Avoid Paris and Collect People

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A Commencement Address Delivered May 26, 2007

To the Board of Trustees, Head of School, Faculty and Staff, Parents and Friends and Most of All, You the Graduates of the Class of 2007, I am honored to be invited into your midst and know I bear a heavy responsibility as your speaker.

Graduates, you are confronted with a serious set of issues that will effect your lives. Terrorism, global warming, immigration, sustainable energy, not to mention you might get killed by spinach. You will be relieved to know I am not going to discuss any of that. Instead, I am going to ask a few questions and give you two pearls of wisdom. Just two.

First, my question for the graduates: Do you know how lucky you are to have attended this school. Wow. The more I learn about the school, the more impressed I am and how privileged you are to have attended such a special place.

I attended Rahway high school in New Jersey. Rahway is the home of the famous prison and penitentiary. Many of my classmates were in the school to be close to their Dads, who were in the prison. Growing up in New Jersey I heard something along the lines of the United States is on a slant, and everything that’s loose rolls into California. So here I am.

I suspect I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the success of my books so let me tell you the genesis of how I became a writer. I wouldn’t have written any books if it wasn’t for a dog, a golden retriever to be exact.

It happened during a job interview. I was interviewing a very talented woman for a high level job with high pay. She was doing great. About half way through the interview, she looked me in the eye and said, “You know, you remind me of a golden retriever.” It’s hard to know how to respond to that. But she went on, she said, “you have the same coloring and even the same personality as a golden retriever.” It’s hard to know how to respond to that. WOOF.

As much as I like golden retrievers, she didn’t get the job. My question became, why do I have to suggest to people that they shouldn’t tell people interviewing them for a job that they look like a dog? Why? All of my books are shaped around simple questions like that.

A new question emerged and was the genesis of my latest book. That question is, why do I need to suggest to people that it is rude in so many ways to talk on your cell phone while you are in the bathroom? You know what I am talking about. Especially you Type A’s out there. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to talk to people with the sound of flushing toilets in the background.

That new book is Nuts, Bolts and Jolts and it is full of lessons but the most important lesson that I can pass along is that great things don’t happen necessarily when you plan for them. Or wait for them. You can do great things now.

I didn’t wait for a great inspiration of literature and I now suggest to you, don’t wait, exercise every mental and physical muscle you have right now. Books aren’t written when you plan to spend those special two weeks on the mountain thinking great thoughts. Science discoveries don’t always happen in the lab. Youtube happened at a party, not at a developers conference. Great contributions don’t happen at the end of your career. You can do great things now. And I know you are already doing great things.

As I reviewed the accomplishments of this class, it occurred to me that you are all probably pretty good at following advice. Other wise, you wouldn’t be here.

You know the advice:

Get good grades,
Choose your friends carefully,
Come home on time,
It matters where you go to college,
Stay off myspace and facebook
Call me if you need a ride, no questions asked; and my all time favorite:
Make wise choices.

You took that advice to heart or you wouldn’t be graduating as such an accomplished group. And now you are embarking on a new path which will continue to require good judgment but the advice may not be as readily available.

So it is that my charge today is to come up with different and challenging pearls of wisdom. I think I have done that and better, I think you can execute on this advice without any trouble at all.

So here are my Two Key Messages for you today. As promised – only two pieces of advice.

Number One – Avoid Paris

Paris is large and full of temptations like fine wine, rich food and decadent desserts. But I am not talking about Paris France, I am talking about Paris Hilton.

Now, let me be clear. I have never met Paris Hilton and I suspect our paths will not cross soon. I presume she is a typical young woman on her own journey like many of you. My question is, why do I know so much about Paris Hilton?

For me, Paris Hilton has become the poster child of information that I do not want to know. I hesitate to mention a lot of names on such an auspicious occasion but they are all out there. Why do we know about Britney Spears? Why do I know about Simon Cowell and Rosie O’Donnel and Donald Trump? I don’t want to know these things. I don’t’ watch a lot of tv and I don’t read US magazine but these people are a part of my knowledge base. They have crept in and they have crept in to your life and you need to say, So long, Paris.

