[Video] Graduation speech: “Finding Your Path” by filmmaker Jehane Noujaim

May 27, 2014

[A speech video here]


Salam Aleikum. Thank you for inviting me here to speak with you. It is a great honor.

This is a particularly special experience for me. As an Arab woman who was raised in Kuwait and Egypt, and went on to live life between the east and west, I am thrilled to talk with you–a class that has had similar life circumstances. I have felt grateful over the years to come from this perspective of having a foot in both cultures, feeling like a citizen of the world rather than a particular nation. As our world is becoming smaller and more interdependent, people like us — you as the generation that will be running things soon — will take on the role of being a crucial cultural bridge.

So I feel deeply privileged to be speaking with you today — our future leaders—bridging the world with your cultural sensitivity, perspective and experience.

It is incredible to be back here! I first came to Qatar 11 years ago. You all were about 10 years old. I was watching US news in America and realized that there was a complete lack of understanding of the Arab perspective. Remember we did not have Facebook or YouTube or Twitter at that time so there was less exchange of images and information between young people across borders. I knew that one way I could share a different perspective was by jumping on a plane and finding Arab journalists to film.

So I took a big risk and flew to Qatar where Al Jazeera is located. With no permission to film at the station, I started camping out at the security office outside Al Jazeera until a journalist — Hassan Ibrahim — took pity on me and with great kindness, invited me into the cafeteria. Finally the management of the station became convinced that a film was a good idea, allowed me to film inside the station, and a year later I released the film Control Room in theaters worldwide, giving a new perspective from our part of the world.  It was a risky decision to jump on that plane, but a worthwhile one because otherwise, I never would have made the documentary, and I would never have been given the pleasure of speaking with you today.

I have spent the last several days searching my heart and mind, asking myself what I wished I had known when I was sitting in your place. What are the lessons that I have learned since I graduated.

You are sitting in your chairs today about to face your transition from life in school where there is structure, and teachers looking to guide you however they can to a life outside of school with limitless possibilities, where you are on your own to choose your path forward, and look for new mentors to guide you.  And I know from having sat where you are, that the thought of endless possibilities and decisions is sometimes incredibly exciting but at other times daunting.

After a lot of thought, I have realized that there are simple but crucial guidelines that I have learned to follow as I faced difficult periods of transition and decision making in the search for my true path in life.

In your life you will make good decisions and you will make bad ones.  That’s why it is so important to ask yourself how you are going to create a state of mind so that you can thrive on the good decisions and learn from the bad ones.

The news I have for you is with years of hindsight and a lot of decision-making under my belt—you’ll never truly know if you made the right decision. You’ll never know because you can’t live out the other option—we haven’t figured out the parallel universe thing yet.

You are a group of smart and hard-working people. (And sitting at the Presidents luncheon today I am very impressed, I don’t think you need any of my advice)   The probability is that you could make multiple choices work out for you. What it really comes down to is embracing your choices. And how you are going to put yourself in a place where the kind of life you want to lead is going to evolve around you. You cannot control your luck or ever be sure you are making all the right choices.   But you can give yourself guidelines that will help you find the path that feels deeply true and authentic for you.

So what do I wish a little bird had whispered in my ear when I was sitting where you are now in search of my path? Well…

  • First, your HEART, INTUITION AND DREAMS are your ultimate guide. Follow your heart, your intuition, and your dreams– not other people’s dreams or expectations.
  • Second, FRIENDS AND FAMILY.  Surround yourself with friends and family that you trust, that will give you honest feedback as to when they feel you are on the right path as well as when you are on the wrong one and who make fun of you enough that they never allow you to take yourself too seriously.
  • Third, BE CURIOUS AND TAKE RISKS. Always remain curious, willing to take the risk– and when you are not learning anything, push yourself to find your next challenge.
  • Fourth, is about TIME.   Remember to take the time to breathe, and to reflect to ensure you are living your life truly and authentically.


The little decisions you make with your head, the big ones you make with your heart and your intuition. The psychiatrist, Sigmund Freud wrote:

When making a decision of minor importance, I have always found it advantageous to consider all the pros and cons. In vital matters, however, such as the choice of a mate or a profession, the decision should come from the unconscious, from somewhere within ourselves.

Another way to think of it is to follow the advice of the singer, Dolly Parton who said:

“Figure out who you are and be that way — on purpose!”

I went to college thinking I had it all figured out and I knew exactly what I wanted to be — a doctor. But when I took the first pre-med requirement, chemistry, I fell flat on my face.  I then began taking photography classes and realized that I had found my passion.  The time I spent taking pictures and developing in the dark rooms seemed to fly by.

My mother was the one who finally said, “You have to follow your heart, because if you are not happy, you are not going to succeed.” I dropped the pre-med thing. My father did a bit of grumbling that I was going to be in the poor house for the rest of my life… And who in their right mind would go to University to learn to take pictures and how would I possibly get a job.  But I was doing what I loved.

Now when I say do what you love, I don’t mean that you will love what you do every day. But for me, it was taking pictures and the arts that made me want to wake up in the morning. It was taking pictures that led me to filmmaking, helping me focus in on my career.  It was taking pictures and making films that gave me a newfound appreciation for the contents of my mind allowing me to have an inner dialogue that fascinated me.   If you do what you love, you will be a person that you LIKE   and since you have to spend more time with yourself than anybody else in the entire world, it is very important that you like yourself.


