Memorable Graduation Advice

by IMDb-Editors | last updated - 10 months ago

School's out! To mark a season full of caps, gowns, and celebrations, we've compiled some of our favorite advice from actual commencement speeches delivered by actors, actresses, producers, and writers ... and wisdom delivered by one fictional, very wealthy industrialist. Congratulations to all you graduates out there.

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Actor Will Ferrell delivers the commencement speech during the University Of Southern California 134th Commencement Ceremonies at The Shrine Auditorium on May 12, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.

Will Ferrell to the University of Southern California's Class of 2017:

"After my first show [on 'Saturday Night Live'], one review referred to me as 'the most annoying newcomer of the new cast.' Someone showed this to me, and I promptly put it on the wall of my office, reminding myself that, to some people, I will be annoying. Some people will not think I'm funny. And that's OK.

No matter how cliche this may sound, you will never truly be successful until you learn to give beyond yourself. To those of you graduates sitting out there who have a pretty good idea of what you would like to do with your life, congratulations. For most of you who maybe don't have it all figured out, that’s OK. That's the same chair I sat in. Enjoy the process of your search without succumbing to the pressure of results. Trust your gut. Keep throwing darts at the dartboard. Don't listen to the critics, and you will figure it out."

Helen Mirren at an event for Collateral Beauty (2016)

Helen Mirren to Tulane University's Class of 2017:

"And Helen’s Rule No. 5 for a happy life? Don't overcomplicate things. You can navigate each day just by following some very practical dos and don'ts. Like don't put hot cups on waxed wooden surfaces. In fact, don’t ever wax wooden surfaces.

Don't procrastinate. Do say thank you when it is merited. Don't procrastinate … especially in saying thank you when it is merited. Don't lose your sense of humor. Do confront bullies. Don't procrastinate. Do open your heart to love. Don’t confuse sex with love. Love generally lasts longer than two minutes. Don't smoke tobacco … or chew it. Don't dive into water if you don't know how deep it is. And one more thing — don't procrastinate."

Octavia Spencer

Octavia Spencer to Kent State University's Class of 2017:

"If I had to read '25 Actresses Who Broke Through Before 25' when I was first starting out, I tell you guys, I would have stayed in bed. Because I guarantee you that none of them looked like me. None of them. So know this: As much as you've changed during your time here, more change is coming. You're going to continue to evolve in unforeseen ways.

You are full of complexities and wonders that haven't even begun to surface. Life's unpredictability will draw these out, and what defines you now will be mere shades and hues of a more vibrant you over the next five, 10, 50 years. Honestly, I can't think of anything more liberating than that: knowing that life will look differently than you think it will. It’'s sure different for me."

Nick Offerman

Nick Offerman to the University of Illinois' Class of 2017:

"Tell the truth. Treat people with the best manners, and work hard. If you're going to do a job, do it right. What is behind all these nuggets I've imparted today? The answer has always been love. Figure out how best to love and be loved. It all turns on affection. The main thing that has driven my teachers and yours has been simply affection for others and the good works that they might in turn undertake. You can always be looking for teachers. Surround youself with smart, funny, interesting people from different places who have seen different things. I got one of the foxiest teachers I ever met to marry me (Megan Mullally)."

Janelle Monáe

Janelle Monáe to Dillard University's Class of 2017:

"[The secrets to life are]: No. 1, the importance of being gracious. No. 2, the importance of being proud. No. 3, the importance of choosing freedom over fear."

J.K. Simmons at an event for 31st Film Independent Spirit Awards (2016)

J.K. Simmons to University of Montana's Class of 2016:

"Be here now. It's something that I continue to tell myself: to appreciate the moment, to live life as it is happening, not dwell on the past, not be too anxious about the future but to do my best to be here now.

Take care of yourself: Eat your vegetables. Get some exercise. Floss. Use your turn signal. I know that has nothing to do with taking care of yourself. It's just a pet peeve of mine. I needed to get that off my chest. Be on time. Please have the decency to not make people wait for you.

Take your telephone and use it to make a telephone call. Call an old person. Call your mom. Call your dad."

