To The Class of 2018

Photo by Dani Vivanco on Unsplash

A commencement address.

Thank you, thank you … for graciously asking me to come speak to our future leaders, lawyers, doctors, mothers and fathers. It is great to be here, to look out and see all these faces filled with hope, and all these proud parents. I sat in these exact seats where you’re sitting 18 years ago — only half-paying attention, mostly thinking about bleaching my hair and the order in which I was going to hit all the keg parties this weekend. Kids? My first piece of advice is to get a designated driver. Parents? I know you’re proud now, but I strongly urge you to remain proud when you see your child stumble home at 8 a.m. tomorrow smelling of cigar smoke and looking like they lost a fight with a Kodiak bear.

Sowhat’s my story? Well, as I said, I was once you. I had a Jersey Shore-style blowout haircut and gap teeth. We’re going to talk about my life before all that happened. And, hopefully, by the time we’re done here, you’ll learn about as much as you can about what’s about to happen to you — because a lot will happen to you, and you’re going to need to be able to sort out what really matters. Just think … three more hours … icy cold Natty Light and a bonfire. Stay with me.

Iwas a Sicilian kid from Niagara Falls, New York, who bleeds marinara and sweats olive oil. Skin made of Parmesan. Which means, in addition to talking too much and too loudly and gesticulating like an octopus falling out of a tree when I’m trying to make a point, it takes me like 90 minutes to say goodbye to everybody at a party.

This is a hard world to grow up in, y’all. A lot of you kids are going to struggle. A lot of you kids are going to settle down right after high school, get a job, get married, have a couple of kids, buy a house, and spend your Sundays eating pizza with your families and watching your favorite football team get waxed by their conference rivals over and over again.

Anyway, I remember, when I was young, I wanted to be an astronaut. I wanted to plant myself in a rocket, shoot myself into the vast expanse of the cosmos, and travel to distant lands and scour the stars. Then, I rode a Tilt-A-Whirl, threw up a few times, and drew up a Plan B.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that, up until pretty recently, I had peaked right here in these very chairs. I was a multi-sport athlete, and an all-New York State drummer who chilled in the homecoming court. I graduated with high honors. I made my way to Syracuse University to study broadcast journalism. I was an actual Eagle Scout who’d never been on the wrong side of the law. Life got far more chaotic after that for me. As it will for all of you.

A lot of you are going to get laid off, fired, and kicked around. Tough times are going to come. Adversity will rear its ugly head. You’ll get sick. Perhaps gravely so. Some of you, when you come back and speak here 18 years from now, some of you won’t even be back here, or breathing at all. I don’t tell you that to scare you. I tell you that to encourage you. I mean that.

Iwant to talk to you about goals. You’ll have them, and so many of them will be unremarkable. From around the time I stopped wanting to be an astronaut, I started wanting a fairly ordinary life. I wanted to buy a house, get married, have some kids, make money, get in shape, and do a healthy bit of traveling. In my own dealings with others, and my own unfunded research, I’ve concluded these goals are fairly common across most people I’ve come across. The goals we think would make an exceptional life, are actually pretty basic goals. And basic is okay, but don’t feel like you need to want those things for yourself.

Where we tend to strive for the exceptional is in the quality of these ordinary milestones. A better house. A more loving, extraordinary spouse. Healthy and well-adjusted kids. Six-pack abs. Seven continents. These are still the same goals, just fueled by increased ambition or vanity, depending on how evil you think the human spirit is. Somehow, we tend to think this is both the ideal state, and also the default. If everyone — on TV or in Texas Monthly — has the wrap-around porch, or a 40-Under-40 Award, then it stands to reason that you could find yourself feeling defective and weird if you do not. That’s okay, too. You shouldn’t be made to feel less than exceptional if you do not want those things.

I say this because the real you is not your Audi, it is not your die-cut business card, it is not your perfectly-pressed non-iron button-up. It is inside all of that, yet apart from it.

It is not your morning coffee to kick-start your day. It is not your church or your faith. It is not your friends or your family. It is not your words or your deeds. It is not your dreams, your habits or your history. It is not your mood or your health. It is not your ambitions, your achievements or failures. It is not your country, your race, your culture.

It is not the cut of your bicep, not the spare-tire around your waist, not the medals you’ve won or the stories you’ve told. It is not where you’ve been, where you are, where you’re going. All these are waves. You are an ocean. And the ocean is both the water and the coasts that contain it. Your surroundings will shape you, as you will shape your surroundings.

A lot of people will tell you they’ve found the keys to happiness and/or success. And that it’s really simple, and they’ll give you a list of 10 things you need to do and some of them are as simple as going out into the sun, and take 4,000mg of fish oil some Zoloft for the rest of your life, and confide in a total stranger for 30 minutes a week and shell out $100 to do that. That’s not entirely true. I want to talk to you about what is true. I want to talk to you about the real keys to living well, if I may.

