Attempt What Is Not Certain (A 1st-Timer Commencement Address)

speech photoI have helped plan seven graduation ceremonies at my high school.  This includes everything from renting 2,500 chairs for the audience (we graduate on the baseball field) to auditioning student speakers and performers.  For most of those seven years I have also read the names of the graduates alongside my fellow assistant principal – surely the most stressful task of all, as we want to make sure their special moment on stage isn’t marred by bad pronunciation.

Despite the stress of putting on the show (my next career: concert promoter), I always love our ceremonies.  Other than brief comments from a school faculty member (one year was a retiring counselor; another year a long-time teacher going to another school; other years the Principal), the ceremony is made up entirely of student speeches and performances.  This year I had the honor of being the faculty speaker, and I realize in retrospect that the 20 or so student speeches that we heard at auditions influenced my core message.  Many shared their deeper questions and doubts at moving into adulthood, and about the purpose of education – in fact, some of the better pieces did not make the cut because they were too brutally honest.  They were introspectively celebratory; they were vulnerable and humble.  

Written words add up fast when you speak them – 2,500 people sitting under a hot sun want to hear a message, not a lecture.  I’m known to be a rambler, so my 2.5 pages got down to one through about 10 drafts (refer to picture above).  444 words meant about three-and-a-half minutes – maybe four.  My wonderful team – Principal Liz Seabury and AP Chad Stuart – were my primary editors and coaches, along with a read-through for my English teacher Mom.

Kids always bring beach balls to toss around during the ceremony, which I’ve always enjoyed – yes, this is a serious ceremony, but I appreciate them introducing a little levity and mirth into what can’t help but feel like another class period (here we are again, sitting and listening to other people talk for 90 minutes).  I added in a quick mention of the beach balls during the speech – maybe the its best moment, taking in the unexpected and rolling with it (though I must be honest – I did expect it!).

It was also a goodbye speech of sorts, as I’ll be moving to a new school in the fall – leaving behind a very familiar and comfortable place for something new and uncertain.

Class of 2014, I have a confession to make: I love to paint landscapes (you know: easel, palette, brushes, French music playing in the background…).  I have thought a lot about WHY I love painting so much – why this “hidden talent” is always with me, even over the stretches of time when I’m not painting.  Bay Area artist Richard Diebenkorn said it well about the process of beginning a painting: “Attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later.  It may then be a valuable delusion.”  While life is full of the routine and inevitable, I think we are attracted to our hidden talents because they feel uncertain and don’t have a fixed outcome.  Through these pursuits we create fresh knowledge rather than merely consume it; the sensation is akin to lava pouring out of a volcano, or walking along pathways that get us lost in the woods.  They introduce us to the magic of being a beginner – seeing the world with fresh, nimble eyes, stepping lightly and freely.

We associate being “educated” with wisdom – something we work to acquire and earn over time.  So…when do we get there?  When can we consider ourselves – and be considered – wise?  Wisdom seems to bring about a guarantee of certainty, an antidote to chaos – in the face of difficulty, the wise person has an answer.  But what if the most profound wisdom is the simple confidence that we have more questions than answers in life?  While answers seek to assert control over a situation, well-thought questions reinforce a deeper truth: life is both a beautiful journey and an uncertain search.

I will offer you exactly one sliver of advice: seek out the people, ideas and pursuits that challenge your assumptions, expand the boundaries of your perception, and free you from the limits you unknowingly place on what is and isn’t possible.  They will be your best teachers and your most honest friends; they will remind you that uncertainty is the rule and certainty is, in the end, just a valuable delusion we tell ourselves from time to time.

Maya Angelou said it wisely: “Education helps one cease being intimidated by strange situations.”  Your education begins to matter when you encounter unique and unforeseen places, ideas, and people.  As you step away from this campus and the certainties of formal education, remember to embrace uncertainty as your friend, mentor, creative companion, and muse – the means by which you will make your greatest contributions.  Class of 2014: welcome the unpredictable, nurture the interests that make you feel the most alive, and forever cultivate the wisdom of the beginner.

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