Kerry Washington at an event for Confirmation (2016)

Kerry Washington to George Washington University's Class of 2013:

"When you leave here today and commence the next stage of your life, you can follow someone else’s script, try to make choices that will make other people happy, avoid discomfort, do what is expected, and copy the status quo. Or you can look at all that you have accomplished today and use it as fuel to venture forth and write your own story. If you do, amazing things will take shape.

You and you alone are the only person that can live the life that writes the story that you were meant to tell. And the world needs your story because the world needs your voice. Every single one of you. And because as your story unfolds, you will inspire others to find their stories, and so on. And those are the stories that I can’t wait to watch."

Amy Poehler at an event for Inside Out (2015)

Amy Poehler to Harvard College's Class of 2011:

"You never know what is around the corner unless you peek. Hold someone's hand while you do it. You will feel less scared. You can't do this alone. Besides, it is much more fun to succeed and fail with other people. You can blame them when things go wrong.

Take your risks now. As you grow older, you become more fearful and less flexible. And I mean that literally. I hurt my knee on the treadmill this week, and it wasn't even on. Try to keep your mind open to possibilities and your mouth closed on matters that you don't know about. Limit your 'always' and your 'nevers.'

Continue to share your heart with people even if its been broken. Don't treat your heart like an action figure wrapped in plastic and never used. And don't try to give me that nerd argument that your heart is a Batman with a limited edition silver Bat-a-rang and therefore, if it stays in its original package, it increases in value."

Fred Rogers

Fred Rogers to Dartmouth College's Class of 2002:

"Beside my chair is a French sentence from Saint-Exupery's 'The Little Prince.' It reads, 'What is essential is invisible to the eye.' Well, what is essential about you? And who are those who have helped you become the person that you are? Anyone who has ever graduated from a college, anyone who has ever been able to sustain a good work, has had at least one person and often many who have believed in him or her. We just don't get to be competent human beings without a lot of different investments from others.

I'd like to give you all an invisible gift. A gift of a silent minute to think about those who have helped you become who you are today. Some of them may be here right now. Some may be far away. Some, like my astronomy professor, may even be in heaven. But wherever they are, if they've loved you and encouraged you and wanted what was best in life for you, they're right inside yourself.

Whomever you've been thinking about, imagine how grateful they must be that during your silent times you remember how important they are to you. It's not the honors and the prizes and the fancy outsides of life which ultimately nourish our souls. It's the knowing that we can be trusted, that we never have to fear the truth, that the bedrock of our lives from which we make our choices is very good stuff."

Andy Samberg

Andy Samberg to Harvard College's Class of 2012:

"In the days ahead, a lot of people will tell you to trust your instincts and don't be afraid to take chances. I'm definitely one of those people. But I would also say this: Don't rush into the next phase of your life whether it's grad school at Harvard or grad school at MIT or massively disappointing your parents by exploring your art-made-out-of-garbage thing.

Whatever it is you try, make sure it's what you really want to do, because the only person who knows what that is, is you. If all else fails, just remember these beautiful words from the film Dead Poet's Society: 'Neil is dead! My boy!' Which, now that I’ve said out loud, did not quite drive home my point as much as I had hoped.

J.K. Rowling at an event for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011)

J.K. Rowling to Harvard University's Class of 2008:

"You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all. In which case, you fail by default.

Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above rubies.

The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more to me than any qualification I ever earned."

Steven Spielberg at an event for The BFG (2016)

Steven Spielberg to Harvard University's Class of 2016:

"What you choose to do next is what we call in the movies the character-defining moment. Now, these moments you're very familiar with, like in the last Star Wars, The Force Awakens, when Rey realizes the Force is with her, or Indiana Jones choose mission over fear by jumping into a pile of snakes. In a two-hour movie, you get a handful of character-defining moments. But in real life, you face them every day. Life is one long string of character-defining moments.

Up until the 1980s, most of my movies were what you would call escapist. I don't dismiss any of these movies, not even 1941. Not even that one. Many of these early films reflected the values I cared deeply about, and I still do. But it was in a celluloid bubble because I cut my education short. My worldview was limited to what I could dream up in my head, not what the world could teach me.

