A Hypothetical Commencement
I. Good evening parents, faculty and distinguished guests. And most importantly, good evening graduates. I’m honored to have been asked to speak here tonight.
The truth is, I’m extremely envious of each one of you tonight. I’m envious because each of you is about to start one of the most exciting periods of your life. The things you’ll see and do in the next five to seven years, through your mid-twenties — the experiences you’ll have — will form the basis for the rest of your life.
I hate to say that, because I don’t want it to sound as if I’m disregarding everything that’s happened in your life so far. I’m not. Life is a cumulative process. It’s a collection of the experiences you have, the stops and starts you make, the people you meet and the places life takes you. Your high school experience is an important part of that, one scene in the mosaic that is you.
That mosaic will take your lifetime to complete. It will be made up of a million tiny fragments of experience gathered together in the course of your life, often without you even knowing it until they’re already in place.
Some of the pieces will have round, smooth edges that you’ve carefully crafted and planned. Others will be a little misshapen, slightly off-kilter from being grabbed and hurriedly slapped into place. And still others will have sharp, jagged edges where they’ve been recycled from the remnants of the dreams and expectations in all of our lives that sometimes shatter without warning.
II. I’m not going to bore you with a lot of personal stories tonight. But I am going to tell one, mostly because that just feels like what you’re supposed to do at something like this.
When I was first starting out as a reporter, I used to love to cover trials at the courthouse. Each one was like a little movie, with its own cast of characters and a guaranteed cliff-hanger at the end as everyone waited for the verdict to come back.
I remember one in particular: a rape trial. At the end of the trial, after the prosecutors had summed up for the jury what they believed the evidence proved, the attorney for the defendant got up and made a great speech. He summarized all the evidence the jury had heard over several days. The state was required to prove his client’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, he told them. Reasonable doubt is one of the most famous concepts in the American legal system. It’s an ominous barrier to be faced with. And he told them, if, after all this evidence, you think someone other than my client may have committed this crime, you must find my client not guilty.
Then the prosecutor got up and gave his rebuttal. It was quick — very quick — just two or three minutes. But I’ll never forget what he said.
He talked about reasonable doubt. The law didn’t require the state to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond all doubt, he said. Just a reasonable doubt. And what is a reasonable doubt? The law in Maryland defined it at that time as being proven to such an extent that a juror would be willing to act on that information in their own personal or business affairs. It wasn’t some distant, abstract legal concept, he said. It’s the type of thing that each of us does all the time.
Each of you, over the next few years and on for the rest of your life, will have to make decisions based on your own reasonable doubt. That doubt, and the skills you need to exercise it, have been and will be accumulated through the course of your life’s experience.
You may have made some of these decisions already: Should I buy this car? Should I go to that school? Should I take that job?
Others will come along soon enough: Should I move to this city? Should I buy this house? Should I marry this person?
These are the types of decisions each of you will have to make as you enter into adulthood. The wisdom necessary to make these decisions, to acquire the proper level of reasonable doubt, is a process that has already begun inside of you. And it’s a process that will go on for the rest of your life.
III. Many of you have spent at least the past two or three years planning out the course you want your life to take. You’ve applied to good schools, you’ve written essays and done community service projects to show how well-rounded you are. You’ve done vocational programs and apprenticeships and learned a trade. And all of that is good. It’s good to have an idea of what direction you want your life to take.
But remember this: the thing about all those plans you’ve made for your life is that they’re probably not going to work out. At least not the way you think they’re going to. That’s not to say that they won’t happen. But even when you wind up where you thought you’d be, the road you took to get there almost certainly won’t be the one you mapped out in your mind.
“The best laid plans of mice and men so often go awry.” — Robert Burns, “To a Mouse” 1785
A farmer is plowing a field on a cold, blustery winter day when his plow runs over a nest that a mouse has built in the field. The thing that often gets lost when Burns’ poem is reduced to a one-line cliché is that it’s the mouse’s plans, not the man’s, which went so suddenly and dramatically awry. Her nest in a field was upturned by the farmer’s plow — her world turned literally upside down — and she had to make substantial changes without any preparation. She’d planned carefully and done everything she was supposed to do, but, through no fault of her own, her plans changed in an instant. What she’d thought was a safe and comfortable arrangement was suddenly taken from her, and she had to adapt accordingly.
And so your plans will change. You’ll be seeing a lot of change in the next few years. You’ll move out, hopefully — for your sanity as well as your parents’. You may move away: perhaps an hour down the road, perhaps across the country or around the world. Your friends will change. Your situation in life will change. Your interests will change.
