The message of this video is that you are the author of your story, you are the protagonist in the movie of your life, and you can still write yourself into a masterpiece! Switch to “narrator mode,” and make it magnificent!
The message of this video is that you are the author of your story, you are the protagonist in the movie of your life, and you can still write yourself into a masterpiece! Switch to “narrator mode,” and make it magnificent!
One thing I learned a long time ago was that we should never take ourselves too seriously. I love the Life Leadership business, and I love building it. I also enjoy working with the many fine people who make up Life Leadership around the world. In a busy season, with lots going on, it’s good to remember to enjoy the journey, too.
As usual, when Orrin Woodward and I get together, no matter how busy we are or how many issues are pressing, we always seem to have some good old fashioned fun. At a recent Policy Council meeting in Florida, we took a little time to shoot a fairly spontaneous video. This was (obviously) a one take wonder. It was inspired by some research I had read in a book by Adam Grant discussing the idea of “front running one’s weaknesses.” I won’t play spoiler here, and will instead let the video speak for itself, but these really are legitimate reasons someone should consider before getting involved selling our products. We think what we do is great, but of course, it’s not for everyone!
I hope you enjoy it. I think it embodies our slogan of Have Fun, Make Money, and Make a Difference! Thanks for watching.
This talk was obviously part of a longer piece of teaching, but I think it stands by itself as a great reminder that we often are too close to a problem to find its answer. When faced with a conundrum that appears to have you beat, try the following:
1. Attempt to gain a new perspective. Take a look at the situation through a different lens, or, as in the case with my 9 year old son, through someone else’s eyes.
2. Take a break. As I said in my book, A Month of Italy, sometimes you need to get away in order to get a way. This means that often, as soon as we break with our normal routine and take some time out, our brains, allowed the freedom to work on the problem in the background, will eventually pop out an answer. So sometimes, paradoxically, the best way to solve a problem is to do nothing about it for a while!
3. Seek new combinations. The late Steve Jobs once said that all innovation is really just creative combination. So ask yourself what new things you can mix together that have never been tried. Often the solution is not a stand alone thing, but rather a blending of a couple of your best ideas.
Mark Twain once called himself a “prodigious noticer.” I love that phrase. It encourages us to make active observation a normal practice. When you look, really see. When you listen, really hear. Try to take in your surroundings in a fresh way, opening your senses to things you might be missing. And above all, live your life with eyes wide open.
So don’t scam yourself out of a rich and abundant life by seeing only what you are used to seeing. Remember these simple techniques and see and feel anew the world around you. Not only might it help you unlock answers to nagging problems, but it will for sure lead to the living of a richer and more fulfilling life.
I don’t know if you’re like me, but as a kid growing up I was mesmerized with The Guinness Book of World Records. The whole concept of setting a “World Record” was fascinating, and so were those women with the really long nails or that guy who was eleven foot tall. I remember laughing at all the obscure records and categories, and wondered who would be crazy enough to do most of those things.
Then a friend of mine (who shall, for the time being, remain anonymous. Let’s just call him some guy (spelled Sum Gui)) suggested that for a promotional idea for the release of Orrin Woodward‘s new book, And Justice for All: The Quest for Concord, that he (Orrin, not Sum Gui) should break the record for the number of books signed in one sitting. As soon as he made the recommendation, all my childhood memories of looking through friends’ Guinness books came flooding back to me. My initial reaction was, “Is that stuff real?” But then, having lived a few years here and there, I realized that, of course, it was real, and quickly deduced that there must be a real company somewhere that kept track of these things and made sure they were “official.”
Realizing that Sum Gui had come up with a really good idea, we quickly found out that the previous record was held by a guy (different guy from Sum Gui) named Sammy Lee from China, who signed 4,649 books in January of 2013. We also learned that, yes, in fact, Guinness had a process for all this, and you could get the services of their “adjudicator” to bless the proceedings and declare them official (assuming that you did, in fact, set a new record).
All it would take was thousands of people, a book to sign, and a signer willing to subject himself to the grueling marathon of signing book after book for hours on end.
Orrin Woodward would be perfect!
