Pomp and Circumstance Revisited

me at the podium

Friday night was extraordinary.  I had the incredible privilege of being the commencement speaker at my high school, almost 20 years to the day after receiving my diploma.  It was a truly awesome responsibility – awesome in every sense of the word.

The last time I delivered a commencement address was at my own high school graduation.  That was daunting enough, and back then I was speaking to people I’d known most of my life, about things we’d experienced together.  (If you want a blast from the past, or are just curious about how my 18yo self viewed the world, here’s what I said then).

But this time was different.  Now I was expected to be the “expert”.  The grown-up who was supposed to inspire and entertain a room full of 18 year-olds I’d never met, not to mention their families, at this momentous turning point in their lives.  No pressure.

I agonized for weeks over what I was going to say.  I’m not naturally funny.  I certainly don’t feel like an expert in much of anything.  And my life has hardly been a thing of legend from which inspiring stories flow.  I haven’t overcome terrible tragedy (fortunately!) or discovered the cure for a debilitating disease or set a world record.  All in all, my life has been pretty normal.  Yet, for 15 minutes, 84 teenagers would be looking to me for words of wisdom as they start the biggest transition yet of their young lives.  Yikes!

So I did what I usually do when faced with the unknown: research.  I researched how to structure good speeches.  I researched what makes great commencement speeches.  I even watched a bunch of commencement addresses that have gone viral.  Bad idea.  When I closed my laptop, I felt more inadequate than before.  There’s no way I could ever be as witty as comedian Stephen Colbert or as heart-wrenchingly poignant as George Saunders (of “be kind” fame), as brilliant as author David Foster Wallace or as inspiring as Randy Pausch (of The Last Lecture fame).

Then I remembered some advice I’d been given a couple years ago:  you gotta do you.   You can’t do anyone else.  And it dawned on me that, while I’m certainly not some super-witty or wise oracle, for these particular graduates, I am the “ghost of Christmas future.”  I once sat in their seats – literally.  My adult life began in the same place theirs is now beginning.  So I decided the best I could do was try to be useful.  To share something practical that might help them through their next 20 years.  I turned to friends and colleagues, asking everyone I met what they wish they’d been told at their high school graduation.   Then I called up a couple members of the graduating class, to find out what was on their and their friends’ minds.

After weeks of agonizing, with only a few days to go, I finally wrote a speech.  Then threw it out and started over.  And wrote another one.  And chucked a good portion of that.  And started again.  Each time frantically sending drafts to D for his feedback.  And then Friday night came and I was out of time.  I reluctantly hit print just 30 minutes before walking out the door.

The graduation itself was a beautiful, mind-bending time warp.  The faces and names were different, but everything else was exactly the same as it was 20 years ago.  The same brick chapel.  The same elegant, floor-length white gowns on the girls.  The same tuxes on the boys.  The same blood red bouquets and boutonnieres.  The ceremony had the exact same elements in the exact same order.  The student band played the exact same music.  The student choir sang the exact same tear-jerker as their predecessors had, Pray For Me.

And just like 20 years ago, it eventually was my turn to speak.  I walked up to that podium just as apprehensive as the first time, wondering whether anything I had to say would resonate with anyone but me.  And I took a deep breath.

Much to my surprise, after the ceremony, many of the graduates – boys and girls – hugged me and thanked me for my words, for being there.  Even more surprising, so did several of their parents, grandparents, and teachers.  I was, and still am, so touched.  I don’t know if by next week – hell, if today – anyone there will remember what I said.  But for that night, for that moment, it felt like we’d connected.

I am so grateful to my alma mater for giving me this privilege and for trusting me with this awesome responsibility.  Class of 2014 – your warmth touched my heart.  It truly was an honor to be part of your special night.   Thank you.  And congratulations!

Here is the text of the speech I gave Friday night.  What do you think?

“Thank you for that lovely introduction.  It’s a great honor and privilege to be here with you today. This is such an exciting day.  Completing an Episcopal education is no small task.  Trust me, I know.

In this age of Snapchat, twitter, and Instagram, we tend to look down at moments like this, directing our excitement to our screens, squeezing our joy into 140 characters or less, snapping a quick selfie to capture the moment. But moments of pure celebration like this one don’t come along that often in life.  And such moments are meant to be taken in.  To be really absorbed so they will linger in your memories, and not just your iPhones, for years to come.

