When Shukree Tilghman attended Sanford School in the 1990s, he was “a solid B student” who certainly didn’t project that 20 years after his graduation he would be writing for one of the most popular shows on network television, NBC’s “This is Us.”
Tilghman addressed a recent assembly of Cum Laude inductees at Sanford School, where he joked about the honor of speaking to the group because he “certainly never sat in one of those chairs. I was not a terrible student, but I wasn’t exceptional. I was like cold pizza. Not filet mignon, not even hotpizza, but still pretty good.”
Tilghman’s plum assignment as a writer for This is Us would likely be any aspiring screen writer’s dream. Only, this wasn’t Tilghman’s dream at all. In fact, the 4-year varsity basketball player hoped to become a hoops star and was crushed when college athletic offers never came his way.
“All I wanted in life was a basketball scholarship. I ate, slept, drank, breathed basketball from the time I was in 8th grade and I worked night and day on my craft. Training, drills, videos, camps, you name it, I was into it. Mostly importantly, I loved it.” But midway through the basketball season in his senior year, the reality of his athletic prospects became clear.
It was Sanford’s legendary coach Stan Waterman who suggested that Tilghman stop chasing the dream, start playing for fun, and consider other goals for college. Tilghman jokingly called Waterman a ‘dream killer.’
“Most mentors would tell you never to stop chasing your dreams. No matter what. That’s what’s written on those motivational posters they sell on Etsy and Burlington: they literally say never stop chasing your dreams. But no. The winningest basketball coach in history — motivator, leader of men — told a 17-year-old to just give it up, buddy. The most unconventional and perhaps best advice I’ve ever received. Certainly, the most memorable.”
Tilghman never got even a sniff of a basketball scholarship, but he started having fun that season. “Just play, man,” Waterman told his senior player. And in the newfound happiness of playing basketball for the simple joy of it, he started to do other things – like rediscovering a love of the arts, which he says had remained dormant since about the 7thgrade.
In pursuit of his rekindled passion, the kid from Newark, now 38, wrote a story to fulfill his artists portfolio, and applied to the NYU Tisch School of the Arts. His acceptance led to film study, documentary work, and later writing assignments in reality television. He then went on to graduate school at Columbia to study screenwriting, and several years later became one of television’s hottest writers. His wife and young child also joined Tilghman for the presentation at his alma mater, flying all the way from Los Angeles.
So Tilghman’s advice to the Cum Laude juniors and seniors was to slow down and enjoy the special moments of high school and to try a little bit of everything, because you never know where your interests might lead.
He credits growing up in Delaware and his middle and upper school years at Sanford in Hockessin as having a tremendous impact on his development as a person and a professional. And he said in about 10 years, this year’s upper classmen will look back and be grateful for more than they can imagine today. “I couldn’t really grasp how special of a place this was and is because it was just my middle school and then my high school. And it was small, clique-ish, and I didn’t always feel like I fit in. But when I got older, met more people, and saw more of the world, I was able to recognize how truly unique my experience was and how lucky all of us are to have had it.”
Tilghman also shared a bit of insight about his career and the pressure he and the other NBC writers face as they try to generate a relevant product week after week. And he summed up his experience with advice for those who may be just starting to dream.
“On the show I work on there’s ten people sitting in a room writing a show that’s broadcasts to tens of millions of people across the globe. It’s the story of a family, the Pearsons.”
“But it’s also the story of me, of you, of people not in this room. And we always ask ourselves — what can we do to give those tens of millions something good, something they can relate to, some light in the darkness, something they can feel, that they can see something of themselves or their own lives, something through which they can see love. We consider that our service.
“As you think about your own goals, about the story of your life from here, about who you will become, I urge you to think not just of yourself but about others, people who you may never meet, whose experience may be different than yours.
“My challenge and hope for you is to be involved, to be of service to others, to define success by how you positively affect others without a thought of recognition or reward. You are writing not just the story of you, you’re writing the story of America and who she will be, and in that, you too are writing the story of us.”