All we’d have to do is make sure he felt sufficiently challenged, and then, as everyone who knows him knows, there would be no way he would quit until victorious. So we promptly told him about our idea, that it would be a fun way to launch his new book, and that we were quite sure he could never do it (this works in basketball, too, if you ever happen to play against him. Just trash talk him a bit and you’re toast). So voila! We had ourselves an “Official Guinness Record Attempt!”
And would you believe it? Orrin broke the record without taking even one of his allotted five minute breaks, and he did it in less than half the time of the previous record holder! But that wasn’t the end. Orrin continued on until he had not only broken the record, but shattered it! The final official count was 6,786 books!
Now, if I could only think of some kind of record to break . . . maybe I’ll start growing my nails . . . .
In 1923 a member of the board of directors for Lloyd’s Bank in London asked a literary expert at a party: “You may know of one of our employees who is, I understand, a poet. Mr. Eliot.”
To which the reply was given: “Indeed I do. He is a very remarkable poet.”
“I am glad to hear it. He is also most proficient in banking. Indeed, I don’t mind telling you that, if he goes on in his present way, he will one day be a senior bank manager!”
Thankfully for fans of literature the world over, T.S. Eliot didn’t settle merely for what he could become, but instead pressed forward to what he should become.
We have discussed the elements of meaning and scandal as they relate to leaving a legacy. These two opposite poles should be ever present in our minds as we live out our lives. We should strive to matter as much as we possibly can, and guard ourselves against the inevitable temptations that would come along and cheapen our accomplishments. But leaving a legacy is much more complex and multi-faceted than all of that. There are other elements that must be part of the mix. Primary among these is originality. There are many things we can do, but probably only one that we were born to do.
Your Personal Brand
It happened to you and it’s uniquely yours. No one else has your story. No one else has your particular mixture of experience and ability. Not only did God make you unique in all your parts, but also the life he lets you live is just as uniquely yours. Nobody else experiences the world in exactly the same way as you. These concepts are important to understand, because they form the basis of your personal brand.
What is a personal brand?
A personal brand is whatever you do or bring to the world that is entirely and uniquely yours. Perhaps surprisingly, the more you stick to what is uniquely yours and the more authentic you are in what you do, the more interesting it is to others and the more marketable it is.
Allow me to give an example.
My wife Terri Brady is a very interesting person with a compelling personal brand. Beyond all the foundational things that attracted me to her back in our college days (her love of the Lord, her values and her upbringing, her beauty, her courage, her playfulness, her native intelligence, her musical gifts, and above all, her undeniable wisdom in choosing me!), she has lived an incredibly interesting and inspiring life. Her list of brand experiences include prolonged infertility, surviving a life threatening brain tumor, engineering degree and work experience, home schooling four children, a consistent record of physical fitness, mastery of multiple musical instruments, dedication to serving in the name of Christ, leading and mentoring many other women, high level entrepreneurship and business ownership, fabulous public speaking to audiences around the world, a very popular blog, not to mention being married to a rascal like me!
In addition to these unique experiences, many of which were beyond her control, the way in which she carried herself through them is even more impressive. The trials came without complaint, and the victories came without conceit. If you wrap all these things together you’ve got one incredible woman with a lot to share. All of these pieces together comprise Terri’s personal brand. They make her interesting. They give weight to what she teaches. They give power to what she says.
Now, what would happen if Terri tried to teach people about scuba diving? Or produce a product focused on fashion? It wouldn’t work. It’s simply not her. It doesn’t fit her brand, and people would sense it subconsciously, rejecting it as false or insincere.
The purpose of this example (beyond a shameless ploy to get points with my wife) is to demonstrate that who we are at the core, in the most authentic version of ourselves, is what we should focus on bringing to the world. When you do precisely that, you will be the most fulfilled. It’s when you are doing exactly what you were built to do with the specific gifts God gave you that you feel the most alive. Any time you stray away from this reality you feel less yourself, less alive, less real. Further, though, it is when you strike this authentic chord that the world takes notice. People only want the best you have to offer, nothing less.
The Margaritaville Concept
Jimmy Buffett is an overwhelmingly successful musician and entertainer. He has attracted a following of fanatical fans who dress up in crazy costumes and follow him around on concert tours. He has sold millions and millions of dollars worth of music and books. He has a string of successful restaurants and a clothing line. He even has a channel on satellite radio! Over the course of more than four decades,
Jimmy Buffett has assembled a massive entertainment empire. And really, when it gets right down to it, he did it all with just one song.