So indulge me if you will, for just a moment, and look up.  Moms, dads, siblings, grandparents, teachers, look at this extraordinary class of 2014. Really look at them and see the incredible human beings they have become. Seniors – look up at each other.  Look up at all the people in this room who have loved you, supported you, pushed you, helped you, guided you to this point.

As we all look up together for this brief moment, think about all that has happened since you first walked into this chapel as freshmen. From the thrill of beating UHigh in football for the first time I think since I wore an Episcopal uniform to the boys’ soccer state championship to seeing the underclassmen pay you tribute by lining the path as you left your final assembly. From homecoming dances to becoming a Big Buddy to LAUNCH day. Think about how far you have come, all that you have accomplished, how much you’ve changed.

The last time I stood on this stage was 20 years ago. I was in a long white dress, like many of you, though yours are so much more stylish than mine! My family was here, sitting just where yours are. My classmates – people I’d grown up with, many of whom I’d known most of my life – were sitting in the same places you now sit.  I was overflowing with the same mixed-up jumble emotions I suspect many of you are feeling right now – Sadness that your high school years are over, that it is time to leave this familiar and supportive place. Excitement about going to college, about entering a new phase of your life, about taking that first real step to becoming a “grown-up”.  A feeling of being on top of the world, and that it doesn’t get better than this. Terror that it actually might not get better than this. Anxiety about what college will be like, and whether you’ll fit in and find your place. Hope that you’ll be able to maintain the friendships and relationships you’ve built here, even as you scatter across the country. Worry about finding your way without your parents and your lifelong friends by your side every day. Curiosity about what your future holds, and eagerness to get on with living out your life plans. Apprehension about what your future holds, about whether you’ll be able to handle it, about whether you’ll actually achieve your dreams. Dread that this speech I’m about to give is going to be long and boring and have nothing to do with your life.

I’d like to be able to stand here today and reassure you that “You’ve got nothing to worry about.  Life will turn out exactly like you plan it.”  But I can’t. No one can predict what your future will be.

If you’d asked me on that May day back in 1994 how my life was going to unfold, I’d have told you this. It’s embarrassing, but this is what I’d have said: I was going to go straight into politics after college. I was planning to be the first female President and the youngest President ever elected because, of course, I was going to run – and win – as soon as I turned 35 – the minimum age for being elected President. Oh, and I was also dead set on having all my children before I turned 30. Very simple, straightforward plans.  No problem, right?

Spoiler alert: the reality – none of what I’d planned when I was in your shoes came to pass.  None of it.

And you know what, that’s okay.  I’m okay. Even though nothing I planned came to pass, my life has actually been pretty amazing.  But just because my life’s turned out okay doesn’t mean it’s been smooth sailing.  It’s been Hard. Circuitous. Nothing like I expected. Filled with false starts, dead ends, and unplanned detours. Lots of doors slammed in my face. But that’s okay – those false starts and dead ends, those detours and closed doors, they opened windows to so many incredible experiences I would have missed out on otherwise.  Case in point, my profession, which I love – being a social entrepreneur – didn’t even exist the last time I stood on this stage.

Through it all, I’ve survived soul-crushing lows.  Like the recession almost forcing me to shut down City Hall Fellows, the nonprofit I built from scratch and worked around-the-clock for years to grow.  Like narrowly escaping death and becoming temporarily homeless after carbon monoxide leaked into my apartment building and killed my neighbors.  It was pure dumb luck that my husband and I weren’t home at the time.

But I’ve also enjoyed extraordinary, unbelievable highs – Highs like seeing the incredible impact City Hall Fellows has had on the 90-some-odd young people it’s trained, and the incredible impact those same young people have had on the cities they’ve served.  Highs like getting the privilege to walk through the White House gates every day last year and serve our country.

Most importantly, though, along the way I’ve learned so much –about the world, about life, about myself,about what really matters.

Tonight I’m going to share with you three of the things I’ve learned since I last stood on this stage.  These are three rules I live by that have helped me roll with the punches and kept me on course even when things seemed to be turning upside down.  All three are lessons you can apply immediately to your own lives, that can help you navigate your transition to college and beyond.   So here they are.