But then I directed The Color Purple. And this one film opened my eyes to experiences that I never could have imagined and yet were all too real. This story was filled with deep pain and deeper truths, like when Shug Avery says, 'Everything wants to be loved.' My gut, which was my intuition, told me more people needed to meet these characters and experience these truths. While making that film, I realized a movie could also be a mission. I hope all of you find that sense of mission."

Jessica Lange at an event for American Horror Story (2011)

Jessica Lange to Sarah Lawrence College's Class of 2008:

"So, I encourage you: Don't keep anticipating that your life is up ahead of you. Don't always be waiting for the next thing. Don't put all your energies into some idea of the future. And with that in mind, you open the door to endless possibilities. Just allow life to take you on an adventure. Be receptive to the winds of change.

Sometimes, you just have to let life take you on its glorious journey. And the best time to do it is now -- when you're young and full of curiosity and have no fear. Don't constrain yourself with expectations of success. Success will be a byproduct of the life you lead. All success is individual and sometimes, as in my case, completely accidental."

Spike Lee

Spike Lee to Johns Hopkins University's Class of 2016:

"There are two words that are in almost all of my 23 feature films to date. These two words are 'Wake up!' Wake up from your sleep. Wake up from being comatose. Wake up from the slumber that keeps your eyes shut to inequalities and injustices, to this often more than not evil, crazy, and insane world we live in. Let's move our unconscious minds from the back to the front of a conscious state, and wake up. Let’s leave our lofty ivory towers of institutions and get down to the people. As the sisters and brothers say in the block: 'Get Woke!'"

Stephen Colbert at an event for The 66th Primetime Emmy Awards (2014)

Stephen Colbert to Northwestern University's Class of 2011:

"After I graduated from here, I moved down to Chicago to do improvisation. Now there are very few rules to improv, but one of the things I was taught early on is that you are not the most important person on the scene. Everybody else is. And if everybody else is more important than you are, you will naturally pay attention to them and serve them.

But the good news is you're in the scene, too. So, hopefully to them you’re the most important person, and they will serve you. No one is leading. You're all following the follower, serving the servant. You cannot win improv. And life is an improvisation. You have no idea what is going to happen next, and you are mostly just yanking ideas out of your ass as you go along. And like improv, you cannot win your life, even when it might look like you're winning.

So, no winning. Instead, try to love others and serve others, and, hopefully, find others that love and serve you in return."

Hank Azaria at an event for Goodfellas (1990)

Hank Azaria to Tufts University's Class of 2016:

"Most of my 'Simpsons' voices are either good or bad impressions of people. I’m a mimic at heart. I become an actor, as the result, because I really just wanted to be other people. When I was your guys’ age, I had a belief that who I was and how I thought and how I felt was inherently uninteresting and flawed and not practical. But it wasn’t until I embraced the person that I really was that my work as an actor got really interesting.

Life is like the Star Wars movies. Some of it is great. Some of it sucks. But you have no choice but to sit through all of it – very similar to the commencement speech you are listening to now."

Conan O'Brien in Conan (2010)

Conan O'Brien to Dartmouth College's Class of 2011:

"In 2000 I told graduates to not be afraid to fail, and I still believe that. But today I tell you that whether you fear it or not, disappointment will come. The beauty is that, through disappointment you can gain clarity, and with clarity comes conviction and true originality.

There is no greater cliché in a commencement address than 'Follow your dream.' Well, I am here to tell you that whatever you think your dream is now, it will probably change. And that's OK.

At the end of my final program with NBC, just before signing off, I said, 'Work hard, be kind, and amazing things will happen.' Today, receiving this honor and speaking to the Dartmouth Class of 2011 from behind a tree trunk, I have never believed that more."

Tina Fey

Tina Fey to Fieldston High School's Class of 2008:

"Follow your fear. Which in improv usually leads to someone making you sing an improvised song or rap, which is the worst thing that can happen. But the larger thing is the notion that, if something scares you a bit, it means that you should follow it a little bit.

Now, 'Follow your fear' does not mean that you should get in the car with a weirdo in a small parking lot. But it does mean that there are moments in your life when something comes up -- a chance to move to a new city or the chance to study in another continent, read your short story out loud -- and you feel a lot of fear. And that fear means that you should definitely do it."

