Reflections on the
Semester
Feraco
Myth to Science Fiction
22 January 2010
Note: I try to have different end-of-semester
speeches for both the fall and spring. (The
second one is a lot harder to write than the
first, because I feel like I have to top myself
for the sake of the students who have had me
before.)
I first wrote a variation of this speech at the
end of last year’s fall semester. Unbeknownst
to me, Malcolm Gladwell had published
Outliers, a book that covered the same topic
in much the same manner, two months
earlier. He sold millions of copies. When I
read the book, I was struck both by envy (if
only I’d had the idea a year earlier!) and the
surreal feeling that I’d plagiarized
something I’d never read before. So if this
feels a little familiar, Gladwell fans…my
apologies. But it’s mine.
If James Naismith never invents
basketball…does Kobe Bryant
lead an irrelevant life?
Kobe’s father, Joe Bryant, played
professional basketball for years,
even continuing his career in
Italy after leaving the NBA.
When he moved, his young son
moved with him.
Kobe learned to cope with the
pressures associated with fame at
a young age, learned to absorb
the nuances of other cultures and
languages, learned to be flexible;
in other words, Kobe was
prepared for a larger stage long
before the time came for him to
take it.
But if Joe Bryant never plays
professional basketball, Kobe
never goes overseas.
How does Joe raise his son
differently if he pursues a
different career?
How does Kobe’s life change when
he’s not handed the same
opportunities, when he’s
spending all of those on-the-court
hours somewhere else with
someone else doing something
else?
Look back to 1892.
James Naismith invents the sport
because he decides to throw balls
into peach baskets one day.
(He hadn’t even decided to cut the
bottom out of the basket yet; the
defense needed to fetch the ball
out of the basket every time it
gave up points.)
That’s where Kobe’s future starts;
it lies rooted in those ancient
seeds, in the genius of a dead
Canadian he never met.
But what if Naismith didn’t invent
the game that year?
What if he chose to spend time
with friends instead on the day
he should have made that first
shot?
What if he decided to sit and sleep
under the shade of a Georgian
peach tree?
What if he went to work and stayed
late; what if he kept going to
work and staying late?
What if he never invented his
beautiful game?
If James Naismith never invents
basketball, maybe Kobe becomes
a soccer player.
But I’m willing to bet that if James
Naismith never invents
basketball, we never learn Kobe
Bryant’s name.
Maybe he just becomes some
white-collar worker in a
skyscraper somewhere instead.
Maybe he becomes a nameless
person you stand next to on a bus
– a tall nameless person, to be
sure (although who says his
mother’s the same person if Joe
never plays?), but someone you
never speak to because he’s just
an Ordinary, Anonymous, and
Unremarkable Guy. (We’re all
OAUGs at one point or another.)
Maybe he’s just a guy who passes
through life without stopping to
live.
And maybe the world never knows
what it’s missing.
Maybe the world never stops to
wonder about any of the infinite
possibilities that pass unrealized
every day when people are too
busy, lazy or scared to form
dreams and chase them, or when
people are too poor, hungry, and
tired to chase them without help
they’ll never receive and lessons
they’re never offered.
How many Kobes have we missed?
How many Kobes have lived and
died without recognizing the
incredible depths of their own
potential?
How many Kobes have led ordinary
lives instead of walking on air
just because they never knew
they could?
Your life takes the shape you make,
but your ability to shape it
depends on what you can access.
The choices we make, the
opportunities we seize, the
connections we form – all of these
“shapers” depend on us, our
circumstances, and those around
us, as well as how the three
interact.
Kobe Bryant walks on the sky
because he can – but he can
because he learned the game
from an expert, grew up in the
company of professionals, and
trained perfectly for the moment
he assumed all along would be
his.
Take those away, and there’s no
telling what happens.
The lesson, of course, is to resist
the easy assumption that you
already know what you should be,
and that you already know your
limits.
For all you know, your career
hasn’t been invented, or your
calling hasn’t been established.
Perhaps your opportunity already
awaits, waiting for you to outstrip
predecessors you may not even
know.
(Without Naismith, Kobe never
flies; without Gates, Allen, and
Jobs, Sergey Brin and Larry Page
never invent Google; without
Pasteur, Jonas Salk never invents
a polio vaccine.)
