Radhika Jones graduated from Greenwich Academy in 1990 and went on to earn a BA in English from Harvard University and a PhD in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University. She is currently the editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair.
Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you, Molly and the Board of Trustees, for inviting me to speak today, and thank you especially to the class of 2019 for allowing me to be part of your day. It has been 29 years since I graduated from GA, but it doesn't feel like that long ago, and I remember what it was like to occupy that space between an ending and a new beginning. One thing that happens as you grow older is that endings and beginnings can sneak up on you. A chapter of your life comes to a close without your even realizing it; a relationship strengthens while another fades away; you move to a new place temporarily and find yourself putting down roots. Those transitions aren't always marked with flowers and songs, and so I am honored to share in this moment with you, when a whole community has come together to celebrate who you are, and what you'll go on to do.
I have heard that you are highly accomplished, and that you wear your accomplishments with grace and humility. I have also heard that you have come into your own as leaders this year, and I am glad to hear it, because the world needs leaders, and in particular it needs leaders who are women. I want to tell you about a couple of things that happened to me in my career that helped me on my path to leadership. They have to do with being scared and also with speaking up.
After college I moved abroad for three years, and then I came back to New York to start a Ph.D. program in English literature at Columbia. As part of the program, we had to teach a composition class to first-year college students. We went through a training course to prepare for it. But on my first day of class, I was halfway up the stairs in Hamilton Hall, holding a cup of tea, when I had something akin to a panic attack, and I thought: I can't do this. I can't stand up in front of a room full of actual students, I can't hold their attention, this whole program was a terrible idea, and if I just turn around and calmly go back downstairs, I can quit Columbia and figure out something else to do with my life. I was frozen on the staircase, with students passing me in both directions, and I just stood there, fantasizing about walking away, which suddenly seemed like a highly rational plan. I think it was at least a minute or two before I collected myself and climbed up the rest of the stairs and went into the classroom. I can tell you without a doubt that my performance that day was not perfect. In fact, I was so nervous I had to lean against the desk for the entire hour to keep from shaking. But I am also one-hundred percent positive that the only failure that day would have been retreating back down the stairs.
It's ok to be scared. But you should do the things you're scared of, because they really do make you stronger, and that sets you up for bigger adventures. Now, I've done a lot of challenging things since that moment on the staircase. One time, when I was working at Time magazine, I had to get on the phone with Oprah to edit a piece she had written for me. When the phone rings and it's Oprah asking for edits on her piece—that is a little intimidating. I go on television and talk about the news and answer questions about my work—that can be intimidating. For the past two years I've hosted the Vanity Fair Oscar Party—it's a lot of fun, but the red carpet can be intimidating. So my secret is that, every time an opportunity comes up, I just say to myself, don't worry, if you could survive a room full of jaded first-year college students in a required composition class on your very first day of teaching, you can handle this. And it sounds ridiculous, but it really works. I remember the fear that paralyzed me, and then I remember the feeling of pushing past it. And the second feeling is the one that sticks.
Now you may have already experienced a moment like this in your life, of being afraid and doing the thing anyway, and if that's the case, I say, keep that memory as a measure of what you're capable of. It doesn't matter if it's a big thing or a small thing. Remember the pride you feel, the pride you earn, by doing the thing that's difficult.
The other thing I want to talk to you about is speaking up, which I know can be a big cliche in speeches like this, but bear with me. About a decade ago I started working at Time as the arts editor. There was a big meeting every morning, where all the editors sat around the table and talked about their stories for the day. On about the third day I was ready to talk through my lineup, so I did, and everything seemed fine, but on the way out, one of my new colleagues stopped me at the door. She said: "You have such a nice low voice, but I need to tell you something. Our boss is a little hard of hearing, and if you don't speak up, he won't be able to hear you." This was like a metaphor come to life. I had always been pretty quiet, but I wasn't going to be able to do my job if I didn't turn up the volume. So I literally got louder. I raised my voice. And once that happened, it was like a chain reaction. I found myself emboldened to speak about ideas and issues beyond my regular beat—about bigger stories I thought we should tell. And gradually, my boss, who was the editor in chief of the magazine, began to see me as a leader. He gave me more and more responsibility, and I grew more and more confident, and that's part of the reason I'm here today as an editor in chief myself, because I learned that life is too short not to speak up and make yourself heard, about whatever it is that matters to you. You will not always prevail, but you will know that you had the confidence to speak.
Commencements are beginnings—and starting today, you are in charge of defining your own success. This is something that takes getting used to. Up until now, you have been held to certain standards, you've gotten grades and awards and trophies, and you've known pretty much where you stand, relative to your peers. To a certain extent that continues through college, and in your career. And having those external metrics of success can be kind of comforting. But eventually you'll realize that none of it is more important than your own measure of success and fulfillment. Other people will try to legislate that for you, especially because you are women, and sometimes it may feel like you can't win. Women are judged in so many contradictory ways. We are judged for our intelligence and our competence. We are judged for how we look and what we wear. We are judged for the choices we make about our bodies. We are judged for having children, or not having children, and for how many children we have, and how we raise them. We are judged for how much we work, or how little. We are judged for our emotions, for getting angry and being outspoken. We are judged when we ask for more, yet somehow we are also judged when we don't ask for enough. We are judged for how we lead, even as we try to invent new models of leadership.
But there are ways to counter all that. First, we can help each other. You've had the privilege of a girls' education, which means you leave this campus today with a built-in girls' network. Use it. Be generous with it—make it bigger if you can. Be ready to reach out to women who may not have been as lucky as you, to women who might lack your experience or your confidence or your opportunities. And be ready to let other women help you. When I took my job at Vanity Fair, I began receiving emails from a number of women who held leadership roles in media. Some of them were technically competitors. But they reached out to offer advice and support, and we talked about every aspect of the work, the travel, the wardrobe, the personalities, the ways to keep everything in balance. That has been a huge gift. The need for support never goes away, however old you are, and I say that with immense gratitude to my GA class, the legendary Class of 1990, some of whom are here today, and who over the years have believed in me, sometimes more than I believed in myself. We have believed in each other. And it makes me so happy that you in the Class of 2019 will have that support going forward.
Second, we can push past our fears and speak up about the things that truly matter, the things that have meaning. We can define our own mission and our own success. For me, right now, that means shining a spotlight on a new creative class, one that is leading the culture to a more inclusive and equitable place. I didn't know I would ever have a platform from which to do that, and I don't want to waste it. You will find your platforms and your messages to the world. Stick with them. Speak with conviction. Make sure everybody can hear you. Be open to every opportunity, especially the ones that scare you. Don't get hung up on perfection. Go and attempt great, difficult things. The people in this tent will be cheering you onward and upward, every step of the way.