Dolly Parton at an event for Joyful Noise (2012)

Dolly Parton to University of Tennessee's Class of 2009:

"You have to stay true to your heart and to your dreams.

The night I graduated from Sevier County High School, back in 1964, we were all asked to stand up and talk about what we were going to do with the rest of our lives, and everybody had a different story. When it came my time, I stood right up there. I said, 'I'm going to Nashville, and I'm going to be a star.' Well, the whole place laughed out loud, and I was so embarrassed, because I thought, 'How odd. Why is everybody laughing? Because that is what I'm going to do.'

As bad as I felt at that moment and as embarrassed as I was, it did not shake me from my dreams. So, I guess I showed them, huh? You can do the same.

Of course, you have to be careful. Do not confuse dreams with wishes. There is a difference. Dreams are where you visualize yourself being successful at what's important to you to accomplish. Dreams build convictions, because you work hard to pay the price to make sure that they come true. Wishes are hoping good things will happen to you, but there is no fire in your gut that causes you to put everything forth to overcome all the obstacles.

So, you have to dream more. And never, ever, ever blame somebody else if it doesn't happen. That isn't your department. Yeah, it's true. You'll see more of what I mean as you get out there in the big world."

Will Ferrell at an event for Daddy's Home (2015)

Will Ferrell to Harvard College's Class of 2003:

"You’re about to enter into a world filled with hypocrisy and doublespeak, a world in which your limo to the airport is often a half-hour late. In addition to not even being a limo at all, often times it’s a Lincoln Town Car. You’re about to enter a world where you ask your new assistant, Jamie, to bring you a tall, non-fat latte, and he comes back with a short soy cappuccino. Guess what, Jamie? You’re fired. Not too hard to get right, my friend.

Now I know I blew some of your minds with my depiction of what it’s really like out there. If anyone can handle the ups and downs of this crazy blue marble we call Planet Earth, it’s you guys. As I stare out into this vast sea of shining faces, I see the best and brightest. Some of you will be captains of industry and business. Others of you will go on to great careers in medicine, law, and public service.

Four of you -- and I’m not at liberty to say which four -- will go on to magnificent careers in the porno industry. I’m not trying to be funny. That’s just a statistical fact."

Tom Hanks

Tom Hanks to Yale College's Class of 2011:

"Your work begins: work that will not be always joyful to you, labor that may not always fulfill you, and days that will seem like one damn thing after the other.

It's true you will now work every day for the rest of your lives. That full-time job, your career as human beings and as Americans and as graduates of Yale, is to stand on the fulcrum between fear and faith, fear at your back, faith in front of you.

Which way will you lean? Which way will you move? Move forward, ever forward, and tweet out a picture of the results. It may make you famous."

Meryl Streep at an event for The Oscars (2015)

Meryl Streep to Barnard College's Class of 2010:

"Things are changing now, and it's in your generation we're seeing this. Men are adapting. About time! They are adapting consciously. They are changing their deepest prejudices to regard as normal the things that their fathers would have found very, very difficult and their grandfathers would have abhorred. The door to this emotional shift is empathy."

As Jung said, 'Emotion is the chief source of becoming conscious. There can be no transforming of lightness into dark of apathy into movement without emotion.' Or as Leonard Cohen says, 'Pay attention to the cracks, because that's where the light gets in.'"

Shonda Rhimes

Shonda Rhimes to Dartmouth College's Class of 2014:

"Focus on something outside yourself. Devote a slice of your energies towards making the world suck less every week. Some people suggest that doing this will increase your sense of well-being. Some say it's just good karma. I say that it will allow you to remember that, whether you are a legacy or the first in your family to go to college, the air you are breathing right now is rare air. Appreciate it. And don't be an a--hole."

Robert De Niro at an event for Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

Robert De Niro to NYU's Tisch School of the Arts Class of 2015:

"Tisch graduates, you made it. And, you're [effed]. Think about that.

The graduates from the College of Nursing? They all have jobs. The graduates from the College of Dentistry? Fully employed. The proud graduates of the NYU School of Law? They're covered. And if they're not, who cares? They're lawyers.