  1. Lesson Number 1: Don’t wait for someday

How many of you have said – or heard others say – things like…if I had a million dollars I would travel the world…..as soon as I get a girlfriend I will be truly happy…. when I turn 25 I’m going to run a marathon ….once I’m well-established in a career and totally financially secure, I’ll start that nonprofit I always dreamed of.   (Okay, that last one was mine.)

These are all examples of what I call “waiting for someday”.

There are a lot of things I don’t know, but one thing I do know is that if you wait for THE right time to try something new, life will pass you by.  Someday will never come.  I learned this the hard way.

In my case, I put off pursuing my dream of starting a national service corps for almost a decade, because I was waiting for THE right moment.  It never came. Years went by as I worked my way up in corporate America.  I was earning great money.  Yet, as time passed, I realized that every free waking moment, I was thinking about this service corps I wanted to build.  I dreamed about it every night.  So even though I was terrified that I might be derailing my life and everything I’d worked so hard to build, I made the choice not to wait for someday.

It was definitely not THE right time. When I started City Hall Fellows, I was on the verge of being put up for partner at my law firm, my husband had just joined a risky tech start-up, and we were trying to have a baby.  Still, I leapt. Three months after I left the law firm and its comforting, steady paycheck behind, I got pregnant with my first kid.  Less than a year later, the economy crashed, and took with it my dreams that I would be able to fully support my family anytime in the near future running City Hall Fellows.

You never know what life is going to throw at you, how it’s going to unfold.  But, since hindsight is 20/20, I can tell you that if I had to do it all over again today, even knowing what I know now, I’d still take the leap.  There’s no question.

While there is never a PERFECT time to take big risks, the awesome thing about the phase of life you’re entering is that it is one of the BETTER times to try something new. College is not a task to check off your to do list, it’s an experience to savor.  It’s a chance to reinvent yourself over and over until you find the person you want to be.  It’s a precious gift of time to explore new things with minimal consequences.  Never in your adult life will you have fewer responsibilities or more latitude to fail than in the next 5-10 years.  Never will you have more opportunities readily available or a bigger cushion if you fall flat on your face.  It’s truly awesome. Take advantage of it.

Don’t just stick with your major – take poetry for scientists or physics for philosophers.  Try out for that a cappella group.  If you’re a homebody or terrible at learning languages, study abroad.  Build that app you’ve been talking about.  Write that blog. Most importantly, give yourself permission NOT to be perfect.  Make mistakes. Learn from them.  Have good relationships and bad ones.  Learn from them.  Have lots of adventures where you can’t predict the ending. Learn from them too.

And always surround yourself with people like the ones sitting next to you tonight, who will give you a hug when you fall down, and give them lots of hugs when they need it, too.  Because when things get hard, it doesn’t mean you’re no good, it just means you leveled up.

Look, you don’t have to take my word for it.  For the last few weeks I’ve been asking everyone I know what one piece of advice they wish someone had told them when they were 18. I even put the question out on that website only old people like me use – Facebook.  And I got a lot of answers – from people who’d gone to Episcopal and people who hadn’t.  People who are 22 and 75 and every age in between.  Just about everyone said basically the same thing – have adventures, take risks, try new things, make mistakes, don’t let fear determine your future. In short, don’t wait for someday.

The great thing about your Episcopal education is that it has prepared you well for this.  I bet that not a single one of you has just gone to class every day and gone home.  You’ve all challenged yourselves in different ways.  You’ve all tried new things since you first stepped foot on this campus. After you walk out these doors, keep that spirit.

Scientists have proven that, physically, anxiety and excitement FEEL the same.  It’s true.  So take charge of any anxiety, and reframe it as excitement.  You really ARE embarking on a TRULY exciting adventure.

Lesson Number 2: Find your superpower and use it relentlessly to make the world a better place.

In this golden age of tv, it seems like every time you open up Netflix there is a new character with awesome superpowers.  But it’s not just fictional characters who have superpowers.

Whether you fancy yourself to be more like Dexter or Catniss Everdeen, more like Leslie Knope or Piper Chapman or Barney Stinson, more like Frank Underwood or Harry Potter or Spiderman or Princess Anna, each and every one of you has something that you are uniquely able to do.  Something that makes you you. THAT is your superpower.

