U.S. Soccer legend Abby Wambach addressed the Barnard College Class of 2018, letting them in on her four secrets to success.
Her commencement address, delivered to the New York women’s college, took a long look at her own career — the things she’d do the same and the things she’d change.
Her remarkable speech deviated from some of the more common tropes that make their way into graduation speeches, and instead, she focused on the importance of teamwork.
Even as the all-time leading scorer in U.S. soccer history, the two-time Olympic gold medalist and 2015 World Cup champion emphasized the importance of working as a team. Barnard graduates are their own team, women are a team, and marginalized groups are a team — with considerable overlap among them.
“Like all little girls, I was taught to be grateful. I was taught to keep my head down, stay on the path, and get my job done. I was freaking Little Red Riding Hood,” she said to laughter from the crowd.
It’s that “Little Red Riding Hood” mentality that she urged graduates to break with.
“If I could go back and tell my younger self one thing, it would be this: ‘Abby, you were never Little Red Riding Hood; you were always the wolf,'” she said, calling on members of the audience to embrace their places in the wolf pack.
Below are the four rules for success Wambach offered graduates. The rest of us can probably learn a few things from them as well.
1. “Make failure your fuel.”
“Here’s something the best athletes understand, but seems like a hard concept for non-athletes to grasp,” she said:
“Non-athletes don’t know what to do with the gift of failure. So they hide it, pretend it never happened, reject it outright — and they end up wasting it. Listen: Failure is not something to be ashamed of, it’s something to be POWERED by. Failure is the highest octane fuel your life can run on. You gotta learn to make failure your fuel.”
What followed was a story about the time she was on the Youth National Team and got to visit the U.S. Women’s National Team when she noticed a conspicuously placed photo reminding the adult team of its failure in the 1995 World Cup.
2. “Lead from the bench.”
As her career wound down to a close, Wambach was asked to take a new and unfamiliar role on the team: the bench player. She wasn’t happy about it, but went on to say how it inspired her to learn a new way of leadership — one we can all rally around.
“You’ll feel benched sometimes too. You’ll be passed over for the promotion, taken off the project — you might even find yourself holding a baby instead of a briefcase — watching your colleagues ‘get ahead,'” she said:
“Here’s what’s important. You are allowed to be disappointed when it feels like life’s benched you. What you aren’t allowed to do is miss your opportunity to lead from the bench. During that last World Cup, my teammates told me that my presence, my support, my vocal and relentless belief in them from the bench is what gave them the confidence they needed to win us that championship. If you’re not a leader on the bench, don’t call yourself a leader on the field. You’re either a leader everywhere or nowhere.”
3. “Champion each other.”
Women often find themselves set up against one another, competing for a single seat at the bargaining table. Wambach called on graduates to reject the premise of a single seat, instead using the collective power of the “wolf pack” to create a place for everybody.
“Scarcity has been planted inside of us and among us. This scarcity is not our fault. But it is our problem. And it is within our power to create abundance for women where scarcity used to live,” she said:
“As you go out into the world: Amplify each others’ voices. Demand seats for women, people of color and all marginalized people at every table where decisions are made. Call out each other’s wins just like we do on the field, claim the success of one woman as a collective success for all women. Joy. Success. Power. These are not pies where a bigger slice for her means a smaller slice for you. These are infinite. In any revolution, the way to make something true starts with believing it is. Let’s claim infinite joy, success, and power — together.”
4. “Demand the ball.”
Touching on the story of one of her idols, fellow U.S. soccer star Michelle Akers, Wambach stressed the importance of being assertive when necessary and knowing your value. Too often, women are warned not to rock the boat, not to go too far off the path.
If we want progress, however, it’s not going to come from sitting back and being polite, she warned:
“Women, at this moment in history, leadership is calling us to say: ‘Give me the effing ball. Give me the effing job. Give me the same pay that the guy next to me gets. Give me the promotion. Give me the microphone. Give me the Oval Office. Give me the respect I’ve earned and give it to my wolf pack, too.'”
There’s a lot to learn from Wambach’s speech, but the most important message is actually a question: Who do you want to be?
“Don’t just ask yourself, ‘What do I want to do?'” she said in her closing. “Ask yourself, ‘Who do I want to be?'”
Watch the entire speech below. You can also read the transcript on Barnard’s website.