If you listen to Buffett’s early music, you will notice that it doesn’t really match his brand. Most of the songs are serious, the topics are ordinary, and it’s obvious that in those early days he hadn’t really struck the chord of his true authentic gift, of his personal brand that would someday delight millions. Brent Webster, a musician friend from Buffett’s very early days, said about how badly Buffett wanted to break into the music scene: “The impression was, he was trying too hard. His exuberance preceded him.”
Twenty-six record companies rejected Buffett. Capitol Records executive Joe Allison said of Buffett in those days, “He pitched some stuff to me, but it wasn’t anything I could ever use. His stuff is so off the wall it’s hard to think of somebody else doing it. He didn’t write like everybody else, he was really different.”
As soon as Buffett released the song Margaritaville (originally to be titled Wastin’ Away Again in Margaritaville, but changed by Buffett at the last minute), he had found his authentic swing – an escapism genre that whisked people away from their cold, boring lives and put them in the warm tropical sun. According to Steve Eng, “Jimmy’s deepening commitment to Caribbean imagery was at once separating him from mere country-rock and from new-hippie folkpop. By the mid-Seventies, Jimmy was setting, not following, a musical trend.” The song Margaritaville would win the 1977 BMI pop award, the 1978 country award, and the “Three Million Air Award” for that number of radio plays that year. All of this was pretty impressive, but it was only the beginning. The most important part was that Buffett had not only struck upon his true, original gift, but he quickly recognized it. Ever since, with each and every album, song, book, restaurant, and clothing line, Buffett has exploited this very original personal brand.
The image we get here is of an ambitious young musician working hard to make it, searching for his particular and unique personal brand, and then gradually combining all the elements of his life interests into his music. Eng wrote, “Jimmy claims that the Florida Keys theme of his albums wasn’t planned, it just evolved naturally.” It may have evolved, but once it did, and he discovered this original niche, he built upon it relentlessly.
Imagine going to a Jimmy Buffett concert. You take in the enthusiastic crowd; you sing along with some of the songs, you feel relaxed and happy as you too escape to the islands for a few fun figurative moments. But what would happen if Buffett finished up his concert and failed to play the song Margaritaville? You would not only feel disappointed, you’d feel cheated. Buffett has to perform that song at every concert because it is the classic embodiment of his personal brand, and Buffett, being the consummate entertainer and crowd pleaser, knows this better than anyone.
This principle applies everywhere. How disappointed would people be if Stephen King came out with a marriage book? Or if Dave Barry released a serious novel? Or if Michael Jordan left basketball to play, I don’t know, let’s say baseball? These people, and every successful person in every walk of life, have succeeded by finding their true authentic gift and then giving it over and over again with gusto.
Which brings us back to you.
What is (or could be) your unique brand?
What are your particular foundational gifts?
What are your unique experiences?
How have you grown as a result, and what can you give out of it?
What innate talents has God given you that are yours?
What makes you feel the most alive?
What makes you feel the most fulfilled?
What things do you do that seem to bring the most accolades from people?
What could be your Margaritaville?
The key is to know yourself, to know what you have. You may not be able to answer these questions just yet, and as was true for the entertainers we have considered in this chapter, it might take years for you to discover. But I guarantee that if you answer these questions and package all of this together, you will be at least heading in the right direction. Knowing that you should be looking to discover this idea about yourself is a great starting point.
Whether this means you will write books, blog, create music, speak on stages, preach, start a company, paint, organize something, play sports, become a surgeon, lead a charity, invent a new technology, or whatever, if you line things up to be a product of who you are and what you uniquely can contribute, you will succeed. You may not be a musician, but you’ve got your own, original figurative song to sing. You may not do what you do in the public eye, but you still have a personal brand to be discovered and built upon. I truly believe that everyone has his own Margaritaville waiting to be discovered. By this, I mean that you will find meaning and fulfillment in contributing something that only you can contribute.
Don’t live anyone else’s life for even a minute. Live yours. It’s unique. Find your Margaritaville and then sing it with all you’ve got until you can’t sing anymore. Glenn Kelman, CEO of Redfin, said, “. . . what this spun-out, overhyped world is absolutely famished for is a little genuine personality.”
