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?