Here is my Graduation Speech for the Class of 2016.
Class of 2016, it is my honour and, quite frankly, a relief, to be able to address you today, on this, your pre-graduation. I must say that I was told that my first draft of this speech was too dark, so trust me, this is the lighter version.
So here we are… graduation… life’s great forward-looking ceremony. From this day forward… truly… in sickness and in health, through financial hardships, through midlife crises and affairs to remember (and affairs to forget), through diminishing tolerance for annoyingness, in fact, diminishing tolerance in general, through every difference, irreconcilable and otherwise, you will stay forever graduated from high school, you and your diploma as one, ‘til death do you part.
Graduation is life’s great ceremonial beginning, with its own appropriate symbolism. It is fitting for this auspicious rite of passage, that we find ourselves in the theatre. And here you all are, soon to be on the same stage, quite literally, and at the same stage in life. That matters. That’s important. And your ceremonial costume… shapeless, uniform, one-size-fits-all. Male or female, Asian or Western, tall or short, sportsperson or gamer, highly academic or, mm, not so much, each of you is dressed, you’ll notice, exactly the same. And your diploma… but for your name, exactly the same.
All of this is as it should be, because none of you is special. None of you is exceptional.
Certainly, we’ve been to your games, your plays, your recitals, your Exhibitions. Smiles greet you when you walk into a room, and hundreds gasp with delight at your every tweet or Instagram update. Why, maybe you were even published in the Purple Duck! And now you’ve conquered high school… and, sure, here we all are, gathered together for you, the pride and joy of this fine community, the latest in a growing line of Graduating Classes to emerge from this impressive theatre…
But don’t get the idea you’re anything special. Because you’re not.
The empirical evidence is everywhere, and the numbers do not lie. In the US, where many of you aspire to go, no fewer than 3.2 million seniors are graduating about now from more than 38,000 high schools. That’s 38,000 valedictorians… In China this year, 9.42 million students will take the Gaokao, or University entrance examination… But why limit ourselves to high school? After all, you’re leaving it. So think about this: even if you’re one in a million, on a planet of 7.4 billion that means there are 7,400 people just like you. And consider for a moment the bigger picture: your planet, as you are aware if your teachers have done their job well, is not the centre of its solar system, your solar system is not the centre of its galaxy, your galaxy is not the centre of the universe. In fact, as any half-competent astrophysicist will tell you, the universe has no centre; therefore, you cannot be it. Neither can Donald Trump… which someone should probably tell him.
“But, hang on” I here you protest, “Walt Whitman tells me I’m my own version of perfection! Deepak Chopra tells me I’m a unique strand in the intricate web of life!” And I don’t disagree. So that makes 7.4 billion examples of perfection, 7.4 billion unique strands. You see, if everyone is special, then no one is. If everyone wins a prize, then the prize becomes meaningless. In our unspoken but not so subtle Darwinian competition with one another we have, in the West, and to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement.
As a consequence, we cheapen worthy endeavours. It’s an epidemic — how many times have you been one of the best? One of the best students in your class, one of the best athletes on the team, attending one of the best International Schools in Asia, applying to one of the best Universities in the world… I hope your education here leads you to stop and think about the words “one of the best.” We say “one of the best” so we can feel better about ourselves, so we can bask in a little easy distinction, however vague and unverifiable, and count ourselves among the elite, whoever they might be, and enjoy a perceived leg up on the perceived competition. But the phrase defies logic. By definition there can be only one best. You’re it or you’re not.
If you’ve learned anything in your years here I hope it’s that education should be for the exhilaration of learning, rather than for any tenuous advantage you feel it may bestow upon you. You’ve learned, too, I hope, as Sophocles assured us, that wisdom is the chief element of happiness. I hope you’ve learned enough to know how little you know… how little you know now… at this moment… for this is just the beginning. It’s where you go from here that matters. 30 is the new 20, and a Bachleor’s degree is the new High School Diploma – what guaranteed your parent’s generation good job will quite possibly guarantee you nothing. You’ll need a Masters Degree where my generation really didn’t. There are Harvard, Brown and LSE graduates making Lattés for a living in this global economy, going back home to live with mum and dad, because rent is astronomical and the dream job to which ‘specialness’ makes you feel entitled just isn’t there.
I’ll quote, if I may, from Michael Kimmel’s 2008 book, ‘Guyland’ where he investigates the culture of University attending youth. ‘I have encountered so many young people’ writes Kimmel, ‘whose parents have run interference for them, picked up after them and unjustifiably told them they were special, and who are now surprised ……that special doesn’t necessarily translate into preferential treatment in the outside world.’
OK, here’s where it gets lighter. Honestly, I don’t want you to be despondent in response to this dose of realism. As you graduate, then, and before you scatter to the winds, I urge you to do whatever you do for no reason other than you love it and believe in its importance. Don’t bother with work you don’t believe in any more than you would a spouse you’re not crazy about. Resist the easy comforts of complacency, the specious glitter of materialism, the narcotic paralysis of self-satisfaction. Be worthy of your advantages. And read… read all the time… read as a matter of principle, as a matter of self-respect. Develop and protect some moral fibre and demonstrate the character to apply it. Dream big. Work hard. Think for yourself. Love everything you love, everyone you love, with all your might. And do so with a sense of urgency.
The fulfilling life, the relevant life, is an achievement, not something that will fall into your lap because you’re a nice person or mummy and daddy ordered it for you. Your goal is to pursue happiness. That’s a verb – a doing word, I feel I should remind you. You need to get busy. Don’t wait for your passion to find you. Get up, get out, explore, find it for yourself, and grab hold tightly with both hands.
Like accolades ought to be, the fulfilled life is a consequence – a byproduct. It’s what happens, as John Lennon pointed out, when you’re busy making other plans. Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge and enjoy the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you. Go to Venice to be in Venice, not take a trophy selfie to post online. Be mindful and be present in all that you do: not just to reap the benefits yourself, but to spread to the other 7.4 billion and everyone who comes after. And then you will see that the wondrous and perhaps surprising contradiction of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. The greatest moments of life come only with the acceptance of the truth that you’re not special.
Because everyone is. So don’t misremember what I’ve said here for dramatic effect – all of you, each of you, is as special as everyone else. What I wanted to warn against was a sense of entitlement, that somehow your ‘specialness’ is enough. In fact, special is more something you do than something you are. It’s now that you get to make your mark, now that you get to make a difference, now that you get to do something special.
My sincere congratulations on getting this far Class of 2016. I trust that our co-Valedictorians will massage any wounded egos. I wish you love and happiness. For your own sakes, and for ours, please live extraordinary lives.
In the true spirit of Austin Kleon’s ‘Steal Like An Artist’, this was not all original work. I first came across a graduation talk last year from David McCullough Jr,. who gave this speech at Wellesley High School in the US in 2012. I’ve tweaked it and I hope made it more relevant to our community. His message remains a powerful one. So thank you, David.