Welcome to the the Office of the President
Governor's School for Science and Mathematics Commencement
June 2, 2007
Standing before you now, I am having something of a déjà vu experience. It seems like I have been here before. To be honest, the 'been here, done that' feeling is not just a figment of my imagination. In truth, I have been here before. A few years ago, I had the privilege of delivering a Commencement address at the Governor's School. So, I have to confess that when Dr. Brockman called me a few weeks ago to ask if I would do it again, I thought that he was just kidding. Then I remembered what the students know all too well: Dr. Brockman is not really a kidder. He's a very nice guy, but let's just put it this way, he would be unlikely to make much of a living as a stand-up comedian. So, I started thinking to myself: 'Wow, he's serious - they want me back already. That must mean that I was a big hit last time.'
Now, just as I started basking in the glory of my oratorical brilliance, it began to dawn on me that I hadn't gotten a lot of fan mail after my previous talk. I do recall, however, that nobody actually walked out in protest during the talk. At the same time, one must take into account, that a Governor's School crowd is, by definition, a pretty polite group of folks. So, the fact that my previous talk did not produce a mass exodus is not the most compelling evidence that it was well received.
I have to confess that the more I thought about it, the more depressed I got. Maybe the invitation was sort of a sympathy gesture. Maybe Dr. Brockman was giving me a second chance out of a sense of compassion, or charity, or pity. Maybe all of the talks that I had given over the years, even the two or three that I thought were pretty good, were really losers in need of a 'do over,' but people were just too polite to mention it.
In the depths of my self-pity, it hit me like a bolt of lightening: Dr. Brockman's invitation was coming at the eleventh hour. The man was desperately seeking a speaker – any speaker. He was at his wit's end and this was a golden opportunity for me to save the day. And so, just like that, my self-image went from goat to hero. It was like watching Spiderman III without all of the special effects. I was going to be the Peter Parker of Commencement speakers and I didn't even have to wear a geeky suit. Well, actually I am wearing a geeky suit, but so are all of the graduates, so I don't feel so self-conscious about it.
Now, just for the record, being a Superhero graduation speaker can put a lot of pressure on you. Don't get me wrong, it's not that I'm complaining, but saving lives with a talk is not as easy as it looks. Superheroes with other gigs, like catching a speeding bullet or leaping a tall building in a single bound, really have it much easier than speaking at a graduation.
So, what I can I say in the next few minutes that will truly inspire you - that will motivate you to realize your full potential and to live a purpose-driven life? You know, the truth of the matter is that, as a university president, I have been forced to sit through more Commencement speeches than any human being should ever be forced to endure. Only one or two of them made much of an impression on me. It would take a lot of pressure off of the proceedings today, therefore, if we all just acknowledged that a few years from now, you are unlikely to remember who delivered this message, much less what he said.
So, in the spirit of the transient nature of commencement talks, let me share a few thoughts with you that, like the screen-saver on your computer, are intended to just keep things interesting until you get back to the real work. First, one hopes that each one of you knows how fortunate you are. You are here today, at least in part, because of the precious gift of natural talent. Whether you believe that this talent is a consequence of genetic variation, or is a blessing of divine origin, or both, it is nevertheless a precious gift.
As with any gift, there is a difficult balance between appreciating it too much and taking it for granted. I have had the good fortune to be surrounded by very bright people for most of my professional career. Good fortune is an apt description because, on the whole, being in the company of smart people tends to stretch one's own thinking and, more often than not, encourages a sense of humility. My guess is that your time at the Governor's School already has exposed you to the thrill of pushing the limits of your own abilities, as well as to the fear that arises when you sense that you are rapidly approaching your limits. In all likelihood, both the thrill and the fear of limit-pushing will get even more intense for you in the years ahead.
It may, in fact, be some time before you encounter anything approaching your true intellectual limits. But, it is guaranteed to happen – no matter how smart you are. It will play out something like this: you will be sailing along at the top of your class, performing almost effortlessly, receiving accolades for what seems to you like just showing up. Then, suddenly, one day you will discover two things. First, there are people around you who are smarter than you are and there are lots of them. Second, no matter how hard you study, you simply cannot learn all of the assigned material. For me, this experience occurred in the first year of medical school, and without question, it was a rude awakening.