I promise, there will be fans cheering for your authentic output. There will always be a market for your original best.
The LIFE Leadership company has just completed its second full calendar year, and again, we are very pleased with our growth and expanding impact. We have again experienced double digit growth (the exact numbers will be reported soon by the office) and reached into new markets. As always, our focus is not merely on helping people succeed, but in helping them matter. It is no secret that my favorite quote is one attributed to the famous preacher and evangelist D.L. Moody, “Our greatest fear should not be that we won’t succeed, but that we will succeed at something that doesn’t matter.” Every time I read that sentence I am refocused and recommitted to making sure that everything we do helps people transcend success and focus much more importantly upon significance.
In one way, this could really just be a bunch of words. But for those of us who labor behind the scenes, this desire to matter, to truly make a difference, is a driving factor in our work. Someone once asked me when I was going to stop working so hard. I am always surprised at this type of inquiry, as what I do doesn’t seem like work. In fact, when you love what you do, and when you see every day that what you do really matters in the lives of people, you can’t help but work! In fact, your work becomes the most fun fun there is! For me, the point isn’t to get more time off, but to get more of my time to be on, on the mark, that is. Meaning, I want more and more of my time to count, and in the most meaningful ways. When I take time off, it’s only so my time on is even better! (That was the point I was attempting to make in my book, A Month of Italy).
Overall, the way we apply all this high-sounding talk at LIFE Leadership is to dream big, and then focus small. What that means to me is to keep an enormous, overriding vision of where we can help people go, followed by a strenuous mastery of the details required to make it happen.
My friends and co-founders in this endeavor, Orrin Woodward, Tim Marks, Claude Hamilton, Bill Lewis, George Guzzardo, Dan Hawkins, and Rob Hallstrand are all aligned in common purpose to continue to make LIFE Leadership something that truly helps people lead more meaningful lives.
As a result of this tireless labor of love that we are all engaged in, we have several very exciting new things happening in 2014! Among these are international expansion, new product rollouts, a massively increased compensation package, increased One Time Cash Awards, improved data management and “dashboard” designs for field leaders, simplified back office operations, smart phone apps, voice communication systems, and much more!
So hang on tight for an even more exciting year than our first two!
I truly hope you like all that we deliver this year, and that our materials and events enable you to live the life you’ve always wanted!
Remember: It’s not as important to succeed as it is to matter, and you’ll likely accomplish the former by shooting for the latter!
My friend and often co-author Orrin Woodward recently posted a nice summary of the first year of the Life Business on his blog. It has been a very busy year, but one full of victories and breakthroughs. We launched our dream company with a dedication to the business owners in the field. Our vision is to accomplish something that has never been done in this profession, and our first year in business shows overwhelmingly that we are on our way.
A hearty thank you to all the founders of the Life Business and all the first year’s participants. May 2013 be an even better demonstration of your faithfulness and hard work, and may you make a difference in the lives of many!
Here are a few of the highlights from Orrin Woodward‘s blog:
1. The LIFE business surpassed 100% increase in subscriptions of the LIFE and LLR Series in under one year of business.
2. The LIFE business launched the Mental Fitness Challenge and sold thousands of 90-day challenges throughout North America.
3. The LIFE business paid out over $1,800,000 in end-of-year bonuses and free trips its first year.
4. The LIFE business paid out over 70% bonuses on its product volume points in its first year in business.
5. Rob Hallstrand, Chief Operating Officer (COO) of TEAM and a LIFE founder, coordinated operations for both companies, and combined sales blew past $50,000,000 (with LIFE leading the charge) from the Flint, Michigan based office. Chris Brady and I have had many great years since forming our first leadership training company in 1999, but nothing feels as good as having the best sales and profits ever this past fiscal year.
6. Team training produced its best operating margins ever (of which 100% of profits flow back to field trainers), as Mr. Hallstrand continued his dramatic turnaround of Team operations. In fact, employee cost-per-profit-dollar has decreased over six times in his three years as COO, leading to increased bonuses for field trainers and office staff—a truly stunning performance.