Lest you think you are immune from this barrage of pop culture, does the name Sanjaya ring any bells? How many of you know Lindsay Lohan’s current boy friend or address of her rehab center? Why do you know the name Kevin Federline? For those of you who are saying who is he talking about, good for you. For others, like me, you should be asking, why do I know about this?

I don’t want to know any of this info.

Think about how many celebrities you can name. I bet each of you is familiar with thousands of celebrities. Think about how many athletes you can name, probably thousands once again. What a waste! It’s like being really really good at solitaire. You are not learning anything and there is absolutely no use in knowing who Sanjays’s hairdresser is, there is nothing to learn there.

So let me ask you a different question.

Now that we have established you know a lot about Sanjaya, or Britney, how many of you can name a living poet? A hush falls over the crowd…. How many of you can name a living mathematician? A living astronomer? A living painter? A living economist? I can make this a long list but I don’t want to induce guilt. Think about that…you know all the contestants on Dancing with the Stars, but not one living poet.

Within fifty miles of where we are sitting today there are probably 20 Nobel Laureates, hundreds of authors and artists and poets and inventors and dreamers and visionaries. Some of them are here in the audience. You have the opportunity to know them and learn from them. That is where your attentions should be focused. Listen to those people.

In a recent study by the National Endowment for the Arts, Dana Goya discussed literacy in America and the looming crisis. Just about everyone can read. The crisis is not that there are illiterate people in the US. The problem is that the literate people don’t read. Those millions and millions of people who are educated don’t stretch their minds. Don’t practice intellectual curiosity. Read.

So avoid Paris and next time someone starts telling you about her or any one closely related, think of that commencement speaker and say TMI. Not a hard piece of advice to follow.

Which brings me to my second key message.

Lesson Number 2 – Make Lifelong Friends

You have had opportunities to make friends in high school. The advice to make lifelong friends seems obvious but there is more to it than might appear at first.

I learned this lesson only in retrospect.

It was a while ago, but I still remember it as if it were yesterday. I was a sophomore in college and let me paint a picture of what my life was like at the time:

My grades were awful and I had no idea what I was going to major in.

My roommate was a jerk who stayed up all night playing Beatles records backwards.

I hadn’t had a date yet in college.

I went to college on a track scholarship to run the mile but I was now on crutches with a broken ankle.

It was a dark night in February with freezing rain outside.

Get the picture? Dim.

At a fraternity meeting an alumnus came back and with great fanfare declared, these are the best years of your life!

I thought to myself, if this is as good as it gets I might end it now.

But that alumnus was right. I bet many of you have heard that same statement – these are the best years of your life; the variation is I would give anything to be where you are right now. They are right, listen to them. All times are good but you are in the middle of a particularly good and opportunistic time.

That alumnus who said that was right because there is not another time in your life that will allow you to make as many friends as those that you will make in high school or college. No other time will give you the shared experiences that create such bonds.

So what I am really saying is advice you might like: over the next four years you will take calculus and all the courses that will allow you to be sitting in a similar chair down the road, but what you will remember is your friends. So don’t worry about Geology and English Lit, you won’t remember that but you will remember the friends you make.

What I started in high school was a people collection and that guy who said these are the best years of your life inspired me to increase that collection. I am still doing that and all of you are now in my collection.

The President of Stanford once told me that the only thing that holds that great University together is the heating system. At the Priory that is not the case. It is held together by lining the life of the mind with the life of the spirit. By standing for something and by encouraging relationships that will last a life time. Keep those lessons near as you go forward with vigor.

I just saw a recent study that claimed that 85% of the population in the US lives within 25 miles of where they went to high school. Hard for me to believe but that means that you will probably be back go for now but make those friends.

So graduates, I hope you see that my messages are not about nuclear winters or world peace, the messages are small things with a big impact. Your life will be measured not in how many A’s you receive but by making those million of small efforts that will generate millions of friends. Your life will not be successful if you can list off Angelina’s children, but if you remain intellectually curious.

That’s it. Avoid Paris and Make Lifelong Friends. Advice that is easy to take and will result in an enriched and special time. I suspect you will ignore my advice about Paris and that you will still know about her and all of her friends in another year.

But trust me on the advice about friends.

Good luck and God bless you all.

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