What I Told My Graduating Class of Over 850 Students
“We are exactly where we are supposed to be”
Two weeks ago, I spoke at my high school’s Baccalaureate ceremony (a pre-graduation event). Out of 864 graduates, I was one of three selected to speak. It was a huge honor, of course, but it was also an enormous responsibility. While my friends enjoyed a carefree final school week, I instead holed myself up in my room, scribbling ideas onto blank paper, hoping I could somehow compact the multitude of ideas I had into one cohesive speech.
And as hard as I tried, I couldn’t. I would settle into an idea for a while, but as I thought more deeply about it, that idea would branch out into another concept I thought was better — that is, until that one branched out. I leapt from the importance of empathy to the need for communication to the way time crunches down our experiences, bounding from notion to notion as if they were lily pads. My brain weaved a web of cluttered thoughts out of which I couldn’t seem to untangle myself.
Ironically, I sought inspiration within my journal, also a completely disorganized repository for my thoughts. I flipped through months of contextless poetry and expressions I had written: “If time marches on, then we are all its soldiers”; “We learn what is important to us when we have it taken away”; “We tend to think about time as something that can be quantified, a series of snapshots that piece together like chain links and form our human experience. But this presents a paradox; how can we attempt to capture the human experience within an arbitrary, human-constructed realm of consciousness?”
Eventually, I came across something I wrote that stood out to me: “Every second is full of potential energy.”
Lightning struck. I began to envision each second of our lives as a constantly changing kaleidoscope of outcomes, each equally possible, but only one actually occurring. And the one that does occur sets into motion the next set of outcomes, each based specifically on the previous one. It is our life cycle, beating to the ceaseless rhythm of time.
I realized that an action as small as taking an extra breath changes the course of our entire day, and by extension, our entire lives. Deciding to snooze your morning alarm could mean leaving the house exactly nine minutes later, precisely when a car at an intersection runs a red light. And because you left home at that exact time — nine minutes later than you might otherwise have left — the car hits you. Or, a more positive scenario: because you left home nine minutes later, you run into an old friend while getting coffee, and you have a great conversation that fuels your positive energy for the rest of the day.
This infinite string of hypotheticals is mind-boggling. I still have trouble wrapping my head around the gravity of my realization; it makes life feel so… arbitrary. If every single second of our lives, every decision we make, irrevocably impacts our future, how could we possibly have control over our lives? It is a haunting thought.
However, a beautiful truth underlies this notion. Instead of thinking about its implications for the future, realize what it means for the present. We, in this exact moment, are a product of the uncountable number of actions and decisions we’ve made throughout our past — the chemical reaction of infinitely many potential-energy-seconds interacting with each other.
Maybe that product isn’t exactly what we want it to be. Maybe it’s better than we ever thought it would be. Regardless, it is special and meaningful that we are here — exactly where we are in this moment.
If nothing else, Life is about timing. We can’t always control when the stopwatch starts or stops, or how fast the button is clicked. But we can acknowledge the significance of our timing landing us here. Yes — we are exactly where we are supposed to be.
This idea became the basis for my speech, which I’ve shared below. A friend messaged me after the ceremony to tell me that her ninety-year-old great aunt felt that my speech captured a concept she has pondered her entire life. I hope it resonates with you, too.
To the class of 2018 and all of our amazing supporters — our friends, family members, teachers, administrators, everyone — thank you for being here on this incredibly special day. It’s not that graduating is important, it’s that most of us are gonna go outside afterward to take pictures to post on Instagram or Facebook, so yeah — it’s a pretty important day.
Seriously, though, the next week of our lives is going to be momentous. It’s the culmination of dreams — ours, but also our parents’, and grandparents’ dreams, too. We’re passing the first big landmark in our lives. And that’s made me reflect a lot on the past four years, as I’m sure it has for all of you, too. It’s made me think a lot about the world and my place in it. You know, all the existential questions like, “Who am I gonna become? What kind of person do I want to be? Will I still have friends?”
The more I’ve thought about the future, though, the more I get caught up in how eerily unpredictable it can be. I get caught up in how success sometimes means being in the right place at the right time. Likewise, how tragedy sometimes means being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I think about how those killed in the New York City attack in October could have skipped their morning coffee and been on the sidewalk two minutes earlier than when it was driven on. I think about students in school shootings and how a tiny shard of glass on their route to school could have popped their tire and caused them to not be at school when the shooting occurred. I think about pedestrians who get hit by drunk drivers, who could’ve spent five more minutes picking their outfit that morning and been at the crosswalk five minutes later. Often, I get lost in these hypotheticals, these “what ifs,” confounded by the unpredictable nature of living — the almost ruthless objectivity of fate.
Ultimately, all of my contemplation sheds light on a scary reality: that every action we take, no matter how small, directly impacts our future, sometimes positively, sometimes negatively. It’s an unnerving thought, a paralyzing one, even. But — this also means that every action we’ve taken since we’ve been alive has gotten us to this point. This one, right now. In other words, we are exactly where we are supposed to be. And to me, that is a beautiful truth. It’s freeing. Liberating. It means that each of us have a place and a purpose in this world because we are here.
From this belief sprouts four principles by which I try to live. So, class of 2018, I’d like to share those with you, hoping that you will find in them the same fulfillment I do.
Number one: life is not perfect. Shocking, I know, but try framing it with this mindset that we are exactly where we are supposed to be. Every failure, every hardship, every shortcoming, every obstacle, then, becomes a learning opportunity. Unlike our other wonderful speakers, Derek and Arianna, I know absolutely nothing about track, but I see these imperfections as hurdles, and with every hurdle you jump over, your legs get a little bit stronger. A little bit more ready to take on the next one. Perhaps these hurdles were put in your life for a reason — to teach you something and help you get stronger so that you can tackle the next ones and ultimately make it to the finish line.
Number two: don’t compare yourself to others. Just like the way you are exactly where you are supposed to be, so is everyone else around you. They may seem ahead, they may seem behind. Their path may look a little different than yours does. But find comfort in knowing that everyone has their own time zone. And just because the sun reaches yours a little bit later, doesn’t mean your sunrise is late.
Number three: be grateful for where we are. High school was hard, and if what the adults keep telling us is true, it only gets harder from here. When things are tough, it’s easy to wish that life would go perfectly, and you would always be in the right place at the right time. But we know that’s not possible. So, instead, be grateful that we are here. And right now, being here means being in this awesome auditorium, having grown up with some of the smartest — and dare I say coolest — kids in the country, with bright futures ahead of us rife with opportunity and happiness. Many others like us were just in the wrong place at the wrong time and don’t get to be here where we are. Take this opportunity with gracious hands and open hearts.
And that leads us to number four: wield the opportunity with graciousness, of course, but also with an intense determination. Just because we are exactly where we are supposed to be now, doesn’t mean you can’t change where you end up later. So take control of your future; own it. Make where you end up in the future be exactly right because of your ambition in the present. Not owning your future would be taking this opportunity for granted.
I’d like to thank you, Class of 2018, for facing this capricious, arbitrary world with me. It’s a scary place that needs a lot of work, but with people as strong, creative, talented, and passionate as you all are, I have a feeling that this world, with all of its rips and tears just waiting to be patched up, is exactly where we are supposed to be, together. So, Class of 2018, let’s do this thing.