7. Customers composed nearly 20% of total LIFE business subscriptions in its first year. Considering new members have six months to learn how to develop customers, this number will only grow as members complete training. What other community building business hits 20% customer subscriptions in its first year?
8. The LIFE business launched the Edge Series for youth and has added thousands of satisfied families in LIFE’s first year.
The LIFE business was founded to fulfill the dream of providing an exciting, aggressively compensated, fair, and fun program for people who are 1) ambitious, 2) teachable, 3) looking for something more in life, and 4) honest. Launched by founders (Orrin Woodward, Tim Marks, George Guzzardo, Claude Hamilton, Bill Lewis, Dan Hawkins) who all came from “the field” of compensated communities, it was therefore structured in such a way as to maximize contribution to those in the field. In other words, the LIFE business is of the people, for the people, and by the people. It provides a realistic, legitimate shot for people to better themselves personally, financially, relationally, and a whole bunch of other “nally’s.”
Success, however, is not easy. Anyone who says anything to the contrary has either not succeeded themselves, is delusional, or not to be trusted (or, perhaps, is just plain stupid)! Nothing good comes without a fight. I sometimes don’t like this truth, but it is true, nonetheless.
The LIFE business is no different. As much as we’ve tried to make it easy by providing a pattern (the Five Step Pattern), a program (the Power Player Program), world class products (Maximize Your Finances, Mental Fitness Challenge, Freedom Packs, etc.), and perks (paid trips for lower level members, One Time Cash Awards, recognition, and a compensation plan that returns almost 70% of gross revenue point value those in the field), it is still subject to the laws of success. These laws dictate that the right things must be done with the right attitude for the right amount of time.
To help people learn these truths in a productive way, we provide perhaps the most important aspect of our business: the Life Training System. This is necessary because the laws of success MUST be learned and respected in order for success to be achieved.
Years ago, when I was just starting out in this profession, I struggled with the laws of success. Eventually, I learned them so well I was able to make a living in a situation that was far from optimum. During that journey, I always dreamed of participating in a business exactly like the LIFE business we have today. It has products I can be proud of, prices below the rest of the market, a pay plan second to none, a 30-day money-back guarantee, paid trips for newer participants in the business, world class training, an excellent website environment and back-end office for tracking my business, and some of the greatest people I’ve ever been privileged to meet. In fact, things are so good I think people lose perspective on just how good they have it.
In a world wracked with economic troubles, LIFE offers a way for the individual to swim against those currents and prosper financially. In an age where people are more electronically connected than ever, but at the same time more disconnected from others, LIFE provides a format for meaningful partnerships and connection. In an atmosphere of uncertainty, LIFE offers a program that is solid, exciting, and achievable.
Is LIFE perfect? Absolutely not. But I do believe it’s the best there is, and we are working nonstop to continue to make it even better. Our dream is that when the next person like us comes along – someone who is ambitious, looking for something more in life, teachable, and honest – that person will find a ready-made situation that only requires him or her to apply the laws of success to it in order to live the LIFE they’ve always wanted!
Is it working? Yes! In so many ways! But don’t take it from me. Click on this link to read and watch testimonials of people from all walks of LIFE who are experiencing success.
And yes, I did get a haircut since that video!
Have you ever felt overworked, overstressed, maxed out, and out of focus?
Have you ever needed a break from it all, and by that, I mean something more than a frenzied weekend or busy plastic vacation?
Have you ever had enough of your cell phone, emails, social networks, texts, and the like?
Have you ever felt like you were out of balance and needed some serious restoration?
Have you ever considered the fact that you could take a career break – a sabbatical – to allow you to clear your head and restore your focus?
Have you ever dreamed of traveling through the back roads of Italy and seeing the famous Tuscan countryside?
Have you ever wanted to sample Italy’s cuisine, sunsets, culture, art, architecture, and history?
Are you entertained by humorous narrative and adventure stories?