But the polio vaccine wasn’t
developed by uncaring hands,
Google wasn’t an accident, and
every shot that leaves Kobe’s
hands is directed at a specific
target.
We’ve spoken so often about our
morals and actions influence our
happiness, about how our goals
give us purpose – bulls-eyes for
our souls’ arrows.
I introduced that simple concept –
that you have to chase what you
want because life is too short for
passivity – and reinforced it with
every piece of content I chose for
our curriculum.
And with that in mind, I wanted to
take ten minutes today, on our
last day, to urge those of you who
dream (and those of you who go
through the motions) to stop,
look around, and realize what
surrounds you.
The landscape is undoubtedly
mixed – a cloud for every ray of
sunshine, a crumbling economy
facing every job seeker and
college applicant, a rapidly
approaching expiration date for
many of the bonds you’ve forged
and valued over the years.
But the point is not to get lost in
negatives; rather, I’ve tried to
teach you how to think about
yourself in a new way, to cope
with negatives more healthily and
enjoy the myriad positives life
offers more thoroughly.
In short, I’ve spent this semester
trying to help you lead what
Socrates treasured most – a
balanced, examined life.
When my senior classes concluded
during my year at Arcadia High, I
offered my students ten pieces of
advice regarding how to handle
graduation, departure, and new
beginnings.
I looked back at them last year and
felt they were worth sharing
again; I did the same this year,
and felt the same way.
These aren’t just any ten pieces of
advice; they were my best
attempt, five years removed from
high school graduation, to look
back at what I knew when I was
18, and what I wished someone
had told me at the time.
So here they are; you can feel free
to take or leave any of these, to
highlight or reject any nugget
your please, or to take the whole
shebang and tack it to your dorm
wall.
1: Don’t take it personally if people
worry about you – because we will
worry.
You’re about to go through an
intense period of transition; even
those of you who will remain at
home will need to make that final
push into independent adulthood.
People will worry because you’re
entering an uncertain period; it’s
a symptom of their affection for
you, not their disrespect.
So don’t resent them for caring
about you – appreciate it for what
it is.
2: Don’t dwell on the past so much
that you forget to live in the
present.
Personally, I like to look back at my
memories from time to time; I
figure that I’ll have a better sense
of where I’m going if I remember
where I’m from.
But I spent too much time looking
backwards when I was a freshman
in college.
I really loved the place where I
grew up, and I had a great time in
high school.
I was reluctant to leave, and didn’t
allow myself to make a clean
break for a variety of reasons.
But my decision to cling to my
recent past didn’t really help
me…it only delayed my
adjustment to life in a place
where I didn’t know a single
person.
The realization that the past was
the past, and that my friends
would come of age in different
ways in different places, was
difficult – but it was one of the
most valuable lessons I ever
learned.
I’m still friends with some of the
people I was closest to during
high school; they aren’t the
“same” people they used to be,
but neither am I, and that’s OK.
So love the people who matter to
you, and don’t hold back for fear
that your friendships will fade –
that merely ensures they will.
3: Age matters less than insight,
wisdom, or courage.
You’ll acquire each with time, and
you’ve already acquired your fair
share!
You’re still young, but you’re about
to learn a lot about yourself in an
extremely compressed period of
time.
You’ll need to build mental
discipline, and be willing to view
yourself honestly, but – and I
can’t stress this enough – this is
one of the best opportunities for
growth you’ll ever have.
4: Push yourself.
I don’t necessarily mean “push
yourself” in the academic sense,
although it’s a pretty good idea to
make the most out of an
expensive education.
I mean that you should be willing
to pick up new hobbies and
discover new interests.
Try the things you’ve always
wanted to try – sing in a choir, get
politically involved, host a radio
show, write a novel in a month,
etc.
There’s no reason not to try; if you
decide it’s not for you, you can
stop (and no one will think less of
you for trying!).
5: Don’t be quick to judge others,
and don’t get caught up in the
little things.
The little intrigues and scandals
that are hallmarks of high school
life don’t go away quickly, but
appearance begins to matter less
than substance sooner than you
think.
If someone has a good heart, if you
enjoy someone’s company, if
you’ll be a better person if
they’re part of your life, don’t be
afraid to reach out and make a
friend.
There’s nothing in the rulebook
that says you can’t be friendly or
decent to other people – and if
this makes someone dislike you,
that person probably isn’t
someone you’ll want to spend
time with.
