Here's a second-to-last draft of my speech (as usual, I made some major revisions just before I went on) with all of the personal references extracted.
25 years ago this month, I spoke at my own high school graduation, invoking the poetry I had learned in English class: ‘I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.’ I spoke as the voice of my class, expressing the optimism I felt at that moment, and that was right. At this moment you should feel the same sense of hope and confidence about your future: you are leaving us -- the school and your family -- with knowledge, skills, and virtues. You have incredible opportunities available to you. I envy you the years of discovery and expansion ahead.
So my job today is to give that last nugget of learning before we send you out into the world. I am acting as a gatekeeper, one who makes sure the initiate is ready to cross the threshold. Speaking as a representative of the faculty of this school, my role is to say, ‘Welcome to adulthood.’
But I need to let you in on a little secret.
It’s a lie. We’re all frauds.
As you look out across this audience at your former teachers, your parents and grandparents -- at this accumulation of experience and wisdom -- we’re all faking it. We don’t actually know what we’re doing. We just make it up as we go. As the British novelist Iris Murdoch said, ‘One must blunder on. The truth lies in blundering on.’ That’s what we’re all doing: blundering on. If you had the impression that adulthood meant that you figure everything out and it all makes sense, think again. You just get better at faking it.
Take parenting. There are some great parents here, but that greatness in parenting did not come from a pre-existing expertise or a knowledge of child psychology: the actual details of parenting are mostly trial and error or instinct. What makes it work? As one writer said, ‘Your children are either the center of your life or they're not, and the rest is commentary.’ Great parents make it work because they love their kids. They put up with the messes, the eye-rolling, and the terrible music, and they do whatever they can to help their kids. And so here we are.
It’s easier to fake it if you find people and things to care about. That passion will drive you toward learning and action. But you have to be open to caring, willing to make yourself vulnerable.
I can’t tell you what to care about, and neither can anyone else. This is the thing you will have to discover. And what you care about will change over time. Be ready for those changes. As you open your heart, your efforts will take on a direction and a meaning.
As you find an anchor of caring, keep moving forward. The writer Joseph Campell said, ‘If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it's not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That's why it's your path.’ You will make your own path, and you may not know where you are going, but it will be your path. Embrace it.
The summer after I finished high school, I met a man named Stan Galvery. Stan owned a sailboat, and he had recently returned from a sailing trip around the world. He didn’t break the speed record: It had taken him 4 years. He had just left one day and kept going, developing the idea and his method as he went. so he had to stop and work, trying to keep himself going and the boat in working shape. He basically faked his way around the world, changing the path as he needed. What he ended up with was not only the satisfaction of finishing, but a treasury of experiences and memories, a better understanding of the world, and a greater empathy with humanity.
During that summer, we became good friends, and he gave me this flag that had been on his ship as he went around the planet. On it, he wrote, ‘Follow the circle until you return.’ I have always kept this with me as a reminder of my wise friend who blundered his way around the world.
And that’s what you’ll do. You’ll go out there and encounter situations that you’ve never encountered, you’ll apply what you have learned and you’ll follow your heart, you’ll sort it out, sometimes with grace and beauty, and you’ll move forward.
I am proud to have known you. I wish you all the best as you strike out on the path that each of you will make.