For anyone who can answer “yes” to even one of these questions, I am happy to announce that my latest book, A Month of Italy: Rediscovering the Art of Vacation, is set to debut this July. For just a little taste, here is the dust jacket inscription:
What can possibly be said about Italy that hasn’t been already? Primarily, that youcan enjoy it too! Refreshingly relate-able in a genre previously populated by wealthy expats and Hollywood stars, this book chronicles an ordinary family taking an extraordinary trip, and most importantly, paves the way for you to take one of your own! With hilarious wit and fast-paced narrative, Brady thrills with honest commentary on what a “trip of a lifetime” actually feels like, and most endearingly, he succeeds in convincing you that not only should you take a similar one, but that you will! Within a few pages you’ll be visualizing panoramic Tuscan vistas and breaking open the piggy bank, laughing as you turn the pages and dreaming of your own escape. This story is one of going slow in order to go fast; it’s about rediscovering and brining back into favor a lost art, namely, the art of vacation, and it is, or rather should be, a story about you.
Here are some of the early reviews:
“I was intrigued from the first sentence clear through the book! It teaches so many life and leadership lessons—about family, relationships, learning, improving, and becoming better. I’ll read it again and again, and I’ll read it on the plane on every vacation I ever go on.” – Oliver DeMille, NY Times best selling author of A Thomas Jefferson Education, Freedom Shift, and 1913
“A beautiful story and pivotal idea for a book!” – Richard Bliss Brooke, author of Mach II, The Art of Vision and Self Motivation and The Four Year Career
“With humor, Brady guides you through heart-warming history, incredible beauty, the most gracious people, and of course, the world’s most delicious food and wine! After reading his entertaining work, you will be charting your own course to Italy.” –Sharon Lechter, Co-author of Outwitting the Devil, Three Feet From Gold and Rich Dad Poor Dad
“Extremely engaging and delightful – a well told story!” – Chris Gross, CEO Gabriel Media Group, Inc., cofounder of Networking Times.
“This is a book every traveler should read and bring along in order to experience the best of Italy.” – Dr. Gaetano (Guy) Sottile, President and Founder, Italy for Christ, Inc.
“Witty, funny, and at points downright hilarious, but mixed with profound truths shared in a way that makes one pause and ponder.” – Orrin Woodward: Winner of the 2011 IAB Top Leadership Award
“A spell-binding lesson in learning how to live again, with real purpose. You can’t stop turning the pages . . . .” – Art Jonak, founder MastermindEvent.com
“I have never read a book that teaches so much while being this fun at the same time.” – Tim Marks, best-selling author of “Voyage of a Viking”
“This is the best work Chris Brady has written to date. If this is a vacation handbook, it has redefined the vacation experience.” – Venkat Varada, Silicon Valley Executive
“Vacationing truly is a lost art, and Brady poignantly and beautifully illustrates why it is so vital for driven leaders. A timeless treatise on ‘sharpening the saw,’ A Month of Italy is a book I will sip and savor, ponder and reflect on time and time again. Not only are Chris’s insights powerful and refreshing, but his vivid and witty writing is simply a pleasure to read. Reading this book is a charming vacation itself, and it will inspire you to vacation deliberately, effectively, and joyfully.” – Stephen Palmer, New York Times best-selling author of “Uncommon Sense: A Common Citizen’s Guide to Rebuilding America”
“In our hectic lives we are rarely 100% present in any situation. Chris Brady shows that with proper play time, our work time is so much more effective. He has freed my spirit!” – Jason Ashley, country singer/songwriter (Texas Songwriter of the Year 2008)
“Italy is unique. Moreover, it is a country where the traveler can en- joy the most various experiences. Chris Brady’s book has the ability, astonishing even for an Italian, to convey to the reader that variety, that richness of feelings, sights, perfumes, tastes . . . and people.” – Senator Lucio Malan, Senior Secretary of the Presidency of the Italian Senate
In early July, look for it in bookstores and online stores everywhere, and of course,here. I sincerely hope you enjoy it!
Someone sent me the transcript from a commencement speech. The title and beginning featured a slightly shocking pattern interrupt. In other words, they caught me by surprise. I found myself so intrigued I read further, and eventually realized that, unlike 99% of everything else I ever receive, I could not stop reading this. I have included it below in its entirety for your enjoyment and pondering. I love how it concludes, and think there are many, many fine points made along the way. Oh, if we could only think and behave thus!
Here it is!
Here’s a new one in the annals of commencement speakers. A teacher at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts gave his address to the Class of 2012 and blasted the students, telling them over and over, “You’re not special.”
