Sunday, June 06, 2010

An Honest Commencement Address

For a while there I heard a commencement address every year or two. I was graduating from something or my sister was or a friend. High school. College. I listened to a lot of them.

And then none for a long time. Lately, as the children of my friends start graduating, I've been entering my second generation of commencement addresses, and I've noticed two things:
  1. They're still giving the same speech.
  2. In hindsight, it didn't tell me anything I actually needed to know.
And that's a shame really, because there are some things that would have been worth hearing.

In case you haven't heard it yet or recently, the Universal Commencement Address has a few basic themes: You are the future; the world has problems that are going to make your life challenging; and the possibilities are endless, so you've got to think big and not give up on your dreams.

If you're getting ready to graduate, I'll bet you've already spotted what's wrong: Most of that you've known for years, and the rest is just stupid.
You've been fantasizing since you were about four about the day when you and your friends will be the firemen and the astronauts and the presidents and everything else. Over the next few decades your generation is going to take over the world. You knew that.

And if you've reached the age of graduation and it's just occurring to you now that the world has problems, then I'm going to take a wild guess and say that you're probably not going to be much help in solving them. Now, don't take that wrong. I'm sure there will be plenty of cars to drive and games to play and TV to watch, so you can still have a great time. But I'm guessing that if you're the person who is going to cure cancer or end war or stop global warming, then you've probably already heard of cancer and war and global warming. You know the world has problems, and you probably already have a pretty good list of them.

Your list might be better than mine. When I was graduating from high school, the grown-ups knew exactly what issues were going to dominate my lifetime: the endless struggle with Communism and the possibility that all-out nuclear war would annihilate the human race. 

Fifteen years later, the Soviet Union collapsed. Short lifetime.

Now, the challenges of those days are not totally gone. Russia and China are still rivals of the United States, and nuclear weapons are still a problem. But the nightmare that you can still see in movies from that era -- that one day for some stupid reason all the missiles will fly and a half hour later the handful of survivors will be living in a new stone age -- that seems very distant now.

By contrast, no one at my graduation mentioned that conflict between the West and Islam might be a big deal in my lifetime. Nobody was predicting that the Vietnamese insurgency would be a model for a new kind of war. People were starting to think about the environment, but nobody warned me that we might be changing the weather.

So I could list the challenges I see facing your generation, but it probably wouldn't be any better than your list, and either one of our lists would probably only be good for a decade or two. I'd be wasting your time.
Now we get to the part about not giving up on your dreams. That's just stupid, and you know that from your own experience.

High school is all about winnowing out your dreams. When you were ten you could have all the dreams you wanted: You could win an academy award, a Nobel prize, and an MVP all in one day. Why not? You're a president, a billionaire, a Jedi knight, a fairy princess -- whatever you want.

Then you got to high school and found out that the rehearsals for the musical conflicted with football practice. Choose. You only have a handful of electives in your schedule, so you can't go deeper into every field of knowledge. Choose. There are only 24 hours in a day -- less if you plan to eat and sleep -- so you can't master every game and learn every skill and participate in every extra-curricular activity. Choose.

For years now, you've been old enough to realize that being really good at anything takes a commitment of time and effort. You can't commit to everything, so you need to look at your talents and interests and pick a few things that you're going to get serious about. That's old news.

People my age look at people your age and we're blown away by the possibilities. You can do anything! But compared to grade school kids, compared to toddlers, you're already specialists. 

Ever spend much time with a toddler? They sing; they dance; they're story-tellers, artists, explorers, scientists, athletes; they're moralists, philosophers, theologians. Compared to a three-year-old, a high school graduate has already narrowed down quite a bit. If you haven't, then you haven't gotten serious about anything yet -- and it's already starting to get late.

So you've been winnowing your dreams for a while now. And for most of you there's still a ways to go. Because some dreams aren't worth it. If you're small and slow, that dream of playing in the NBA? Not gonna happen. I don't care how much time you spend in the gym, how badly you want it, or how hard you're willing to work. Not gonna happen.

And that celebrity you want to marry? Not gonna happen. Giving your all to that dream will just make you a stalker. Move on.
So once you eliminate all the points of the standard commencement speech, a speaker has to ask himself: Do I know anything worth passing on?

The temptation then is to come up with Five Rules for a Successful Life. Your eyes would glaze over if I started down that road, and for good reason. Even at your age, you've already seen enough of life to realize that there aren't five rules. Life isn't that kind of thing.

Most of the rules people give you are wrong. The lesson that people in my father's generation learned from their careers, for example, was that the way to succeed was to find a good organization and stick with it for life. Give your loyalty to General Motors or AT&T or J. P. Morgan and they'll take care of you.

That mostly worked in my father's generation. In my generation it didn't. Jobs got shipped overseas or eliminated by technology, or management looted the company until it collapsed. A lot of loyal workers found themselves unemployed at 35 or 40 and had no idea what to do.

Every rule has a shelf life. They should come with sell-by dates stamped on them, like yogurt.

The fantasy behind rules is that you can get through life without having to make original judgments. And that's just not true. Every generation faces new challenges and novel situations. Every generation winds up needing answers to questions that previous generations never even thought to ask. 

There's no getting around it. Even if you had an all-encompassing set of rules, you'd still have to make a judgment about whether the rules were still valid. And even if you had a rule for that, you'd have to wonder about its shelf life too.
So what can I tell you? You're going to face decisions I can't anticipate, and any rule I can give you now for making those decisions is probably no better than what you could come with on your own when you need it. What can I tell you?

Here's what I think I can tell you: I can help you frame those judgments, so that when you get there you will see them more clearly and not be distracted by a lot of irrelevant nonsense. Or at least I can try.