6: Have fun, but be careful.
You’ll have opportunities to
explore possibilities that simply
weren’t available to you as a high
school student.
Always remember to think things
through, because every action has
consequences.
It’s hard to think through every
decision, to consistently take the
long view when the short term
seems so attractive or fun – but
it’s time to start doing so.
People will frequently make stupid
decisions around you; you’re not a
robot, and you don’t need to
automatically follow someone you
don’t agree with.
(In other words, don’t live
recklessly just because you
understand the reality that you
will “fall down” at some point –
simply make the commitment
now to be a resilient and
adaptable person when
circumstances call for you to step
up.)
7: Everybody hurts sometimes.
It’s impossible to live a life that
never feels the bite of sadness,
loss, failure, or disappointment.
It’s part of growing, but it’s also
part of living; every single one of
your parents understands what I
just listed.
So don’t surrender when pain or
sadness descend; remember your
own strength (and Kirkegaard),
and remain faithful to yourself.
8: Greet the world with an open
mind and an open heart.
A willingness to listen, learn, and
analyze is one of the greatest
qualities a man or woman can
possess.
You have the right to listen to
people and ideas and decide
whether you agree.
Don’t simply accept or reject
things based on what you’ve
heard, or even what you were
taught; take advantage of your
gifts and learn for yourself.
9: Always remember the wonderful
things.
It’s so easy to forget everything
that’s good in the world, and
everything that’s good in your
life.
Every so often, I get so caught up
in obsessing over drudgery that I
forget to see the forest for the
trees.
Instead of worrying about the
crack in my windshield, I should
be grateful I can afford insurance
for my car.
Instead of worrying about the way
others see my friends and family,
I should be grateful I have people
I can call my own.
And when I realize that I’ve taken
these wonderful things for
granted, I try not to feel too
guilty for the rest of the day; I
concentrate instead on being
thankful that I’ve realized what
I’ve done in time to appreciate
the things I have anew.
Those are good days.
These are good days!
So don’t feel guilty – be happy.
10: You are your own person.
You choose your friends, your
classes, your food, your habits.
You’re getting a fresh start, with
all that implies.
Take advantage of it.
Establish yourself intelligently,
and don’t make a bunch of
commitments you can’t honor or
decisions you can’t live down.
Live a life you can be proud of,
whether it’s a quiet life of
greatness or a more obvious one;
you’re calling the shots, you’re
flipping your coins, and that
responsibility is an awesome and
wonderful gift.
I don’t want you to flip coins like
it’s going out of style, or decide
to flip the coin when you’re at an
8 and the choices are 9 and 3.
(At some point, you hold the coin
you have while you work to better
your odds!)
I used the coin-flip game for the
same reason I asked you to study
characters who went to extremes
(Jake Sisko, Carl Frederickson,
Dante Alighieri, Gilgamesh, etc.):
because they’re case studies in
how to pursue balance in life, and
in how individual people try to
recover from mistakes they and
those around them make.
I hope this class has helped you
learn how to do both – to balance
and recover, to live and to learn.
I hope you can recognize your
dreams more clearly and pursue
them more readily.
I hope this class has been exceeded
your expectations, whatever they
may have been, and that it taught
you that you should always expect
something from an experience –
even a high school class – and that
you should make these
expectations clear.
I hope that the philosophies and
ideas we’ve grappled with moved
you, and that the characters we
studied and the works we read
helped you to see human beings
differently – perhaps even
understand them better.
I hope you’ve also gained a greater
appreciation for outside
perspectives – perhaps even to
the point that you’ve found it
easier to analyze issues from
multiple angles.
But above all else, I hope I’ve made
it easier for you to understand
yourself.
By that, I mean I hope you can
understand who you are, what
you want, why you want what you
want (and are who you are), and
how you plan you move forward
with your life once you leave my
class.
I hope you keep searching, and
never stop learning, because life
is an impossibly beautiful
experience.
I hope you end up exceeding me in
so many ways; I’ve told you that
before, but I’m not sure you
understand how deeply I mean it.
(If not today, you will someday!)
And I hope you make your own
opportunities – that if you’re a
Kobe without a Naismith, you
invent basketball yourself.
I am me.
You are here.
It is today.
And you have a chance to become
any type of person you want to
become.
Who will you decide to be?
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