(Dennis R.J. Geppert/AP)
David McCullough Jr., an English teacher at the school, delivered his rather unusual speech:
Dr. Wong, Dr. Keough, Mrs. Novogroski, Ms. Curran, members of the board of education, family and friends of the graduates, ladies and gentlemen of the Wellesley High School class of 2012, for the privilege of speaking to you this afternoon, I am honored and grateful. Thank you.
So here we are… commencement… life’s great forward-looking ceremony. (And don’t say, “What about weddings?” Weddings are one-sided and insufficiently effective. Weddings are bride-centric pageantry. Other than conceding to a list of unreasonable demands, the groom just stands there. No stately, hey-everybody-look-at-me procession. No being given away. No identity-changing pronouncement. And can you imagine a television show dedicated to watching guys try on tuxedos? Their fathers sitting there misty-eyed with joy and disbelief, their brothers lurking in the corner muttering with envy. Left to men, weddings would be, after limits-testing procrastination, spontaneous, almost inadvertent… during halftime… on the way to the refrigerator. And then there’s the frequency of failure: Statistics tell us half of you will get divorced. A winning percentage like that’ll get you last place in the American League East. The Baltimore Orioles do better than weddings.)
But this ceremony… commencement… a commencement works every time. From this day forward… truly… in sickness and in health, through financial fiascos, through midlife crises and passably attractive sales reps at trade shows in Cincinnati, through diminishing tolerance for annoyingness, through every difference, irreconcilable and otherwise, you will stay forever graduated from high school, you and your diploma as one, ‘til death do you part.
No, commencement is life’s great ceremonial beginning, with its own attendant and highly appropriate symbolism. Fitting, for example, for this auspicious rite of passage, is where we find ourselves this afternoon, the venue. Normally, I avoid clichés like the plague, wouldn’t touch them with a ten-foot pole, but here we are on a literal level playing field. That matters. That says something. And your ceremonial costume… shapeless, uniform, one-size-fits-all. Whether male or female, tall or short, scholar or slacker, spray-tanned prom queen or intergalactic X-Box assassin, each of you is dressed, you’ll notice, exactly the same. And your diploma… but for your name, exactly the same.
All of this is as it should be, because none of you is special.
You are not special. You are not exceptional.
Contrary to what your soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mister Rogers and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you… you’re nothing special.
Yes, you’ve been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped. Yes, capable adults with other things to do have held you, kissed you, fed you, wiped your mouth, wiped your bottom, trained you, taught you, tutored you, coached you, listened to you, counseled you, encouraged you, consoled you and encouraged you again. You’ve been nudged, cajoled, wheedled and implored. You’ve been feted and fawned over and called sweetie pie. Yes, you have. And, certainly, we’ve been to your games, your plays, your recitals, your science fairs. Absolutely, smiles ignite when you walk into a room, and hundreds gasp with delight at your every tweet. Why, maybe you’ve even had your picture in the Townsman! And now you’ve conquered high school… and, indisputably, here we all have gathered for you, the pride and joy of this fine community, the first to emerge from that magnificent new building…
But do not get the idea you’re anything special. Because you’re not.
The empirical evidence is everywhere, numbers even an English teacher can’t ignore. Newton, Natick, Nee… I am allowed to say Needham, yes? …that has to be two thousand high school graduates right there, give or take, and that’s just the neighborhood Ns. Across the country no fewer than 3.2 million seniors are graduating about now from more than 37,000 high schools. That’s 37,000 valedictorians… 37,000 class presidents… 92,000 harmonizing altos… 340,000 swaggering jocks… 2,185,967 pairs of Uggs. But why limit ourselves to high school? After all, you’re leaving it. So think about this: even if you’re one in a million, on a planet of 6.8 billion that means there are nearly 7,000 people just like you. Imagine standing somewhere over there on Washington Street on Marathon Monday and watching sixty-eight hundred yous go running by. And consider for a moment the bigger picture: your planet, I’ll remind you, is not the center of its solar system, your solar system is not the center of its galaxy, your galaxy is not the center of the universe. In fact, astrophysicists assure us the universe has no center; therefore, you cannot be it. Neither can Donald Trump… which someone should tell him… although that hair is quite a phenomenon.
