This is the commencement address I gave on May 27 at Delphian School in Oregon. Delphian is a very unusual school, with a program that fully embraces performance-based learning. Students work at their own pace; teachers are mentors and tutors, and do not hold traditional classes. They have been getting a flood of visitors recently as other schools try to shift to models of more student-centered learning.
I don’t think that this commencement address is specific in any way to this one group of graduates; hopefully these are the big, hairy issues that all schools are thinking about. (Disclosure: Delphian School also had an early affiliation with the progressive educational philosophy of L. Ron Hubbard, who is known as the controversial founder of Scientology, to which I certainly do not subscribe. As far as I can determine, their educational program does not connect with the more religious-leaning teachings of Hubbard.)
Rising generations have always been faced with decisions that will profoundly impact the world they inherit, but your generation is faced with a completely unique challenge. Yours is the first in the history of humanity to encounter a world that changes faster than our ability to adapt to those changes. Neither individuals nor institutions can possibly learn as fast as the world around us now changes. We don’t yet know how to live effectively in this world, yet the challenge will neither go away nor decelerate. I’m an old geologist, so it is with some degree of fearful appreciation that we now see rates of both environmental and social evolution more rapid than any other in the roughly four and a half billion years of earth’s history.
So, what are we, and more specifically, you going to do about it?
I suggest that there are a handful of human and intellectual abilities that will dictate the success or failure of your generation, and perhaps many future generations. None of them have to do with solving the quadratic formula, correctly conjugating an irregular verb, quoting Shakespeare, or balancing a chemical equation. Hopefully, along with a wealth of knowledge, you have gained some affinity for these critical abilities during your time here at Delphian.
First is the ability and willingness to engage in civil discourse. Democracy is a foundational hope for human society, and the designers of the Great American Experiment assumed civil discourse as a way of solving problems. Our current generation of leaders, who your elders have elected, are in the process of destroying this profound foundation. Polarization of thought, and the inability to compromise, nurture fanaticism. The center may not hold. You must show us the way back.
Second is the ability and commitment to separate fact from fiction. To me, the most profound inflection point in the history of humanity was the rise of the rule of law, which requires that we collectively hold certain things to be true, not subject to the whim of those with the most power. Recent studies out of MIT prove that falsity travels six times faster on Twitter than does truth. It is profoundly dangerous that many Americans are willing to sacrifice the truth to their own selfish points of view. Dictators do this, and we are supposed to be better.
Third is respect for expertise. With the rise of social media, anyone who can gather an online following can sway public opinion. As many as 50% of Americans accept the opinions of self-proclaimed experts over those by people with a lifetime of expertise behind them. It sounds politically incorrect, but not all opinions have equal value. Give more weight to those who have earned it.
Fourth is empathy. In a flatter, closer, more interrelated world, if we cannot see through the eyes and experiences of those who look and live differently than we do, our version of society is doomed to the same dustbin of history as the monarchical, communist, and fascist experiments of the last thousand years.
Fifth is global stewardship. Humans are arguably the greatest plague, the most voracious cancer, the deadliest virus, in earth’s history. In some ways, global warming, species extinctions, and pervasive pollution are changing the global ecosystem faster and more dramatically than during the Cretaceous extinction event 65 million years ago. Chew on that; environmental change is happening as rapidly today as in the years after a huge meteor crashed into the earth with the impact of more than a billion Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs. Ignore this, as many of our last few generations have, and we are in really serious trouble.
Sounds like a real mess, right? How are you going to solve these big, hairy problems? I have no idea! That is where the fun of living comes in! You get to actually do something really important, not just for yourself, but for the world at large. Success is not guaranteed. As the Mythbusters say, “Failure is always an option”. This is the ultimate reality experience! Dive in!
The standard message of commencement speakers is that you will help solve big problems, create opportunities, and be a lot happier in your lives if you follow your passions. This is absolute truth. Life is just way too short and precious to be wasted in pursuit of fleeting rewards or stuff that doesn’t turn you on. But I want to add what I believe is an important corollary to merely following your passion.
It is this: Dive deeply. Find the points of resonance between the world and your soul. I use that word “resonance” more intentionally than I can describe. Like a string or membrane that will vibrate at just the right frequency, you, too, can resonate when you match yourself to places, people, and events in ways that are unique and powerful to you. When you find that resonance…embrace it; explore it; push its boundaries; find its joys. My daughter, who retired recently as one of the best volleyball players in the world, knows something about what she calls mastery. It is found, she says, at the intersection of ability and something much deeper within each of us. She says she can see an athlete who has remarkable physical talent, but who is missing that deeper connection which might make her a master. Master Yoda might say: “Resonance that deeper connection is”. I hope you find it at least a few times in your life.
There was a long weekend years ago when I found such a point of resonance. It was not far from here, across the deeply forested hills that lie just west of us here, along the rugged Pacific coast. I slowed down long enough to really understand that moment and place, and to write it down. Because we are perched on the edge of this forest and these hills, I want to share a part of what I wrote:
Back behind the thumping shore, creeks curve up through broad green bottomland dotted with butter cows and broad oaks; farther back up to sun-dappled streams, tourist cabins, and old wooden churches set by fresh glades and open pools; farther back yet to steep creeks, shadowed waterfalls, and tawny draws choked with blackberries, poison oak, and yellow-leafed alder; all the way back up to mist-covered slopes of hidden Tolkien forests, redwood sentinels and cathedrals standing watch over passing time.
This is the heart of haunted fairyland forest, still, lonely, dark, and quiet like an old well. Dangerous west coast potheads hide their secret farms in the red-litter forest floor and moss-cloaked redbark; fern trolls tread silent footpaths, and Sasquatch hides in gloomy caves, buried in steep defiles, awaiting three hour rations of filtered winter sun.
Clouds collect in occluded treetops, mist drips down through splayed green boughs, soaks into musky humus, seeps westward, swells the river, and flows to the North Coast shore.
I understood that place and that moment. It had nothing to do with career, paycheck, or fame. I found a node of resonance, and it brought me both understanding and joy. Your resonance may be in science or art, in hitting a ball or raising a child. It may be in solving a big problem for many people, or in helping just one other person to find their own moments of joy in a crowded, busy, often abrasive world. That is up to you to decide. As we used to say back in the hippie days of the ‘60’s “It’s your movie!” Make your movie as you wish, but for the sake of our collective futures, make a good one.
You would not have thrived at a school like Delphian (not that there really IS any other school like Delphian), if you were not tenacious, creative, and had the ability to structure your own path. Too many of our brightest, self-starting young people think that the path to happiness lies in creating the next meaningless phone app and selling it for millions of dollars. That kind of success is shallow and fleeting. Do you really want your epitaph to be “she wrote the code for a silly game upon which millions wasted their valuable time”? We need our best and brightest young people to take on the toughest challenges that will have real impact in a world short on solutions. Malala is the young Pakistani female activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize. We need more Malalas and fewer Angry Birds. We need more young people registering voters and far fewer designing the next best-selling slasher video game.
So, with the benefit of having become a Delphian, of participating in a community that values ethics, integrity, leadership, and knowledge, I urge you to find the right problems to solve, not the niggling annoyances of everyday life, but the big, hairy, challenges that beg for big, audacious solutions. You will succeed at overcoming some, and you will utterly fail at others. Relish both equally. If you know what resonates deeply with you, you will overcome the failures and find your way back. If you can find the resonant frequency of understanding and joy, and if you can make the world better for even a few others, even a few times, then you will have lived well.
Congratulations again graduates and families!