2016 GRADUATION ADDRESS
Good morning. I would like to welcome the board of trustees, administration, faculty, staff, parents, friends and family, alumni, and the true guests of honor, the graduating Class of 2016. Each year, I have the privilege of saying a few words of farewell to our graduates. Like most graduation speeches, my talk takes the form of advice. Previous titles include “Love Like a Labrador” and “Dare to Singletask.” Last year’s talk was titled “Let’s Get Philosophical.” Parents almost stormed the stage thinking I might have been encouraging their children to major in philosophy. Since my talk is the only remaining formality between you and your diploma, I will continue the tradition of confining my remarks to one page of single-space, size-12 font. I will continue, however, to make no promises about the size of my margins.
Today I want to offer some advice that also might incite parents to storm the stage. My advice to you is to drop any concept you have about who you should be in the future. Definitely do not have an ideal of who you should be or what you should do. Yes, you can have goals and plans, but just don’t get too attached to them. Use them but do not let them use you.
I am calling this the “take and make” model of life. I will explain that name later, but I am not above admitting that I needed something catchy. The words “take and make” have the mnemonic advantage of rhyming with each other. They also rhyme with the memorable phrase “shake and bake,” which is a famous basketball move or a tasty method of making chicken.
Now what do I mean by “take and make”? Everyone talks about “making” our lives, but no one mentions “taking” our lives. I find this uncanny, because life provides abundant evidence that the “make” model of life is incomplete.
By “take” I do not mean steal. By “take” I mean accept. And by “accept” I do not mean “resignation.” I mean a more active acceptance, the way a Warriors teammate “accepts” a pass from Steph Curry. (I promised my boys I would sneak in a Warriors reference.) Hence my advice to you today is to “take and make” your life, or the less catchy “accept and make” your life.
To illustrate what I mean, allow me to engage in some audience participation. I will ask the adults in the audience a question. Adults, if today your life path, including your career, has taken the exact course you imagined when you were 18, raise your hand. Keep them high. Graduates, look around. I want this picture to be seared in your memory for the rest of your lives. Your life will take unexpected, unplanned, unnecessary, unfruitful and even unpleasant turns, and there is no way you can know where you will be or what you will be doing. This is a good thing. Start with being born – you didn’t know that would happen, did you? Much of what else happened probably surprised you, too. But you took what came and made the best of it – and now you are here. This is just the beginning, and that is why we call it “commencement.” The beginning of what? We don’t really know.
In philosophical terms, making your life is an existential point of view; taking your life is a fatalistic point of view. I say both viewpoints are true: you make your life but only after it is handed to you. Ben Horowitz, founder of the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, in a commencement address at Columbia University, advised graduates not to follow their passion, but to follow their contribution. How do you know what your contribution will be? You don’t, but life will show you as you go. It is showing you now as we speak. Or as I speak. Your life is your contribution, and you have more than begun it. You are taking and making your life as you go, and who knows what ripples throughout eternity you will create? Some ripples already created you. That is why you are ripply. “Ripply” is not a word, but I needed a surprise right about now.
The great philosopher Schopenhauer said that our life is like a mosaic. A mosaic cannot be understood when viewed up close – we need to have distance and perspective to understand its totality. He also said that most of us miss our lives while waiting for it, planning for it. The poet Randall Jarrell put it this way: “The ways we miss our lives are life.” So do not overly plan, do not wait for some undefined future, because you will miss important cues life is sending you, or you will miss life itself. Life will come, and all you need to do is take it and make it what you will. If you take and make your life, you will not only find many unexpected wonders, you will see that you too are one of those many wonders. Thank you.