Monday, December 05, 2005

Speech Before a High School Class

9 Things I Wish I Had Known When I Was 17:
Speech Before a High School Graduating Class, ca. 1995

A man had been asked to speak before a high school class on the subject of what young people must do to become successful in life. The evening of his talk, he still didn’t know what to say. Then, as he entered the auditorium, he saw the word PUSH on the door. Suddenly he knew what he would tell the kids about what they needed to become successful.
Talking to the kids, he suggested that if they wanted to know what they needed to fulfill their ambitions, all they had to do was look at the word on the door of the auditorium. All the kids looked. The word they saw was PULL.
The talk I’m going to give tonight will be fairly short. Only 15 minutes. (A murmur of appreciation ran through the audience.) I’m going to talk about things I wish I had known at your age. But I am aware that some of the important things I’ve learned may not mean anything to you – because you and I may be very different kinds of people. For your sake, let’s hope so.
1. Don’t have much of your sense of self-worth depend too much on your being smart. All of you ARE smart. But there are a LOT of smart people out there, and quite a few who are even smarter – as you will find out when you go to college. In other words, have other things about yourself to be proud of – not just that you’re smart.
When I was your age, suspecting that I was intelligent was almost all I had going for me. I was cynical, sarcastic, angry, lonely, unhappy. But I always made the honor roll in high school and I got good grades in college. Still… it wasn’t enough to persuade me that I really was smart. After all, I studied like mad.
Then one day it occurred to me that I didn’t necessarily LIKE smart people. Know-It-Alls. Competitive people always eager to show you up, to point out your mistakes, or demonstrate that they’ve read a book you haven’t read, or that they know Edgar Allen Poe’s wife’s maiden name or who discovered the gas Freon.
The people I liked, instead, were kind, generous, conscientious.
And suddenly it didn’t matter that much whether I was smart or not. The question was: Am I a decent person? And suddenly I realized…that of course I was smart. Because it was no longer that important.
Today, when I met people who are very smart, and who are compulsive in letting me know that they are smart, I look elsewhere for company.
2. Instead of just being smart, try to be a well-rounded human being. A Renaissance man…or woman.
Being inquisitive and eager to learn and experience new things will help you get the most out of life. Read books on subjects you know little or nothing about…listen to music you’ve never heard before…visit new countries…play games you’ve never played before.
Let me assure you that someday you are surely going to love the music of Beethoven and Mozart, the writings of Jane Austen and Mark Twain –if you don’t already. And you will surely discover how fascinating history can be, and sociology, and biography, and psychology, and astronomy, and even the subject I write about, believe it or not – investing.
That’s why, when you go to college, you should be sure to take courses in subjects you know little about.
One of my biggest regrets in life is that when I was younger I didn’t do more adventurous things—travel more, work in different cities, take more risks with my career. Because for many people, like myself, changes are scary -- and we don’t want to appear foolish or ignorant.
I know of some medical doctors who worked like mad all their lives, and then they retired. And they didn’t know what to do with their free time – and all their money. So they bought model airplane sets and out together models. Or some other silly thing.
So, one of the goals of your youth and middle age is to develop enough enthusiasms so that yours can be an enthusiastic old age.
3. Being popular, like being intelligent, is nice, but again don’t exaggerate its importance. If you don’t think that highly of yourself, you may work too hard to win the approval of other people. I meet people whose main goal in life, even as adults, is to try to make everyone like them. Even admirable, gifted people.
Plutarch, who wrote biographies of ancient Greeks and Romans, wrote about a Greek called Aristides the Just. As a fair-minded judge, he was without equal. And then there was an election—and one person did NOT vote for Aristides the Just. So the Greeks found out who that person was, and they asked him: Why didn’t you vote for Aristides the Just? His answer: He was fed up with hearing him called Aristides the Just.
In other words, some people are just not going to like you. Maybe you remind them of their nasty Aunt Gertie or Uncle Max. Or you have too sunny a personality. Or you’re too good-looking. Yeah, that’s it. Or too smart. So, just shrug it off. Those people would probably not have voted for Aristides the Just either. The only people whose opinion of you you should care about, really care about, are people you know and admire.