The graduates in accounting? They all have jobs. Where does that leave you? Envious of those accountants? I doubt it. They had a choice. Maybe they were passionate about accounting, but I think it's more likely that they used reason and logic and common sense to reach for career that could give them the expectation of success and stability.

But you didn't have that choice, did you? You discovered a talent, developed an ambition and recognized your passion. When you feel that, you can't fight it. You just go with it. When it comes to the arts, passion should always trump common sense. You aren't just following dreams, you're reaching for your destiny.

You're a dancer, a singer, a choreographer, a musician, a filmmaker, a writer, a photographer, a director, a producer, an actor, an artist. Yeah, you're [effed]. The good news is that's not a bad place to start. Now that you've made your choice, or rather succumbed to it, your path is clear. Not easy, but clear. You have to keep working. It's that simple."

Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey to Spelman College's Class of 2012:

"The three things that I want to leave with you … just these three things will carry you, if you let them. First and foremost, knowing who you are. I'm not asking for the roles that you play … I'm asking the bigger question of: Who am I? Who am I really? And what do I want?

You must have some kind of vision for your life. Even if you don't know the plan, you have to have a direction in which you choose to go. I never was the kind of woman who liked to get in the car and just go for a ride … I want to know: Where are we going? Do we have a destination? Is there a plan or are we just riding? What I've learned is that's a great metaphor for life. You want to be in the driver's seat of your own life because, if you're not, then life will drive you.

No. 2: You must find a way to serve … We live in a world where everybody wants to be famous and where we admire people for just being famous. We think being known brings us value. The truth is, all of that will fade in time … If you look at all the most successful people in the world, whether they know it or not, they have that paradigm of service. Service and significance equal success.

No. 3 is so simple but so hard to do: Always do the right thing. Always. Be excellent. People notice. Doing the right thing, even when nobody knows you're doing the right thing, will always bring the right things to you. I promise you that."

Arnold Schwarzenegger

Arnold Schwarzenegger to University of Southern California's Class of 2009:

"Let me tell you: You're going to find the naysayers in every turn that you make. Don't listen. Just visualize your goal. Know exactly where you want to go, trust yourself, get out there and work like hell, and break some of the rules, and never ever be afraid of failure. I couldn't have gone through one lifting event in my life if I had been afraid of failure because, of course, there's a chance that you can fail. I tried 10 times to lift, bench press 500 pounds, and I failed. But the 11th time I did it.

So, never give up and never be afraid of failure, because otherwise you box yourself in, and you limit yourself. I was never afraid to fail when I ran for governor. I was never afraid to fail to tackle anything because you should not be afraid of failure. That's just part of life. I've lived for those principles, and I've had a lot of fun doing it, and I've made a lot of money at the same time."

Jodie Foster at an event for Taxi Driver (1976)

Jodie Foster to University of Pennsylvania's Class of 2006:

"What was my way? I wanted to be relevant, significant. I wanted my life to be meaningful. All I really loved was to tell stories, to find the hidden truths in the details of people’s lives. Well, what difference could that possibly make? I had no idea at the time how much of a difference it can make.

Yes, I tell stories and those stories have changed me, have cut me open and spilled me out, and connected me with the world around me in ways I could never have imagined. I have learned so much from them. What I have learned lives on in the food I make, in the way I treat my kids, the laws I uphold, the hand I outstretch, the rituals I cling to and pass along. Like the characters I have played, those women who endure terrible adversity and survive intact, victorious, heroic, I want to become better instead of worse, deeper, stronger, more truthful. With every choice I make in my lifetime I come a little closer to that goal. And perhaps in the process other women will be inspired by these portrayals to do the same. This is my way."

Jane Lynch in Glee (2009)

Jane Lynch to Smith College's Class of 2012:

"'Yes, and … ' is the vital and only rule of improvisation. Never deny your fellow actor. You should be willing and able to accept whatever your fellow improviser throws at you. Use that as your jumping off point and expand it. 'Heighten and explore,' as we call it.