From my perspective today, over 30 years later, it is fairly obvious that this was a valuable learning experience. At the time, however, it seemed like I was in one of those movies that they force you to watch when you're getting your driver's permit. Do they still make you watch those movies with all of the bloody accidents that are supposed to frighten you so much that you will never drive faster than 35 miles per hour? At any rate, it felt like my life was definitely headed for a driver's ed. movie Academy Award. Up to that point, I had never questioned whether I could go further - whether I could keep up with the others around me. Suddenly, I was filled with self-doubt. I wondered whether I even belonged in medical school, or whether I should find a career more suited to my talents, like say, selling swampland in Florida.
Well, you've seen the end of this movie already. Had I dropped out of med school, it would have been tough to have ended up as the President of the Medical University (unless, of course, they were really desperate for presidents). The moral of this story, at least one of them, is that it is possible to succeed even if you are not the smartest person around. In fact, one of the most valuable lessons that you can learn in life is that you do have limits. We are all familiar with the Serenity Prayer: 'God grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.' This prayer, composed by the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, resonates in the public consciousness as the creed of Alcoholics Anonymous. It would also be a pretty fitting anthem for Academics Anonymous.
Today, of all days, may seem like precisely the wrong time to be focusing on limits. In a real sense, we are here to celebrate the fact that you have passed the test, or more precisely, lots of tests, and you are now preparing to move on to the next level. We have every reason to believe that you will be stars there as well. In fact, I am fully expecting to see many of you again in four years when you are ready to enroll at the Medical University. Between here and there, however, you will face a lot of hard work, many triumphs, and yes, a few defeats as well. I challenge you to embrace the work, to show gratitude and humility at the triumphs, and to learn from the defeats.
I know. This last part, the whole triumph/defeat duality thing, sounds corny enough to be in a Reader's Digest compendium of famous Zen teachings. You sort of expect advice like that to be delivered by someone with a shaved head, a vegetarian diet, and a lot of free time to meditate. Here in the hirsute, carnivorous, frenetic US of A, we are taught that we should celebrate the 'thrill of victory' and mourn the 'agony of defeat'. Is it possible that the Wide World of Sports has it all wrong – that we should be treating our victories with a little less chest-thumping and our defeats with a little more skin-slapping?
Now, I'm not suggesting that you try not to win. On the contrary, I hope that you prove yourselves repeatedly to be worthy of the highest expectations. When you get to the top of one peak, take a moment to reflect upon how you got there. Chances are, you didn't make the climb entirely on your own. That extra little push from behind – the one that seemed so irritating at the time but probably got you over the crest – no doubt came from a loved one, or a friend, or a teacher. Even as you plant the flag of your own success, you know that there is a whole host of people who made it all possible. So take a moment, right here, right now, on this personal peak of your success, and join me in thanking those who helped to get you there.
And while you are enjoying the view from way up there, you might have noticed that there is another, slightly taller peak just ahead. At the risk of sounding like a running shoe commercial: Just Do It. You can get there, even if it means taking some risk along the way. Sure, there's a chance that you will not have the strength to get to the top, but you'll never know unless you try. And if you find out that you lack the strength, maybe you'll discover a different approach that can still get you to the top. Maybe it takes more ingenuity than brawn to get there, but you'll only figure that out if you push on. It is the courage to persevere that should be celebrated rather than the fact of having gotten to the top. And then, at some point during your mountaineering career, you are likely to make a most surprising discovery - that the greatest satisfaction is not found in your own success, but rather in helping someone else get to the top.
By unofficial tabulation, I have just exceeded the Guinness Book of World Records previous best effort for number of consecutive clichés in a graduation speech. Anticipating the inevitable questions about the use of performance-enhancing substances, please be assured that I would be willing to provide any of the usual specimens.
You have to admit that it is not every Commencement speaker who offers to submit to a drug screen during their address. If you take away nothing else from this talk, I hope that you will remember that the speaker was reputedly drug-free. My further hope is that each of you will pursue your own entries into the Guinness Book of World Records, and that all of your performances will be un-enhanced, but full of substance. Best wishes to all of you.