LUMES Commencement Speech
4 June 2013
Now think about what you THOUGHT you’d be doing in ten years’ time.
How does it match up with where you actually are today? How many people are where they thought they’d be ten years ago? Most of us feel like, yeah, we’ve changed a lot in the last ten years, but NOW we’ve got it all figured out (or we should have, and everyone around us seems to have figured it out), and it’s going to be clear sailing from here.
I can tell you that’s not how it works, and it's not how it’s supposed to work. So I would expect to keep changing, and don’t fight it or try to control it.
For me ten years ago, I was sitting where you now sit, listening to some boring speaker standing between me and my master’s diploma and champagne and pictures with my family and friends. Everyone is different, and I’m not sure what you all would most benefit from hearing today, but I’ve been thinking about what I’ve learned in the last ten years that I wish I’d known then. Probably it won’t make any sense out of context and without personal experience, but I’ve tried anyway to assemble some advice I wish I had taken to heart earlier, so in a way this talk is directed to a younger version of myself.
First. Stop worrying about the future. I mean, don’t stop worrying about the future of all the people with whom we share this planet, and all the special places we call home. Please keep worrying about them. We desperately need your passion and creativity to take better care of them. But please stop worrying about your own future.
I can promise you two things. Your future will not turn out anything like you envision now. And it will be OK. That’s actually kind of the point. How boring would it be if you could perfectly predict your whole life from here? It would mean that you weren’t going to learn anything, or grow, or change in any way for the rest of your life. Howard Thurman said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” I think that’s a good guide.
Second. Don't be too anxious to get all the questions answered. Try to embrace the uncertainty of your life right now, the low paychecks and the couchsurfing. Realize that there is tremendous freedom and excitement and adventure and opportunities that come along with them. Don't be too anxious to own a couch. I promise, you have your whole life to own couches, and there’s really nothing that great about them. In fact, I still haven’t bought a couch!
At this point, you’re supposed to be trying things that totally don’t work out: moving to cities you end up hating, taking jobs in inefficient organizations with difficult bosses, being in relationships with people who are all wrong for you. These are essential experiences of your 20s. You are having them so you learn about what doesn’t work for you, so you can create what does.
I wish I had known that it’s normal to be bad at something for a really long time before you get decent at it, and it takes even longer to get really good. The worst part is when you know enough to know you’re bad, and it feels like you’ll never get good. The way to get good is not to quit.
But on that point: don’t be complacent with your personal or professional life. Learn to listen to your gut feeling. Ugh, feelings! They’re mushy and not logical and can’t be graphed or put in a matrix, and sometimes when you make lists of pros and cons, one side is way longer than the other, but you still don’t want to choose the side with the longer list. I felt this way when I was offered a job that looked fantastic on paper and seemed like the perfect fit. Everyone congratulated me and was shocked when I didn’t take it, especially when I couldn’t really explain it other than to say I had a feeling like a lead weight in my stomach when I imagined moving there. It turned out that was the right decision for me, and when I came to visit Lund and had a feeling of excitement and lightness when I thought about coming here, that meant it was the right decision for me.
Finally, I want to share some of the things I’ve come to appreciate lately. First, your health. Please, please do not take it for granted. It’s unbelievably miraculous that you can get up in the morning and take care of everything you need, that you can run around and feel the grass under your feet and the sunshine on your face. Please celebrate the fact that you can by doing something active every day. Celebrate the good food you have access to and the companionship it brings around the table. You can never have too much celebration of simple things.
If you have a dream that you really want to do, a mountain you want to climb or a reclusive bird you want to photograph or an insanely spicy dish you want to track down, find a way to do it now. You will eventually have more money in your life, but you will never have more time, and time is incredibly precious.
Even if you do absolutely everything right, which is to say, you follow my advice above, sometimes life is not fair, and bad things happen to good people. You never know when this will happen, to you or someone you love. So don’t let yourself have any regrets with the people you love. Tell them the important things. Spend time enjoying each other’s company.
Appreciate your crazy family for making you who you are and doing their best, and make your peace with your parents, who, let’s face it, did a lot for you, and knowing you, you gave them a pretty hard time. They won’t be around forever, and neither will you.
Cultivate your true friends. A palliative nurse named Bronnie Ware, someone who takes care of people who are dying, reported that one of the top regrets of people on their deathbeds is not staying in touch with friends. Life can get so busy and it’s easy to lose touch.
But I hope that something you will take from LUMES is the friendships you’ve made here. At the alumni reunion a few years ago, I was struck that everyone who spoke about LUMES spoke about their memories with each other, and about adventures they’d had together after graduating. The fire and energy and good heartedness of this group is one of the greatest gifts we can give you.
Please take care of each other, keep in touch with each other, and keep in touch with us. We can’t wait to see what the next ten years bring for you.