Thursday, May 29, 2008

Advice For A Valedictorian

So, after all these years, here you are.

All the homework is done, all the tests are taken, all the grades are in. You've done your chores and eaten your vegetables. You've survived the experience of living with your parents and your brothers. You've beaten everyone's expectations (except perhaps your own).

You've won.

You're about to take the podium tomorrow as valedictorian of your graduating prep school class, before heading off to University with full scholarship and chancellor's awards.

I, and many others who have come to know you are extemely proud of you.

The speech you give tomorrow (and possibly still have to write tonight) will likely contain observations of the past, acknowledgement of the present, and intelligent guesswork about the future. Your future from this point forward is your own to define, constrained only by the world around you (admittedly, that's an awfully big constraint). Having had the great fortune to know you since before you were born, I'd like to offer some totally unsolicited advice as you leave one contest behind, and move on to the next.

This picture has been making its way around the internet in the past few days. It's an image of the Mars Phoenix Lander on its way down to the surface of Mars. (You can just make out the lander at the bottom of the image, the tether lines in the middle, and the parachutes at the top. NASA has since released a cleaner image.) The image was taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter circling high above Mars, sent to Mars well in advance of the Phoenix probe.

The implications of this image in technological and human terms are staggering. Thousands of people contributed significant portions of their lives to the moment this image was taken. Exactly none of them knew at the time they graduated high school that they would be part of something so unique. However, they likely followed guidelines, codes, rules and something more important than lucky numbers to get to this point.

I'd like to offer you one piece of advice as you step forward to do all the wonderful things you're going to in your life, and have no idea what they are at the moment.

Discover, and follow your passions. It's okay to have more than one, and later on in life, it'll be okay to move between them (or to new choices and career paths), but it is essential that you develop an idea of what you really like. That, is a very different question to answer than the typical "what do you want to do?" question which your peers and collegiate advisors will ask of you.

You're at a time right now (and for the next few years) where literally the world is at your feet. You have the opportunity to explore science, art, literature, theater, music, history, language, romance, and so much more at an intensity that only comes but a few times in many people's lives. The next four years are not just about facts, figures and grades. You've got a chance to discover your own sense of wonder. You're going to meet people at all stages of life: young, middle-aged, and elderly who will inspire you.

Leaders in all fields of study will come to speak at your University. Seek them out and listen to them. Challenge them with questions, and if you find you have none, ask yourself why (it's not a bad thing!).

Politcal movements (and their leaders) will stage events (protests) at your University. Avoid the urge to scoff, but beware the call to participate before examining all sides of current issues and events. The next four years are quite likely to be filled with worsening economic and socio-politcal trends. Learn, and act, with caution and your own intent - not someone else's.

Lastly, don't rush the next four years. They will fly by faster than the last 100 days. Take the advantage of learning from everything you can - not just at the University, but in town, at the surrounding colleges (some offer courses with inter-college credits), music halls, museums, and even the chances for travel. In my own youth, one of the most amazing learning experiences I ever had was seeing a special on PBS about Harold Edgerton, and on a whim, spending my last $17 to take a bus to Boston, head over to MIT and show up on his doorstep on a Saturday, to find him there, and get a completely private 3-hour tour of his lab, and his life experiences that went far beyond the documentary. That experience wasn't part of my course curricula. I still carry his lessons with me to this day.

Make the next four years your own.

When you're done, go forward and change the world.