Helping others ends up helping you more than anyone. Getting out of your own concerns and caring about someone else’s life for a while reminds you that you are not the centre of the universe.
Not many people know that famous actor and Academy Award winner Natalie Portman is a psychology graduate and Harvard alum who enrolled into the Ivy League university shortly after the box office success of Star Wars: Episode 1 in 1999.
Despite her personal success, and arguably because of it, Natalie’s time at Harvard was indeed a learning experience – a personal journey to find her purpose and define her own truth, independent of others’ influences.
When Natalie was asked to deliver a commencement address to Harvard graduates, she shared some powerful insights into her personal journey that mirror the paths those of us have taken in the unknown and unfamiliar world entrepreneurialism.
1. Shaking off the imposter syndrome and carving your own path
Natalie opened her speech by sharing something many of us often feel, no matter our accomplishments. That feeling of not being good enough; of being an imposter and the fear of imminent exposure.
“I have to admit that today, even after 12 years of graduation, I’m still insecure about my own worthiness”.
“Today I feel much like I did when I came to Harvard Yard as a freshman in 1999,” she told the crowd. “I felt like there had been some mistake, that I wasn’t smart enough to be in this company, and that every time I opened my mouth I would have to prove that I wasn’t just a dumb actress.”
“Sometimes your insecurities and your inexperience may lead you, too, to embrace other people’s expectations, standards or values. But you can harness that inexperience to carve out your own path, one that is free of the burden of knowing how things are supposed to be. A path that is defined by it’s own particular set of reasons.”
“Achievement is wonderful when you know why you’re doing it, and when you don’t know, it can be a terrible trap.”
2. The need to be taken seriously
When Natalie arrived in Harvard just after the release of Star Wars: Episode 1, she was concerned with being taken seriously.
“I’ve been acting since I was 11 but I thought acting was too frivolous and certainly was not meaningful,” she said.
“I got in only because I was famous. This was how others saw me, this was how I saw myself,” Natalie recalled.
If I had known my own limitations I never would have taken the risk. And the risk led to one of my greatest artistic and personal experiences.
Driven by her own insecurities, she decided to do something “more serious, and meaningful and would change the world, and make it a better place.” She took neurobiology and advanced modern Hebrew literature – a choice she said she made for seriousness’ sake.
3. Finding your reason
Natalie explained she later observed professors teaching sailing, pop culture or the matrix and and soon realised “there was a reason I was an actress: I love what I do. And I saw from my peers and my mentors, that that was not only an acceptable reason, it was the best reason.”
“After four years of trying to get excited about something else, I admitted to myself that I couldn’t wait to go back and make more films. I wanted to tell stories; to imagine the lives of others and help others do the same. I had found or perhaps reclaimed my reason.”
4. Owning your experience
Natalie talked about standing in your own truth and experience, regardless of how the situation may seem to others. She recalled an early experience many thought to have been a failure at the time.
“I feel lucky that my first experience releasing a film was initially such a disaster by all standard measure. I learnt early that my meaning had to be from the experience of making the film and the possibility of connecting with individuals rather than the foremost trophies of my industry, financial and critical success.”
“I started choosing only jobs I was passionate about and from which I knew I could glean meaningful experiences.”
Doing so allowed her the freedom “to own my meaning and not have it be determined by box office receipts or prestige. By the time I got to making Black Swan, the experience was entirely my own.”
5. A winning formula of naivete and risk taking
When Natalie was asked whether she could do ballet in Black Swan, she told the director she was “basically a ballerina”. And when she soon realised her ballet experience was at least 15 years behind, Natalie said it made her “work a million times harder.”
“I was so oblivious to my own limits that I did things I was woefully unprepared to do. And so the very inexperience that in college had made me feel insecure and made me want to play by other’s rules, now was making me take risks that I didn’t know were risks.”
“If I had known my own limitations I never would have taken the risk. And the risk led to one of my greatest artistic and personal experiences.”
6. Believing in yourself and figuring things out along the way
When Natalie directed her first film, A Tale of Love and Darkness, she said she “was quite blind to the challenges”. She said her “complete ignorance to my own limitations looked like confidence and got me into the director’s chair.” Armed with utter belief in herself and a lot of “hard work”, she figured it all out along the way.
Natalie talked about “diving into my own obliviousness and being more confident than I should be.” She urged everyone to accept their lack of knowledge, use their inexperience as an asset and “think in original and unconventional ways.”
“One of your biggest strengths is not knowing how things are supposed to be. You can compose freely because your mind isn’t cluttered… and you don’t take for granted the way things are. The only way you know how to do things is your own way.”
“If your reasons are your own, your path – even if it’s a strange and clumsy path – will be wholly yours, and you will control the rewards of what you do by making your internal life fulfilling.”
7. You are not the centre of the universe
Natalie says the time she has spent and the work she has done supporting marginalised communities and the organisations that champion their causes, has been the most fulfilling experience.
“It’s a cliche because it’s true. Helping others ends up helping you more than anyone. Getting out of your own concerns and caring about someone else’s life for a while reminds you that you are not the centre of the universe.”