As you travel through life, in these many years ahead, I guarantee that you will come upon countless times in which the last thing you're going to want to say is 'Yes, and … ' You will experience loss, heartache, the death of a loved one. You'll probably have to say goodbye to a lover. You'll experience rejection, maybe even have to deal with a bad diagnosis. You'll age.

The trick isn't to avoid these times or pretend they're not happening; you can't. What you'll need to do is step up to them courageously and embrace them. Allow these experiences to permeate your being and weave them all into the fabric of your life. They will not only soften you and strengthen you, and you will open your heart to compassion."

Natalie Portman at an event for A Tale of Love and Darkness (2015)

Natalie Portman to Harvard College's Class of 2015:

"You can never be the best. The only thing you can be the best at is developing your own self. Make use of the fact that you don't doubt yourself too much right now. As we get older, we get more realistic, and that includes about our own abilities — or lack thereof. That realism does us no favors. What has served me is diving into my own obliviousness, being more confident than I should be."

Ellen DeGeneres

Ellen DeGeneres to Tulane University's Class of 2009:

"As you grow, you’ll realize the definition of success changes. For many of you, today success is being able to hold down 20 shots of tequila. For me, the most important thing in your life is to live your life with integrity and not to give into peer pressure to try to be something that you’re not, to live your life as an honest and compassionate person, to contribute in some way.

So, to conclude my conclusion, follow your passion. Stay true to yourself. Never follow anyone else’s path, unless you’re in the woods and you’re lost and you see a path and by all means you should follow that. Don’t give advice. It will come back and bite you in the ass. Don’t take anyone’s advice. So, my advice to you is to be true to yourself and everything will be fine."

Aaron Sorkin at an event for Steve Jobs (2015)

Aaron Sorkin to Syracuse University's Class of 2012:

"You'll meet a lot of people who, to put it simply, don't know what they're talking about. In 1970 a CBS executive famously said that there were four things that we would never, ever see on television: a divorced person, a Jewish person, a person living in New York City, and a man with a moustache. By 1980, every show on television was about a divorced Jew who lives in New York City and goes on a blind date with Tom Selleck.

Don't ever forget that you're a citizen of this world and there are things you can do to lift the human spirit: things that are easy, things that are free, things that you can do every day. Civility, respect, kindness, character. You're too good for schadenfreude. You're too good for gossip and snark. You're too good for intolerance. And since you're walking into the middle of a presidential election, it's worth mentioning that you're too good to think people who disagree with you are your enemy."

Whoopi Goldberg at an event for Big Stone Gap (2014)

Whoopi Goldberg to Savannah College of Art and Design's Class of 2011:

"I am on a show now where I have had to learn to be flexible in my thinking, to hear the other opinion, in case -- even though they’re wrong all the other times -- in case there is something fantastic being said. You don’t know everything.

Don’t be afraid to ask the question, 'What do you mean?' Don’t be afraid to say, 'I created this this way, and this is why, and I know you want to give me a lot of money but you want too much.' Because those are the decisions you are going to have to make: when to compromise, how to compromise, if to compromise at all. You’re the big hot stuff right now, but you’re entering into a whole new group, and you have to hold your own. You cannot hold your own if you’re rigid. You have to be able to serve."

Nora Ephron in American Masters (1985)

Nora Ephron to Wellesley College's Class of 1996:

"Maybe young women don't wonder whether they can have it all any longer, but in case of you are wondering, of course you can have it all. What are you going to do? Everything, is my guess. It will be a little messy, but embrace the mess. It will be complicated, but rejoice in the complications. It will not be anything like what you think it will be like, but surprises are good for you. And don't be frightened: you can always change your mind. I know: I've had four careers and three husbands.

Whatever you choose, however many roads you travel, I hope that you choose not to be a lady. I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there. And I also hope that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women."

Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman in Rushmore (1998)

Herman Blume, Rushmore:

"You guys have it real easy. I never had it like this where I grew up. But I send my kids here because the fact is you go to one of the best schools in the country: Rushmore. Now, for some of you it doesn't matter. You were born rich and you're going to stay rich. But here's my advice to the rest of you: Take dead aim on the rich boys. Get them in the crosshairs and take them down. Just remember, they can buy anything, but they can't buy backbone. Don't let them forget it. Thank you."