On saying yes when its scary

I was asked the Keynote speaker at the Black families’ appreciation event that happened last week during the 2019 Commencement events at Oberlin College. My gut reaction was to say no, but after much reading about mindfulness and being present I questioned my knee jerk reaction. I gave the speech and I spoke about Shonda Rhimes (one of my favs). Here is (roughly) what I said:

Good afternoon everyone – my name is Nicollette Mitchell and I am the Director of Oberlin’s center for learning education and research in the Sciences. I am also an Oberlin College Alum, from the class of 2013 with a degree in Africana Studies and Geology! It is an honor to speak to you today.

Let me be the first (or not) to welcome the graduating class of 2019 to the Oberlin Alumni Association of African Ancestry aka OA4 as well called it when I was graduating or OA to the 4 as I’ve heard others lovingly describe the group. Although you are moving on to the next portion of your career, you are entering into a larger alumni network and community of support.

I’d also like to say a huge Thank You to the professional and student staff of the MRC , faculty and staff of the Africana Studies department, the families and friends who are here to celebrate the graduates, and of course the class of 2019 for making this celebration possible.

How are folks feeling? I’d like to check in with the class of 2019 concerning your current feelings about graduation. Can we do a quick check in?
Thumbs up for ” Yeah lets go?”
Medium thumbs for ” Eh– neutral”
Thumbs down for “I’m an emotional wreck, let me know when its over”
(The emotions were mixed for sure)

I just want to affirm all of those emotions, and the other emotions that can’t yet be put into words as we get ready  to enter into a space for gratitude and reflection.  

So what does life after Oberlin look like?

This college experience was nothing like what I thought it was going to be. When I started thought perhaps that meant that I would be pre-med, but ended up graduating with majors in african and geology.  My idea of who I was and what I stood for was wrecked, several times, and to quote Drake in 2013, around the time of my graduation, nothing was the same. and life brought me right back to Oberlin, the place I thought I was done with. Somehow I’ve  combined both my undergraduate majors in my current role. Life is funny sometimes.


I was scrolling through my mailbox one morning, as I do almost every morning, when I noticed an e-mail from Zahida, our MRC Director entitled “Africana Commencement”. In that email she asked if I would be willing to address the class of 2019 as they prepared to enter into the next stage of their careers.

The few who know me well and who are sitting in the audience today know that receiving this email may or may not have caused a small to medium sized panic. My train of thought went something like this: Me? In front of who? Saying what? how soon? for how long? ME???

I wondered What could I say– in 5 minutes or 10— that I wished someone would have told me six years ago, when I too prepared to receive my diploma after years of character development and several life altering paradigm shifts at Oberlin College? Is there anything anyone could have told me as I prepare for that shift?

I promptly let the email marinate in my mailbox for a full 48 hours before making my decision because I knew that if I acted on impulse, my gut reaction would have been to say no or yes without fully thinking it through.

As fate would have it, I did not let the email marinate forever. When Zhaida had sent the call I had just gotten through Year of Yes, by media powerhouse Shonda Rhimes.  Shonda Rhimes is a great storyteller, she wrote Grey’s Anatomy, and How to Get Away With Murder, and Scandal —which I’ve binge watched on occasion, — but i had no idea that she too was an introvert. She described a disdain for newness and for limelight and  how her introversion had formerly led her to self-sabotage — that rang true for me and hit close to home. This idea that Shonda proposed, of saying yes for a year, both excited and terrified me at the same time. But I wondered what it was that I was saying no to that could push me to grow.
Heres a quote from Shonda Rhimes about how to say yes:

“In order to YES a problem, I have to find whatever it is inside the problem that challenges me or scares me or makes me just freak out – and then I have to say yes to that thing.”

Shonda Rhimes
A blue book entitles Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun and BE Your Own Person
Shonda Rhimes

What challenges you? What scares you (within reason)? For me– that’s to be seen, to be heard, to try something I have never done before. (I prefer to be safe, to do what I know I am good at, to push the envelope in my own way in a controlled environment.) But upon reflecting on my past interactions with this level of discomfort I know that saying yes, as Shonda described it,  has always also help me to grow.

I imagine that the feelings I described, about being seen, and the specter unknown might resonate with someone of you all as you prepare to walk across that stage tomorrow and to collect the $250,000 piece of paper that you have worked so hard for and have strived for, for four, or five, or six years. Or for others in the audience, the thing that challenges you and scares you will be watching their children, peers, friends walk across the stage knowing that they are entering a phase of young adulthood. For many it’s the unknown that causes the butterflies in the pit of your stomach.  And folks are preparing to say goodbye to friends and mentors. And there is no manual for this. No cheat code. No plug and chug to make this better.

I’d urge you all in this room to take stock of the emotions that you feel in regards to this transition, weather that be excitement for something new, burned out from four years of doing the most, apprehension about leaving the bubble, and to begin or continue a practice saying yes to yourself.

No need to fear, I’ve studied Ms. Rhimes Year of Yes  as well as my own process, and would like to share with you some of my main takeaways about what saying Yes entails.

Saying Yes, might look like:

— Speaking up and saying out loud things that have been left unsaid.
— Saying yes might mean moving to a brand new place where you know no one, or back in with your parents.
— Saying yes might mean saying NO and cutting ties.
—  Saying yes might mean taking time to reflect
Dear Obies don’t run too fast.
Dear Obies— its ok to slow down.
Dear Obies — doing the most for the least is doing too much and you need to take time so take time. Do, sit down. And rest. And reflect
—  Saying yes  will require you  to take notice of the patterns and trends in your experiences and let that guide you forward
—  Saying yes means that you will check in with your inner circle (they know you best and will help to guide you)

I surely wasn’t the same person at the end of my tenure here that I was when I started as a first year and I hope that that statement rings true for many of the people in the room today. As you look back upon the last few years in anticipation for what comes next, I leave you with one more quote from Ms. Rhimes:

“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.”

Shonda Rhimes

Keep moving forward. Keep seizing the next opportunity, Stay open to trying something new. Say yes to yourself.

Thank you!

Citation/ Resources
Rhimes, Shonda. Year of yes: How to dance it out, stand in the sun and be your own person. Simon and Schuster, 2015. Amazon Link

2 thoughts on “On saying yes when its scary

  1. Thanks for sharing this. I’m at a point in my career when I need to be seen more and work with the higher ups. Its scary and sometimes when I get asked to do things, it FREAKS me out but I know I need to conquer that fear to be more successful.

    Liked by 1 person

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