Right about now you’re probably thinking I’ve lost my mind.  Superpower?  Really?  Stay with me here. Real-life superpowers aren’t like in tv or the movies.  None of us can control the weather or become invisible or fly like a speeding bullet – as much as we might daydream about it. But each and every person here has something inside themselves that they are uniquely able to do.

For example me – my superpower is dogged persistence.  When I set my mind to doing something, I just keep plugging away no matter what obstacles appear.   When I get discouraged, and believe me I often do, I pick myself back up by thinking about this ridiculous 5-foot-tall, Egyptian pharaoh weeble wobble doll my grandparents had in their house – don’t ask, I have no idea why they had it.  But that thing was amazing, no matter how hard you tried to knock it over, it just popped right back up. Picturing myself as that ridiculous weeble wobble doll helps me keep on going.

So what is your superpower? Are you super organized or great at math?  Can you sing like an angel or get anyone to open up and tell you their life story?  Are you a whiz with words, can you make people laugh, or do you always show up on time and bring your A game? If you’re not sure what your superpower is, ask.  Your friends and family certainly know what makes you you.  It’s what they admire about you.

Once you figure out your superpower, look for ways to use it as a force for good.  Find something you’re passionate about.  It might be healing the sick, exploring the universe, or rebuilding cars.  Maybe it’s playing soccer, helping those less fortunate, creating art that inspires, or even building a business. Then deploy your superpower in service of your passions to leave the world just a little bit better than you found it.

Because after all, what good is a superpower if you don’t use it to make a difference?

Right now some of you are probably thinking, awesome, I got this one.  I know I want to be a doctor, lawyer, teacher, or architect.  Others of you may be starting to really worry – about how you are ever going to figure out your superpower, much less figure out how to connect it with your passions or use it as a force for good.   And that’s okay.

Your salutatorian said earlier that she didn’t have it all figured out yet.  I’m going to let you in on a dirty little secret:  grown-ups don’t have it all figured out either.  I learned a long time ago to never make guarantees, but I can pretty much guarantee that there is not a single adult in this room who would stand up right now and say “oh yeah, I’ve got it all figured out.”  And that’s okay, the point isn’t to figure it out, it’s to keep trying.

Case in point, I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.  Maybe I will be President someday, who knows?  But what REALLY MATTERS to me is not being the President, it’s making the world a better place.  That really hit home for me when I re-read the speech I gave at my own high school graduation – trying to make the world a little bit better is what I’ve always been passionate about.  And for now at least, I’ve found an awesome way to use my superpower and follow my passion by becoming a social entrepreneur.

So if you don’t know what your superpower is, or what your purpose is, take it easy on yourself.  You don’t have to have all the answers right now. The point is not to have THE answer, it’s to keep trying until you’ve found what fits best for you. You do that, and you WILL make a difference.  You WILL find success.

Which brings me to….

  1. Lesson Number 3: The 20-year-rule

Alright, so you now know 1) you shouldn’t wait for someday and 2) you gotta find your superpower and use it for good.  But HOW do you actually do those things? How do you make the right choices along the way? Good news – I do have an answer to this one.  My answer: the 20-year rule.  If you remember only one thing from my speech tonight, this is it:

When faced with any decision, big or small, ask yourself “20 years from now, will I kick myself if I didn’t try it?”   That is, close your eyes and imagine 20 years from now… how important is this thing you’re agonizing over.  Will you regret having NOT done it?

If 20 years seems too overwhelming to you, if you can’t imagine being as ancient as I am – and don’t worry, at your age I couldn’t imagine it, either! – make it 10 years. The principle stays the same, though.  What will the older future you most regret NOT doing?  Your gut will show you the way.  And if an immediate answer doesn’t come to mind, sleep on it.  The unconscious mind is about 200,000 times more powerful than the conscious one.

I started invoking the 20 year rule in my own life to fight back against the power of fear.  As a teenager, I became haunted by a nagging fear in the back of my mind that every decision – no matter how small – was “the one” – the one that would determine the rest of my life.  For a while, this fear drove my choices.

For example, I worried in college that if I didn’t earn straight As in super-hard classes and do a million extracurriculars, I’d have wasted my time at college and wouldn’t be successful.  So I skipped over intriguing classes outside my major and instead packed my freshman courseload with upper-level political science classes.  I gave up countless opportunities to have unplanned adventures with my housemates, because I scheduled every possible waking moment with student clubs, ultimate Frisbee practices, and work.

