I was looking for something else deep in the guts of my hard drive, and I ran across this. I wrote it almost eight years ago, but it still feels right to me. So I’m posting it. To prove I’m still here, and writing.
St. Benedict High School
Class of 2000 Commencement
May 26, 2000
all rights reserved
Twenty-six years ago I sat where you are sitting right now. Somebody else — and I have absolutely no memory of that person — stood at this podium and gave the class of 1974 advice about how to go out into the world. I’m sure it was a very good speech, just as I’m very sure that you’re going to follow in my footsteps. Twenty six years from now you’ll have no idea who I was, or what I said. So I can be honest. I can give you the very best advice I have to offer, knowing that if you take it and it goes wrong, you won’t be knocking on my door in 2026 to tell me so. So here we go.
Right now everything and anything is possible. You won’t believe it, but it’s true. You’re thinking of the fact that you cut math or biology or got a D in English, that you didn’t do well on your SATs. Or maybe you’re thinking just the opposite, that high school was a breeze and it’s all blue skies ahead, but here’s the secret: right now, it doesn’t matter. All of you, whether you kept your nose to the grindstone or if you still don’t know where the library is, you’re all in the same boat. You’ve got a clean slate, which is both a blessing and a responsibility. If you want to be a neurosurgeon or a tree surgeon, if you want to be a marine biologist or the world’s greatest surfer, if you want to be mayor of the city of Chicago or own the best diner on Lincoln Avenue or become the senior senator from Arizona or ambassador to Japan, if you want to teach survival skills in the Amazon or at the South Pole, if you have always been curious about living in the desert or on the top of a mountain. Any of that is possible.
Michelangelo, who understood about voyages of discovery, put it best: The tragedy is not that your hopes are too high and you don’t realize them, it’s that they are too low and you do. Anything is possible, even if you got a perfect score on your SATs. You can pull out a map, close your eyes, and pick a destination. Go to nursing school in Missoula, Montana, or Glasgow, Scotland. Open a landscaping business or become a fishing guide in Kissimee Florida or Fairbanks, Alaska. Cut hair in New York city, in Rome, in Tasmania. Find a cure for cancer, build a better mouse trap, write the great American novel. Do any of those things, anywhere.
It doesn’t matter that you know nothing about fish or surgery or Indonesia. Because all that can be learned, in a university or out of one. Your youth is the first key, and I’m going to tell you about the second, the big secret. Here it is: talent is secondary to imagination and persistence. Talent is helpful, yes. But talent alone will get you no place interesting at all. Curiosity and persistence are what took me from this neighborhood to Europe and then to Princeton and beyond and ultimately to this podium. What will move you through a life worth living is faith in yourself and your goals.
Right now any one of you could go to a community college and begin on the long path to medical school, or becoming a master carpenter, or the west wing of the White House. You can start fresh, learn things you never considered, take unexpected turns in the path, take chances. You can do it now, but every year it will be a little harder. Not impossible, but harder.
It will be frightening. You’ll feel like an imposter to start with, but persistence will pay off, especially if you can keep in mind a piece of Eleanor Roosevelt’s wisdom that has been with me every day of my life: no one can make you feel inferior without your consent. You may feel as if your path is set for you and there’s no opportunity for diversions along the way, but you’re wrong about that. Take the time to explore the world outside and the one inside you.
Now many of you can’t imagine being anywhere but right here. In this community that raised you and with the family you love. In twenty five years I hope and expect many of you will be sitting out there watching your children graduate from St. Ben’s. That’s good and right, but remember this: you can always come home again. Which leads me to the catch. You knew there was one coming. Remember that with youth and opportunity come responsibilities, to yourself, your family and community and the fragile world you live in. Gandhi listed for us Seven Deadly Sins to be avoided. If I live to be a hundred I will never write anything as elegant or true, so I will just pass on his words to you as a graduation gift.
Avoid wealth without work; pleasure without conscience; knowledge without character; commerce without ethics; science without humanity; religion without sacrifice; politics without principle.
Onward and upward