4 profound lessons from Taylor Swift’s NYU commencement speech

Taylor Swift’s NYU commencement speech
The pop singer-songwriter addressed a packed crowd at Yankee Stadium which included the Classes of 2020, 2021, and 2022. Source: Angela Weiss/AFP

Imagine sitting in a packed stadium, all draped in your cap and robe after pushing through harrowing circumstances to arrive at this moment. Then one of the world’s most recognisable faces, whose songs probably got you through pandemic breakups and lockdown woes, gracefully strides onto the stage to deliver a historic commencement speech. It’s Taylor Swift — and she’s here for your graduation. 

That’s what students of New York University (NYU) were treated to on Wednesday, in a “doubleheader” ceremony honouring the Classes of 2020, 2021, and 2022 at a jam-packed Yankee Stadium. The singer-songwriter was there to receive a Doctor of Fine Arts, “honoris causa” degree from the university, among other illustrious honourees. 

Having an eleven-time Grammy Award winner deliver the commencement address was exciting to say the least, and the crowd let out an ear-splitting shrill the moment she said, “Hi, I’m Taylor.” Filled with humour, wit, and poignancy, it was a speech that graduates very much needed to hear, one that only Swift could have delivered to drive the message home. 

Here are some sage advice to heed on life and learning from the pop princess herself, even if you’re not a Swiftie:

Taylor Swift’s advice on winning at life 

You’re never truly alone 

Swift opened her speech by acknowledging the people who’ve been crucial to her success, and emphasised that it often takes a village to get to where we are. “We are each a patchwork quilt of those who have loved us, those who have believed in our futures, those who showed us empathy and kindness or told us the truth even when it wasn’t easy to hear,” she said. 

The 32-year-old singer then reminded the crowd to express gratitude and honour the people that were the backbone to their educational journey. Swift herself thanked her parents and brother for their sacrifices over the years, a long road that saw her “singing in coffee houses” to becoming one of the best-selling musicians of all time imparting advice to a group of high-achieving graduates, despite never going to college herself.

Taylor Swift’s NYU commencement speech

Swift, who never went to college, was awarded an honorary doctorate degree by New York University (NYU) on Wednesday. Source: Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images North America/Getty Images via AFP

“Normal” is overrated 

There are different paths in life, and Taylor Swift herself is a testament to how conventionality is overhyped. “I never got to have the normal college experience, per se. I went to public high school until 10th grade and finished my education doing homeschool work on the floors of airport terminals,” she mused. Being a songstress and teen icon early in her career came with compromises, one that included forgoing college. 

She was quick to not make it about herself, highlighting the plight of students who were also denied a sense of normalcy in surviving a pandemic. “I imagine the idea of a normal college experience was all you wanted too. But in this case you and I both learned that you don’t always get all the things in the bag that you selected from the menu in the delivery service that is life. You get what you get.” 

While not all less-travelled roads lead to musical superstardom, Swift’s advice reminds us that there’s no one fixed path or rulebook to get to where we’re meant to be. 

Taylor Swift’s NYU commencement speech

“My mistakes lead to the best things in my life, and being embarrassed when you mess up is part of the human experience,” Swift remarked in her speech. Source: Angela Weiss/AFP

Embrace your “cringe” 

The weightier part of Taylor Swift’s speech centred around acceptance, to let certain things go as we flip the pages of life’s chapters that have yet to be written. “Life can be heavy, especially if you try to carry it all at once,” said the singer. “Decide what is yours to hold and let the rest go. Oftentimes the good things in your life are lighter anyway, so there’s more room for them.” 

As someone whose persona has always been highly-publicised to feed gossip fodder, Swift took a jab at herself by talking about her “cringe” moments — failed relationships, questionable fashion trends, and getting “cancelled” on the internet. “Cringe is unavoidable over a lifetime…You can’t avoid it, so don’t try to.” Far from being self-deprecating, Swift used her mishaps as teachable moments to move forward on her own terms. 

Taylor Swift’s NYU commencement speech

Swift’s commencement speech was filled with equal parts humour and wisdom as she capped her delivery with a hopeful note. Source: Angela Weiss/AFP

We get to decide our own life

Swift’s speech ended on a hopeful note about writing our own stories and venturing into the unknown. “I really do think we are all writers,” she reflected, talking about coming-of-age through songwriting and how we use different mediums to chart our course life. “We are all literary chameleons, and I think it’s fascinating. It’s just a continuation of the idea that we are so many things, all the time.” 

The singer passionately highlighted the love she’s always had for her craft, and hours of creativity that eventually took flight into chart-topping hits. “We are led by our gut instincts, our intuition, our desires and fears, our scars and our dreams. And you will screw it up sometimes. So will I…Anyway, hard things will happen to us. We will recover. We will learn from it. We will grow more resilient because of it.”

It was self-belief that got Swift through the worst of times in her career, which graduates would do well to emulate as they venture into new territories outside of school.