If you don’t believe me, do a little experiment for me. Go home tonight and find all your favorite songs. The songs that you crank up in the car when you’re driving with the windows down on a warm day. The songs that you sing with your friends at the top of your lungs, until you come to a red light and suddenly realize everyone’s looking at you.
Download them, get them together, then burn them onto a CD and put it on a shelf for three years. Then take it out and listen to it. Most of the songs, you’ll still enjoy. But there will be three or four that you’d forgotten ever existed. And there will be another three or four that you’ll hate with a passion. Your tastes and your sensibilities will have changed.
Change is often looked at as a negative. “He’s changed.” “She just seems different.”
Change is a necessary part of becoming a functional adult. Please, please, please, don’t be the same person five years from now that you are tonight.
If I have one request for you tonight, it’s to allow yourself and your life the flexibility to go off-course once in a while. Embrace change. Embrace uncertainty. Embrace things not working out the way you’d planned. Embrace failure.
IV. There’s that F word: failure. Failure isn’t fun. It’s not easy. But it’s going to happen. As sure as you’re sitting here tonight, sometimes you are going to fail. And that sounds like a downer for a joyous, happy event like this, but it’s true. You’re going to fail.
And that’s okay. It’s part of the process. Ask your parents. If you don’t trust them, ask your friends’ parents. Ask your principal or your teachers. Ask them, “What did you fail at?” And they’ll tell you, if they’re being completely honest, that it’s not a question of if you fail, but how often.
But hopefully they’ll also tell you that the important thing isn’t whether you fail. It’s how you react to the failure. It’s how you deal with adversity. There’s a huge difference between failure and defeat. Failure is inevitable. But that’s not an excuse to fail. It’s not an excuse to give up, it’s not an excuse for nihilism, and it’s not an excuse not to plan.
Failures are like the bad jobs that we all had in high school. You guys know what I’m talking about. Some of you probably had to take off from one of those jobs so you could come here tonight. But the best thing about having a bad high school job is that you won’t always have it. And you need those bad jobs so that someday, when you have a real job, you can laugh instead of cry when you tell your horror stories about the creepy managers and the ugly uniforms and the annoying customers.
You’ll fail despite the best efforts and intentions of you and everyone around you. Your parents, your teachers, your pastor, your Boy or Girl scout leaders. Each of you has a hundred different people — probably more — who’ve invested their time, effort and worry into making your life a success.
You’ll carry the weight of those investments and expectations with you as you move away from this place tonight and begin the next phase of the rest of your life. That web of support and concern will follow you: usually somewhere safely in the background, sometimes a lot closer than you might like. But always with only the best of intentions in mind.
They’ve invested a lot, and they’ve invested carefully. Tonight is one of the times when they get their dividend checks, a return on their investment. Make sure you take time tonight to recognize and thank your shareholders.
V. And to all of you — the parents, teachers, Little League coaches and SAT tutors — who sit here tonight awaiting a return on your investment: try to relax. Anyone who has investments knows that wise investors buy in for the long haul. They don’t call their broker every day asking why this stock or that one went down a quarter of a point. They moderate the highs and the lows because they know that anything worth investing in is worth the investment for the bad times as well as the good.
It’s a scary world that these graduates are going out into. But it was a scary world when you and I graduated, and when our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents graduated. What constitutes success isn’t a lack of danger or adversity or complication, but overcoming it. So be there for them when they need you, just like you have been so far. They’re going to make mistakes, they’re going to drop the ball and stumble around. They’re probably going to do some things you’re not particularly proud of. They’re going to do some things they’re not particularly proud of.
Don’t be afraid to make your opinion known when you think they’re heading down the wrong path. You’ve earned that right a thousand times over. But also try to think back to when you were 18, or 20, or 22…or 40. My guess is that the most valuable lessons you learned usually weren’t the ones that came from somebody else, but the ones you learned for yourself. So be there to give them a hug when they pick themselves up. And try to remember that when you were 18, no one could tell you anything either.
That growth, that process of figuring things out for yourself, is what it means to be an adult.
The process of change and failure and the regrouping that comes with them is how you gain the wisdom of reasonable doubt to make decisions.
VI. And so, that’s my wish for all of you tonight: to move steadily into the life ahead of you, taking in the ups and downs and using them to gain the wisdom you need to continue even further on the road ahead.