“But, Dave,” you cry, “Walt Whitman tells me I’m my own version of perfection! Epictetus tells me I have the spark of Zeus!” And I don’t disagree. So that makes 6.8 billion examples of perfection, 6.8 billion sparks of Zeus. You see, if everyone is special, then no one is. If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless. In our unspoken but not so subtle Darwinian competition with one another — which springs, I think, from our fear of our own insignificance, a subset of our dread of mortality — we have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement. We have come to see them as the point — and we’re happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole. No longer is it how you play the game, no longer is it even whether you win or lose, or learn or grow, or enjoy yourself doing it… Now it’s “So what does this get me?”
As a consequence, we cheapen worthy endeavors, and building a Guatemalan medical clinic becomes more about the application to Bowdoin than the well-being of Guatemalans. It’s an epidemic — and in its way, not even dear old Wellesley High is immune… one of the best of the 37,000 nationwide, Wellesley High School… where good is no longer good enough, where a B is the new C, and the midlevel curriculum is called Advanced College Placement. And I hope you caught me when I said “one of the best.” I said “one of the best” so we can feel better about ourselves, so we can bask in a little easy distinction, however vague and unverifiable, and count ourselves among the elite, whoever they might be, and enjoy a perceived leg up on the perceived competition. But the phrase defies logic. By definition there can be only one best. You’re it or you’re not.
If you’ve learned anything in your years here I hope it’s that education should be for, rather than material advantage, the exhilaration of learning. You’ve learned, too, I hope, as Sophocles assured us, that wisdom is the chief element of happiness. (Second is ice cream… just an fyi) I also hope you’ve learned enough to recognize how little you know… how little you know now… at the moment… for today is just the beginning. It’s where you go from here that matters.
As you commence, then, and before you scatter to the winds, I urge you to do whatever you do for no reason other than you love it and believe in its importance. Don’t bother with work you don’t believe in any more than you would a spouse you’re not crazy about, lest you too find yourself on the wrong side of a Baltimore Orioles comparison. Resist the easy comforts of complacency, the specious glitter of materialism, the narcotic paralysis of self-satisfaction. Be worthy of your advantages. And read… read all the time… read as a matter of principle, as a matter of self-respect. Read as a nourishing staple of life. Develop and protect a moral sensibility and demonstrate the character to apply it. Dream big. Work hard. Think for yourself. Love everything you love, everyone you love, with all your might. And do so, please, with a sense of urgency, for every tick of the clock subtracts from fewer and fewer; and as surely as there are commencements there are cessations, and you’ll be in no condition to enjoy the ceremony attendant to that eventuality no matter how delightful the afternoon.
The fulfilling life, the distinctive life, the relevant life, is an achievement, not something that will fall into your lap because you’re a nice person or mommy ordered it from the caterer. You’ll note the founding fathers took pains to secure your inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness–quite an active verb, “pursuit”–which leaves, I should think, little time for lying around watching parrots rollerskate on YouTube. The first President Roosevelt, the old rough rider, advocated the strenuous life. Mr. Thoreau wanted to drive life into a corner, to live deep and suck out all the marrow. The poet Mary Oliver tells us to row, row into the swirl and roil. Locally, someone… I forget who… from time to time encourages young scholars to carpe the heck out of the diem. The point is the same: get busy, have at it. Don’t wait for inspiration or passion to find you. Get up, get out, explore, find it yourself, and grab hold with both hands. (Now, before you dash off and get your YOLO tattoo, let me point out the illogic of that trendy little expression–because you can and should live not merely once, but every day of your life. Rather than You Only Live Once, it should be You Live Only Once… but because YLOO doesn’t have the same ring, we shrug and decide it doesn’t matter.)
None of this day-seizing, though, this YLOOing, should be interpreted as license for self-indulgence. Like accolades ought to be, the fulfilled life is a consequence, a gratifying byproduct. It’s what happens when you’re thinking about more important things. Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you. Go to Paris to be in Paris, not to cross it off your list and congratulate yourself for being worldly. Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others, the rest of the 6.8 billion–and those who will follow them. And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special.
Because everyone is.
Congratulations. Good luck. Make for yourselves, please, for your sake and for ours, extraordinary lives.