"[I]f I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature." --Charles Darwin

Friday, June 10, 2011

My imaginary commencement address

I have to be honest with myself. I am never going to deliver a commencement address. I am not now and have no desire to become an administrator or even a department head. I find it challenging enough to try and master teaching to take on responsibility for other teachers. I am not such a distinguished scholar or a successful entrepreneur as would be likely to be asked to speak at some other institution's commencement. It's just not in the cards.

This of course doesn't prevent me, as I sit in the front rows reserved for teachers, letting my eyes glass over as the real commencement speaker begins, from imagining myself in that situation and trying to project what I had to say. So here we go.

Mr. Superintendent, Graduates, Families, Friends and fellow staff. This will be brief, because I don't know much. But if this saves you a couple of bumps in the head in years to come, that'll be great.

1. "Nobody knows anything." This bit of wisdom was coined by novelist and screenwriter William Goldman in reaction to the idea that there are hard and fast rules about what will succeed and what will fail, specifically in the entertainment business. But if you extend it to predictions of human behavior, it's pretty universal. You can learn what has happened, and in the natural world we can make pretty good predictions. But when people tell you that your idea won't work or that the way they've been doing something is the only good way to do it, well, nobody knows anything. And the more sure they are about it, the more likely they are to be completely wrong. Which leads to an important corollary to Rule #1:

1a. Know what you don't know. You will work for and with a lot of people who will claim knowledge that not only they don't have, but nobody has. Know the boundary lines of the sovereign country of What-I-Know and be unafraid to call in people who live and work beyond those boundaries to tell you what's out there. Which relates to the next rule:

2. Learn to find the people who do know something. Perhaps the single greatest skill you can develop in your college and early years in the workplace is to find and identify mentors. Look for those people who are likely to be able to help and advise you and make it rewarding, in terms of your own respect and attention, to do so. And of course, many of those people are dead or otherwise unavailable, but luckily they have written these things called "books." More about that later.

3. Lockhart's Law of Slippage: Everything will take longer, cost more and be a bigger hassle than you thought. Don't be discouraged when things slip off the rails. They are supposed to. Here's a big secret. People older than you are not ipso facto smarter than you. They've just seen more stuff go wrong and therefore can more easily anticipate what will go wrong. They see those potholes coming sooner than you and steer around. See #2. In general, you will be judged more for the way you handle obstacles (anticipated or not) than the way you executed a flawless plan flawlessly (which has probably never happened in human history).

4. FORGET PLAN B!!! Parents and family cover your ears. I know your parents want you to have something to "fall back on." But to embark on a career with Plan B in your head is like entering a negotiation thinking about the lowest price you can accept or playing a game thinking about how much you are willing to lose by. One of your primary jobs at this point in your life is identifying your passion, then committing to it. And you must commit completely, put all your heart and will and resources and effort into it. And the truth is, even then it may not work out. You may not have the right set of talents or circumstances for it all to come true. (Walter Matthau said, "All you need to succeed in show business is forty good breaks.") But I promise you, you will never be happy thinking about the life you could have had if you had only put everything you had into it. Better to fail spectacularly then to drift into your second- or third-choice life, ever wondering if you could have had your first choice. So pick Plan A and be ready to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel for it.

5. Become a teacher and continue to be a student. I'm not saying you should all become licensed schoolteachers. But find appropriate opportunities to pass on what you know and what you've learned. Besides the general societal benefit and the warm fuzzies you'll feel inside, research shows that you most truly master and understand that which you teach. So teach in order to learn. And speaking of learning, you are not done. You have only just begun. You have not acquired a big bag of knowledge, which is what I thought education was. You have acquired a tool kit, to which you will add (hopefully), by which you will continue to acquire the knowledge and skills you need to work effectively, think clearly and live happily. That means you're going to have to keep reading, and not just on the internet, but real books. And think about them, talk about them, share them. And you're going to have to hang around with people who are different than you -- different backgrounds, different ages, entire different philosophies of life, many of which you will completely and violently disagree with. But they will all teach you. When you stop learning, you commence to die.

That's all I've got. Hope your families cooked up a great party for you tonight. It sure beats going out and drinking too much and feeling sick and stupid for a couple of days, which is what we used to do in my day. So you see, things do get better.

Congratulations, good luck, and come back and see us. Not next year because you're feeling homesick, but in five years, ten years, twenty years so you can share with those students then what you found in that big bad world out there after you Commenced.