When I was 25 years old I began to work with very well known filmmakers – DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus. Pennebaker is known as the grandfather of cinema verite because he has made some of the most important films of the last 50 years. He has spent months filming historical characters like Kennedy, Bob Dylan, Bill Clinton. I met Pennebaker in his office and he wanted to show me his favorite film.  He got on a chair and pulled out a little video: “This film is called Victoria, it’s about a musician. It is one of my favorites.” I found it surprising that such a famous filmmaker was showing me a film I had never even heard of.  He explained to me, “It was never released, but most of my favorite films in this library many people have never seen.”

This moment has stayed with me — it gave me permission and freedom to make films that I was passionate about, regardless of their commercial viability. Since then, I have always made work that I believe in, not work that others felt I should believe in. This is important, because there will be failures. Your films or books or ideas may get rejected. You will learn to tolerate frustration—take it from me who has had many more failures than successes. You will knock on doors, some will slam in your face, and you must pick yourself up and knock again for what you believe in.

Because many years from now, if you believe in what you have made, it won’t matter much whether it was a success or a failure. There is little joy in a success that you do not believe in, but the joy of having a success that you believe in is immeasurable.


In 2003, as I mentioned, I made the film Control Room here in Qatar about Al Jazeera and the Iraq war. Before I got on the plane to Qatar, I called my agents; I had agents at the time who thought it was the worst idea ever. Their theory was that after September 11, 2001, no one would be interested in watching a film about war or about a television station a million miles away in Qatar; they said it was time to make films that people found comforting.

I questioned myself, thinking I should listen to this “expert advice.” But I felt drawn to make the film-—I felt the pull of my intuition—so I made it. When I finished the film, I returned to my mentors’ office in New York. It’s always good to have mentors you trust and respect, because you will want to go back to them time and time again. I told them I loved the film because I felt it got at a real truth, but I thought, as a film, it was clumsy. Pennebaker watched it, and after a few moments of silence he said, “I wouldn’t change a damn thing. So what if parts are clumsy? If Jesus had a broken leg, he would still be Jesus. It is a truth you’re getting at, and so what if it is raw?” He said, “ I watched Iraq being bombed and I felt my hometown of Chicago was being bombed. It is honest and that is what is important.”

I am so thankful that I got on that plane and made what I wanted to make rather than what my agents thought the world wanted to see. Don’t waste your time trying to succeed at other people’s dreams or dreams you don’t believe in. Only your real dreams will satisfy you. Those are the dreams that will give you the best chance of leaving your mark on the world. Those are the dreams that are worth failing for and taking the big risks for.


Then there are your friends and family—one of the most important decisions you will make in your life is who you choose to surround yourself with. When you are out there taking the big risks, you need friends and family to help you when you fall. When you feel like you have made all the wrong decisions, they will help you laugh at yourself and pick you up off the floor.  They are equally important when you succeed because they will keep you humble and grounded. Friends are the family you get to choose. They are the people you will come back to for support with all your successes as well as your failures. Nurture and treasure them.


My third guideline in finding my path came from my grandfather who always said in a loud voice at the dinner table, “When you are not learning anything, its time to move on. Move on, take a risk—even if you make big mistakes.” Because it is only through taking risks, and making mistakes that you learn. The risks that I have taken have always taught me something important. To paraphrase the writer Voltaire: “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” Sometimes the desire to be perfect can paralyze us because we are so afraid of making mistakes. Strive for excellence, but know that achieving excellence involves a lot of falling down along the way. When Babe Ruth the famous baseball player retired, he had more home runs than any player in history. But he also had more strikeouts than any other player in history. The point is, you cannot succeed unless you are willing to fail.

I make mistakes all the time. For example it wasn’t until this morning that I realized that my speech did not even mention generosity and kindness — kindness! Which is absolutely crucial to living a good life. Because, if you do everything else brilliantly but you don’t do it with kindness, no matter how much you succeed, I believe you have failed. As the prophet Mohammed said, “God is kind and likes kindness in all things.”


My final thought is about time: take the time to think about what you choose to do, to reflect, to be sure you are living with integrity and honesty. When you are 90 years old, you will want to look back on your life and be able to tell a story you are proud of. When you are in moments of transition, think about the story you will want to tell your grandkids. Time is too precious to be wasted doing things you are not proud of. And each day that you are working on the journey towards achieving your dreams, while being true to yourself, that is success. Write the story of your life that you want to tell when you are old and gray.

A few years ago, I went to Morocco where I met a Sufi master and his family in the mountains. There we talked for three days about God and acting with love and about how we as humans must savor time. Time is the most valuable thing we have in life; it cannot ever be replaced. He said, “You must take your time. Savor it. Drink time slowly with a little spoon like a delicious soup.” As highly motivated people, we rush ahead in pursuit of great experiences and great success. Sometimes we run so fast in search of the experiences we want, we miss the very experiences we need. It is not a waste of time to take your time.

Use your time to do what you love. Don’t waste a moment doubting your heart, or fearing a risk. Believe that anything in life is possible, and with determination and passion, make that belief come true. The good news is you have the beautiful gift of time. The trick is how you use it. Remember, you are the author of your own life, it is up to you how you write it. With courage, integrity, kindness and great friends you will find your true path.