I delivered the commencement address at my old school this past June, and it inspired me to cram a life of lessons into a few pages. For what it’s worth, here you go.
1. Let it in.
Your most troubling, scary thoughts and feelings—Let them in. It’s by running away from them that you give them power. You make a better adversary when you take them on. Fear, self-doubt, discomfort, social ills, the pain of others—try not to turn away. Often it’s by letting the pain in that we can let it go. I’m not recommending that you be unflinching. Flinch all you want, but try not to turn away.
2. Choose truth over harmony.
I say this as someone who loves harmony.
3. Invite people to things.
Little things. Big things. Invite a single person. Invite a group. A one-off thing. A weekly gathering. That’s how you build a community. It might seem hard, but in fact, it’s deceptively easy. Like brushing your teeth with your wrong hand, it feels weird the first time, and then you get used to it. The simple act of invitation is a formidable power. Sometimes people will say no. It doesn’t matter. You can’t help that. What you will be shocked by is how many people will say yes.
4. Stake your identity to your principles and goals, but not your opinions.
Let your opinions be fluid and open to change. In fact, make an effort to keep upgrading them.
5. Most things, even painful things, can be funny if you let them.
6. Self-justification is a poor use of your time and brainpower.
Defending and rationalizing your past actions traps you in your mistakes, distances you from others, and fixes nothing. It also makes for bad storytelling.
7. Bravery pays life’s greatest rewards.
8. If you can distinguish between ‘my problem,’ ‘your problem,’ and ‘our problem,’ many of life’s troubles are simplified.
9. Resist the urge to compare your insides to other people’s outsides.
I say this strenuously to you, graduates, as you are the first generation growing up in the strange theater of social media. The distance between the tenderness and complexity of your inside and the shiny curation with which people present their outsides can be vast. Try to keep track of the difference.
10. Don’t buy new clothes in desperation.
11. My son once said of a man he admires:
“He’s a person who doesn’t get in his own way.” That rang in my head. As someone who routinely gets in her own way, it got me thinking: we all experience anxiety and agitation, especially people whose engines tend to idle high. Strive to point your energy toward your goals rather than at yourself.
12. Acknowledge and own your power.
However big or small you feel that it is. Most of us feel like underdogs much of the time, yet most of us have more power than we think—even if it is only power over ourselves. Don’t wait around for other people to give it to you. (If they do, it’s probably not the kind you want.)
13. Try to respond rather than react.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” That’s a famous quote, attributed to Viktor Frankl.
14. Always remember that for better and worse, we are story-telling machines.
We as individuals and we as a species. Human beings think in stories, in narratives. We can’t help it. I don’t just say that because I’m a fiction writer—we are all fiction writers. We liberally apply causality, morality, and plot where there is luck, chaos, and coincidence. Our story-telling brains are the source of art, culture, economies, social cohesion, and, according to the writer Yuval Noah Harari, the very success of homo sapiens on this earth. They are also the source of our distortions, our many biases, our tribalism, our prejudice, our divisions. Tell your stories; Don’t always trust your stories. Know what we are.
15. Try not to rush past confusion and uncertainty.
Try to learn to live in that space and even embrace it. If you can quell your fear of discomfort, it gives you enormous freedom. I have a friend, a Sidwell friend in fact, who has a penchant for discomfort, and I’ve always admired it. He once told me he welcomes social awkwardness, including long conversational pauses.
16. Consider the long view.
(This one is for your parents too.) My three brothers and I all graduated from Sidwell Friends. As proud as I am to have gone to this school, as much as I loved it, I did not graduate in a blaze of glory. I think it’s fair to say, none of us four siblings did. We did not distinguish ourselves in any ways. Or, I should say, in any good ways. My brother Beau’s Dadaist senior project was so preposterous the faculty had to toughen up the rules going forward of what could be considered acceptable. I earned more after-school detentions than there were days of school. Justin didn’t get into any colleges and Ben forced the creation of a new tier of disciplinary action. Beau dropped out of college after one year to play music and work as a bike messenger in San Francisco. Justin went out west to NOLS. After that, he waited tables at Geppetto’s, sold pets at the Animal Hut and bonsai trees from a little stand at the White Flint Mall. Ben also dropped out of school and hit the road. You’d think my parents would have been panicking, but they weren’t. My mom used to say, “All those kids earning straight A’s are not learning the lessons of life.” I don’t actually think this was true, but she said it out of love. She never once told me to do my homework. In fact, she often told me not to do my homework because she’d thought of other, more fun things to do. My dad never seemed to care about the status-y stuff a lot of other parents cared about. As my brother Ben said to me recently, “I remember Dad visiting me in the craziest places. I’d be working as a busboy at a Chili’s in Wisconsin, going to a community college. The further my life spun from the norms of Sidwell, the harder I was working, the worse the job I had, the grosser the couch I offered him to sleep on, the prouder Dad seemed to be of me.” My parents cared about living an interesting and authentic life. They cared about working hard and not feeling like they were entitled to anything. So, for all the times we stumbled, as wayward as we were, when we discovered the things we wanted to commit to, we did them with gusto. Beau found his way back to college and eventually to law school. He built a big and admired practice in New York. Justin did find a college to take him to. And then a graduate school. He went on to publish papers in Science and in Nature among many other scientific journals which helped him become a tenured professor and create an amazing lab at the University of California at Berkeley. Ben too managed to graduate from college and become a journalist and a writer. He published his second book with Little Brown a couple of weeks ago. I became a writer too. The point of all this is to say, take a long view of your life. There is no right track. There is no track. I am grateful to my parents for affording us time and love and support to figure ourselves out. I urge you parents to give your kids those gifts. I urge you graduates, be patient with yourselves. You will find your way.
17. A predictable life speeds by unnoticed.
In the storage of digital information, data can be compressed to the extent that it is predictable. But the changes must be stored. This is true in life as well. Routines, sameness, habits are compressed in your mind and barely register in your memory. But new experiences, new people, new places, new foods, new smells, new ideas! They defy compression. If you want to slow your life down and remember it, keep on changing it. And relatedly: things that go wrong make the best and funniest stories.
18. Here is a quote I love from Maya Angelou:
“At the end of the day, people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.”
19. I’m borrowing this last one…
from a 1984 commencement speech at Sidwell given by Steven Muller when my brother Beau graduated. I’ve thought of it hundreds of times since. So, to finish, “When in doubt, do the right thing.”