Having lived more than half a lifetime and watched a lot of people live it alongside me, here's what I think I know: The fundamental issue in life, the one that determines whether you have a good life or a bad one, is how well you manage your energy.

Let's look at the biggest scale we can: Toddlers have energy they don't know what to do with. They run around in circles sometimes just because they have to do something. 

Parents, on the other hand, have an endless list of tasks and they constantly complain about not having the energy to do them. I learned early on never to tell my mother I was bored, because she always had a list of things I could do: I could pick up my toys. I could clean my room. I could read ahead in my schoolbooks and start working on that project due next week. Mom never lacked for things to do.

Old people have much shorter to-do lists, but they often don't have the energy even to do that much. If you ever visit old people who have stayed in their houses too long, you can see the chaos starting to overwhelm them. Things get used and not put away. Things break and don't get fixed. Things wear out and don't get replaced. It's not that they don't see it and it's not that they don't know what to do. They just can't.

Eventually you're in the nursing home, and even that is too much. Wheeling yourself down to the dining room is too much effort. Watching a TV show requires too much concentration. You just can't.

So that's the big picture: You're born with a lot of energy and no knowledge. Eventually you'll have a lot of knowledge and no energy. If you do things right, there can be a magic period somewhere in the middle, where you both have energy and know what to do with it. It might be just a moment or it might be decades, but that's what's going to determine whether you do anything of lasting value.

So there are two big judgment calls you're going to have to make over and over:
  1. What's going to maintain my energy?
  2. What's going to have lasting value?
That first question is what the don't-give-up-your-dreams part of the standard commencement speech is really about. You have to winnow down your dreams if you're going to focus on anything and get anywhere. But sometimes people go too far and winnow their dreams down to nothing. 

Those people get old early.

A toddler pops out of bed at six in the morning and starts running around getting into mischief because the energy is rising and it has to go somewhere. The older you get, the less that happens. In adulthood, there are two reasons to get out of bed: because there's interesting stuff going on and you want to see what happens next, or because it's another damn day and people expect something out of you. Most grown-ups have both kinds of days, but one predominates over the other.

People with dreams tend to have the first kind of day. Because of that, they work harder and more creatively. They're the kind of people who get ideas in the shower or wake up with the solution to a problem that seemed impossible the night before. People without dreams have a lot of the second kind of day. They may have good intentions, but it's hard for them to do much more than just put in their time.

That's why you shouldn't always do the thing that seems most sensible to other people. You don't necessarily pick the career where the experts say the jobs are going to be. You marry for love and not money. You try things that seem interesting, even if everybody else looks at you funny.

Because the first thing that your life has to do is hold your interest. You may finish business school at 25 and get a half-million-a-year job with Goldman Sachs and hear everybody tell you that you've got it made. But if you're bored, if that life isn't one that holds your interest, then you don't have it made. The Peace Corps volunteer who's bringing wireless internet to a jungle village might be doing a much better job of maintaining his or her energy. He or she might still be bouncing out of bed at 70, while you're dragging yourself to work already before you're 30.

Now, I can't tell you what's going to hold your interest. That's one of those judgment calls you'll have to make for yourself. I'm just reminding you to ask the question, and to keep asking it day after day, year after year.
The second question is: What has lasting value? And this is where you see the uselessness of simple rules, because it's easy to follow a very sensible-sounding rule and wind up with nothing. Do relationships have lasting value? Yes, but only if they're the right relationships. Do careers have lasting value? Yes, some of them. Hobbies? Some of them. Money? To a certain extent.

You're going to have to keep your eyes open and use your judgment. Human beings are creatures of habit, and so it's easy to keep doing things long after it's clear that they have no value. Are you hanging around with people you don't like, doing things you don't enjoy? Stop. It's sounds simple, but it's actually not.

It's also easy to get lost in the short term: tomorrow's presentation, next week's deadline, the paper at the end of the semester. You deal with each thing as it comes up, and when you look back at the years it's like the toddler running in circles. What was that all about?

You can also get lost in the big picture, and miss what's right in front of you. Some experiences seem to have no consequences, but they have lasting value all the same. They are like pearls on a string. Now and then for the rest of your life you will take that string out of its box and hold it. 

A few years ago my wife and I hiked across a lava field in Hawaii. (It was hard; we're already getting a little old for that.) We waited for the sun to go down, then sat and watched the glowing lava flow into the black ocean. Eventually, we hiked back in the dark, careful not to break an ankle on the jagged rock. Nothing came out of that event other than a few good pictures. But still, when it comes time to die I think I will look back and say, "At least I got to do that."

The point isn't that you should go to Hawaii. For you, the lava-field hike might be just another stupid tourist thing. But you should look for your pearls, whatever they are. 
Sometimes the two questions conflict with each other. Few people, for example, are more useless than a serial dreamer, the kind of person who is always about to hit it big in something, but never actually does. Next month he'll be about to hit it big in something else entirely. 

And it's also easy to find yourself mired in long-term projects that have some theoretical lasting value, but aren't holding your interest. Should you quit or push through to the end? When it's over and you have some perspective, will you look back and remember why you wanted to do this? Sometimes. Again, it's a judgment call. You'll have to figure it out when you get there.

Real gold is found, though, when the two questions come together in a single answer. You find a thing that holds your interest because it has lasting value that stays fresh for you day-in day-out. What will that be? Who knows? You'll have to keep your eyes open.
That's as much as I can tell you: Watch your energy and make sure you don't squelch it before old age takes it away from you naturally. Make choices that hold your interest, whether anybody else thinks they make sense or not. And while you have energy, look for ways to use it that produce lasting value -- consequences and accomplishments, of course, but also pearls for your string of peak experiences.

That's all I can tell you: Keep your eyes open. Keep asking the questions. And keep making your own judgments. Nobody can do it for you.