4. Having a lot of good friends should be one of your goals. Friends can cure loneliness; their company can make life more pleasurable; they can give you good advice. Helping a friend can also be a source of pleasure.
Friends are so important that you should always be in search of new friends. And keeping up with old friends. If something sours between you and a friend, try to patch it up. A polite note may work. Friendship is like a flower; you must water it and give it sunlight.
But be picky about your friends. There are a lot of people out there, so you can be choosey.
My friends tend to be people with strong consciences. I like people who are wise, funny, lively, and so forth, but above all I admire people with strong consciences. You can trust them to be honest and fair and decent. And probably to vote Democratic.
People to avoid include those who are always just out for themselves. 24-7. You will meet a lot of them in life. Also avoid Republicans.
5. Something else you want in life is a good job. I suggest you decide on 2 careers. Your life’s dream – a movie star, a baseball player. And a fallback position – an accountant, a financial writer. I myself had wanted to be a novelist when I was your age. But let me tell you that being the world’s greatest financial writer isn’t so bad.
The best career is one that you thoroughly enjoy. Mark Twain once said that when he discovered that he could make a living by writing, he never did a lick of work again for the rest of his life.
5. On the subject of love, get to know a lot of different boys and girls. I think people are programmed to fall in love in their youth, and you don’t necessarily want to fall in love with the kid who happens to live next door. You can probably do better….if you meet a lot of different people. That’s one reason you should try to get to know as many people as possible, as you will in college.
There’s evidence, by the way, that similar people tend to have the most lasting marriages. Opposites may attract, but they also repel.
Another word of advice: You may fall in love with a pretty face or a handsome face, but don’t marry just a pretty face. Henry David Thoreau, who wrote Walden, once said that the mere fact that a woman has regular features doesn’t improve her conversation. Boy, was he wrong! Nicole Kidman could say dada-dabba-doo and I would be enthralled. Still, I think that we tend to overrate physical attractiveness. And I’m not just saying that because I happen not to have been blessed in that regard.
6. Don’t worry so much that you may be different from other people. In my entire life, I have met only three or four normal, conventional, well-adjusted, ordinary people. And were they ever boring!
7. If you ever fail at something, don’t let it throw you. Tell yourself that you will learn from the experience, and that you’re more likely to succeed next time. It’s probably true. And if someone criticizes something you’ve done, it may hurt –but if it’s warranted, you should welcome it. Think of yourself as a work in progress: always improving.
In my own case, I expect to be a perfect human being by the time I reach 90.
I knew a writer of 20 who could not stand any criticism of what sshe wrote. Say anything less than full of praise about anything she wrote, and she would glare at you. She’s 60 now. And she’s still a rotten writer. Because she closed the door on criticism that might have helped her.
8. Set goals. Don’t just drift through life. What do you want to accomplish during the next 10 years? It could be helping sick people become well. It could be raising happy healthy children. We sure could use more of those.
One of the saddest stories I ever heard was of the man who had known the poet John Keats. And before he died, he saw to it that on his gravestone was written: A Friend of Keats.
That was the greatest accomplishment of his life. He had met John Keats. Now, I wish that I had befriended Keats, too. But I’m sorry that he had nothing else to boast about on his tombstone.
8. Did I tell you how bad at arithmetic I was?
9. Okay 9. Try not to take everything so seriously. There’s a saying you may not have heard: Don’t sweat the small stuff. And there’s another saying: It’s all small stuff. Actually, it’s 95% small stuff.
Finally, I’m going to pass along with some advice from a greeting card I saw recently. The card was given to someone celebrating an 18th birthday. Here’s what it said:

Don’t grow up!
Wear your jimmies all day!
Don’t get married!
Don’t have kids!
Stay little!
Eat candy for breakfast!
Watch cartoons until your brain melts!
Let your parents do all of the worrying!

Now, some of those suggestions are really helpful, and others are just plain dumb. Unfortunately…I’m not sure which is which.
Anyway, good night and good luck.

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