I was scared to break up with my college boyfriend, because what if HE was who I was supposed to be with forever?  So I stayed in that relationship long after it should have ended, until he finally had the good sense to dump me. Basically I was making choices based on the terror that every decision in front of me – no matter how small – could be earth-shattering, world-ending if I chose wrong. Let me tell you – living in fear is no way to live.  It’s certainly no way to make decisions. But the 20 year rule is.  Let me show you how it works.

You can use it for small decisions.  For example, in law school I used the 20 year rule to decide whether to stay in and study or go out with classmates.  If studying meant the difference between failing a class or not, the answer was clear.  Failing a class is definitely something I’d remember and regret.  But if that night of studying was just another night of studying, the answer was also clear.  I knew I’d never remember what I’d learned from just another night with my nose in the books, but I’d definitely regret missing out on the chance to have new experiences and forge friendships with interesting people. Because at the end of the day, the people you meet along the way are just as important, often far more important, than the lessons in books.

The 20 year rule also works on big decisions. It’s what gave me the courage seven years ago to jump “off track” and do something pretty much everyone I knew thought was insane.  To walk away from earning hundreds of thousands of dollars a year as a trial lawyer to start City Hall Fellows, even though I had none of the things most people said I should have – no funding, no contacts in city governments, no experience running a nonprofit, basically no clue what I was getting myself into.

A really cool thing about the 20 year rule is that it forces you out of the grip of immediate fear.  It gives you perspective. Yes, on some level, every choice you make WILL affect the rest of your life.  But let’s be real, not every choice you make will affect the rest of your life EQUALLY. And the reality is that, after you make a decision, most of the time you STILL can’t control what happens. So the trick is to only spend time agonizing about the few things that truly matter and let all the other ones go. Putting yourself in the shoes of future you makes that a whole lot easier. Analysis paralysis tends to go away when you stop worrying about what you “SHOULD” do, and instead consider what you’ll most regret NOT trying.

So what’s the big takeaway here?  While I can’t promise that life after Episcopal will turn out how you plan, I can say with 100% certainty that IF you don’t wait for someday, IF you find your superpower and use it as a force for good as often as you can, and IF you make decisions based on the 20 year rule yours WILL BE a life well-lived. And, really, who can ask for more?

And for tonight, for tonight you don’t have to worry about any of these things.  All you have to do is look up. Treasure this moment. Revel in your accomplishment. Take in your friends and parents’ joy. Delight in being surrounded by the love and warmth of the Episcopal community for one last time. You earned it.”

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14 thoughts on “Pomp and Circumstance Revisited

  1. You might have “dogged persistence” but it looks like you are also a “whiz with words.”

    Believe it or not, Bethany, we are almost polar opposites in many ways. The sarcastic accent is on the “believe it or not” part. Your struggle to make yourself put the books down in order to experience people and things was the exact opposite for me. Here, you captured how both are important but you managed to go beyond (transcend is probably the better word but it sounds too … pedantic:) that by exposing the truth of what life – what living life – up to this point has been about.

    As our friend Josh Billings might have said in his more eloquent years, “That was a ‘beaut’!” Well done, Bethany. Thanks for sharing.

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  2. So proud of you, Bethany! Very wise words and I thoroughly enjoyed your speech and seeing you. Good luck on your future endeavors. (Of course, your foundation began with your third grade teacher. 🙂

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    • Thank you! It was wonderful seeing you again, and my third grade teacher definitely gave me an excellent foundation! I remember your classroom quite clearly.

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  3. Way to go Bethany !!!!! Those kids certainly got a wealth of knowledge from what you said. If not they will learn on their own as they develop and grow as years pass. They think that speech I heard at high school graduation I should have listen to more .

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  4. i’m gonna take some credit here, for the leap. HAHAHA
    though i’m sure i was one of many you sought advice from, i still remember that phone conversation in which you were asking whether you should chuck law and start CHF. I said, “Do it!” (half afraid of your parents if they found out how i voted, yet comforting myself that they were too far away to do anything.)
    And while i can kid myself with a smidgen of credit, I can’t take credit for your bravery, girl!
    Still super-proud of you.
    And all well said!

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