"Humans of New York" author speaks at Walker School commencement

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May 28—"Humans of New York" author and Walker School graduate Brandon Stanton returned to his alma mater on May 21 as the school's 2022 Commencement speaker.

"I have some best-selling books, but I also have 30 million followers on social media, which might be a little more relevant to your generation," the New York Times best-selling author told the Class of 2022.

What Stanton said next may have surprised a few.

"I didn't win a single award at Honors Day," Stanton said. "I didn't have a white thing (National Honor Society stole). I limped out of this place. I think I got the 5th-grade most-improved in Spanish award."

Even his first time through the University of Georgia didn't go so well — he flunked out. That was before he decided to re-enroll at the school after living in his grandparents' basement and working at a restaurant. After graduating from UGA, Stanton worked as a bond trader in Chicago. He lost his job after two years, and that's when he followed his passion for photography in New York City.

"When I was your age, I had no idea or direction about where I wanted to go," he told the graduates. "So, if that's you right now, do not worry about that at this moment."

His speech was wide-ranging — speaking to those students who are "very disciplined and regimented" and those who are "messing up already."

"For those of you who are very disciplined and regimented already and that is your strength — maybe you're afraid of making a mistake or afraid of having a blemish on your record, one thing to moderate that is getting comfortable taking risks.

"Failing is a very, very, very important skill because it's comfort with failing, comfort with falling on your face, comfort with being a little embarrassed... that allows you to take the risks that are needed to accomplish great things without having that fear of failure. It's almost the more you mess up early on the more immunized you are to it."

He told them to use college as an opportunity to make mistakes, to reinvent themselves. He equated college to his journey with "Humans of New York."

"That's one of the beautiful things about 'Humans of New York.' I would stop random people on the streets of New York City and people would tell me secrets they never told anybody. I think one of the big reasons is because I didn't have any preconceptions about them. They felt safe. They can take risks and be honest. College is a place where you can start over. I encourage you to do things that scare you. Put yourself in a position to fail because there will never be another time other than the next four years where it will be safer for you to fail."

To the students who identify with Stanton's high school self, he said: "For those of you like me who aren't really following the rules anyway and messing up already, discipline is extremely important. I already had the risk-taking part down when I was your age. There was nothing I wouldn't try. My life really turned around when I flunked out of school and started working at Applebee's and I looked back at all of these years when I was at Walker, and I wasn't really doing my homework and I was getting B's or C's.

"I was doing what I needed to do to get by, to get moved on to the next level, and I realized that I really hadn't educated myself. I had gone to school, but I hadn't really sat down and pursued education in a structured way."

When Stanton was 21, he decided to read 100 non-fiction pages every day. Later, he added one hour of piano playing and running one mile daily.

"I did that every single day for years," Stanton said. "What I was doing was learning a lot, obviously, but the more important thing was I was developing discipline. I was developing the ability to do something every single day whether I felt like it or not, and that's not something I had when I was your age."

Stanton said that discipline helped him turn his "Humans of New York" series into the success it is today.

"'Humans of New York' is about as successful of an art project that you could possibly get. It sold millions of books, it's got 30 million followers on social media," he said. "There were a lot of people trying to do what I was trying to do in New York City. Lots — and I met a lot of them. What they were doing was telling me they were an author. They were telling me they were musicians. They were telling me they were an artist, but in reality, what they were doing was just hanging out with their friends, going to bars, doing just enough of the work to call themselves that.

"What made me really different was that I did it every single day. I was disciplined. I developed the skill of discipline. That is something that if you haven't already, I would encourage you to do, not so you can do your homework every single day but for your own sake."

Stanton also encouraged the Class of 2022 to pursue what they enjoy doing rather than chasing money or prestige, a realization he had while working as a bond trader in Chicago after graduating from Georgia.

Trading bonds "was not something that was really nourishing for me in the moment, and when I finally lost my job two years later, that's what sent me on my path to being a photographer."

Stanton said he decided, "I am going to spend the next part of my life trying to make just enough money that I can control my time, and that's the one little thing I flipped on its head that opened up this fantastic life for me. I am going to choose something that I love not because of money, not because of prestige but because I love doing it in the moment, which was photography, and I'm going to try to find a way where I can structure my life to where I can make just enough money that I can do that all day long."

He encouraged the Class of 2022 to do the same: "Find what it is that you want to be spending your time doing and build and structure your life so that you are preserving your time, so you can do things that are meaningful and enriching to you and you're not trading your time for money and prestige."

"That is what I've learned so far is the path to the most nourishing and enriching life you can live, and that is what I wish for all of you."