteemed TV writer imparted was to stop dreaming and start doing:

Dreams are lovely. But they are just dreams, fleeting, ephemeral, pretty. But dreams do not come true just because you dream them. It’s hard work that makes things happen. It’s hard work that creates change. Maybe you know exactly what 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. Just do!

She also had a note of caution for those graduating who may already have children, or who hope to start families in the near future, with a message directed at single parents in particular:

“Whenever you see me somewhere succeeding in one area of my life, that almost certainly means that I am failing in another area of my life,” Rhimes said bluntly, declaring that she doesn’t “do it all” in terms of juggling family and work. “If I am killing it on a Scandal script for work, I’m probably missing bath and story time at home. If I am at home sewing my kids’ Halloween costumes, I am probably blowing off a script I was supposed to rewrite. If I’m accepting a prestigious award, I’m missing my baby’s first swim lesson. If I am at my daughter’s debut in her school musical, I am missing Sandra Oh’s last scene ever being filmed at Grey’s Anatomy.

“If I am succeeding at one, I am inevitably failing at the other. That is the trade-off. 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 100 percent OK, you never get your sea legs, you are always a little nauseous. Something is always lost,” she added. Rhimes did, however, explain to the graduates how important it was for her that her daughters saw her as “a woman who works,” and that she was setting an example for them.

The writer also drew some attention on Twitter for her third message, directed at social media and hashtag activism.

“A hashtag is not helping. #yesallwomen #takebackthenight #notallmen #bringbackourgirls #StopPretendingHashtagsAreTheSameAsDoingSomething … Hashtags are very pretty on Twitter. I love them. I will hashtag myself into next week. But a hashtag is not a movement,” she told students while encouraging them to pick a cause they loved and go out in the world and devote time to it. “A hashtag does not make you Dr. King. A hashtag does not change anything. It’s a hashtag. It’s you, sitting on your butt, typing into your computer and then going back to binge-watching your favorite show. For me, it’s Game of Thrones.” She continued:

Volunteer some hours. Focus on something outside yourself. Devote a slice of your energies towards making the world suck less every week. Some people suggest that doing this will increase your sense of well-being. Some say it’s just good karma. I say that it will allow you to remember that, whether you are a legacy or the first in your family to go to college, the air you are breathing right now is rare air. Appreciate it. And don’t be an a–hole.