Iwant to talk to you today about four truths. Four. After 35 years of living, these are the only four truths I know. These are the only four truths I live by. Knowledge of these truths will help you delineate between what really matters from what you can calmly cast off into the wind as someone else’s concern.

Because, when you take it all away, the fame and the notoriety, the money and the possessions, the accomplishments and the missteps, the kids and the pets, the husbands and wives, your god and your country, your family and friends, your job and your hobbies, your health and your wealth … When it’s all ripped away (and it will all be ripped away) … can you sit with yourself? Can you look at yourself in the mirror and not want to break the glass? Being able to do this requires knowing the four truths. Deep breath. Here are the four things I know are true.

1. No one is immortal. Not even you.

Yes, we all die. We share that in common, but we do not die together. We do not spend eternity in the same place. We do not walk the same road or get off at the same stop. We are all on our own icebergs, fractured and floating away from the poles of our youth, drifting toward and away from each other, watching time melt away until we inevitably sink. This is the loneliness of the self. This is the only identity we have.

Life’s short. You’ve probably only got another 15 World Cups left at most before your ashes are scattered over a waterfall somewhere. So, what are you going to do with that time?

First, I want you to acknowledge that if you’re here, you’re probably doing okay. Say thank you. For indoor plumbing. 24/7 access to electricity. A paycheck. A full stomach. All your senses in full working order. Not everyone has that. You are lucky … and yet, you are also ordinary.

Jim Valvano once said, “God must’ve loved ordinary people … because he made so many of them.” That’s you. Ordinary. And what do ordinary people have? Ordinary things to take care of: Take care of your body. Take care of your time. Take care of the people around you.

The air here on Earth isn’t free — it’s rented. So for as long as you keep renewing your lease, go outside and breathe in as much of it as possible. Drink water, eat plants, get your sleep, exercise often, try to lay off the booze and the smokes. That’s the bare minimum. Take care of your body.

Our lives are loaded with an unfurling of a cast of characters that careen into and out of focus. They become our stories, and then form the backbone of our legacy, and yet they’re always leaving — taking our words with them and leaving us with lumps in our throat in their place.

I don’t mean to dishearten you, but from this point on, the hellos fade and we become an endless parade of goodbyes. It’s an overwhelming emotional series of parting scenes between ourselves and every supporting player. The tectonics of life cause friends to drift apart slowly. The people around you? You won’t be friends with them in a decade. In two decades, you won’t even talk to any of them — at least, not the ones you think you will. Take care of the people around you.

Days are long. Years are short. We were not put upon this earth to pay the electric bill. Make sure you fight the battles worth fighting. As Bobby Knight once said, “Don’t fight the rabbits. Because, if you fight the rabbits, the elephants are going to kill you.” Keep what you love and take a 6-foot, 4-inch machete to all the rest. Too many minutes, dollars and words are wasted on doing sub-optimal shit with sub-optimal people will kill you quicker than you’d like. Gravitate toward what you love and keep doing it until people stop asking you to. Do what you love to do, and if you do enough of it well, you won’t have idle time to waste doing what you don’t.

This universe is too temporary for comfort. The brilliance of an autumn leaf, fraying radiantly in the crisp October sun, grips tenuously in its final, luminous days. With the whoosh of a trade wind, it sighs, releases, and hovers aimlessly before meandering down to a soft resting place near a pile of others who dared to last forever. Take care of your time.

Never let the dying of the light extinguish the flame that burns within you.Never fall for a person you’ll follow into a soft grey glow of neither black nor white nor color. Never give your heart to someone who’ll occasionally make you breakfast and treat sex like a chore. Instead, make it a point to break more rules. They were usually created by other humans. Imperfect other humans who also break rules. And like humans, rules eventually die.

2. Change is inevitable and unstoppable.

The topography of life is pock-marked with peaks, hills, valleys, craters, cliffs and plains. And as we meander the landscape, what we do shapes the terrain ahead.

What’s a given is you’re going to mess up. Worse than you ever thought you could and worse than you ever think you could recover from. It happens. Shit happens. (Can I say shit? Shit, why not.)

And in those moments — really in every moment, but especially those moments — you’re going to learn to do things differently, to do things better, to do things that matter and do good by the folks who believe in you. And I believe if you learn, if you work hard, you take care of yourself and your community and remember to stop, smile and say thanks every now and again, I believe that’s enough to make a damn difference.

I want to tell you a story. It’s 2012, and I’ve just been fired from my job. While I’m out sick, with pneumonia, no less. I live in Austin, Texas, and I hadn’t met anyone in town for the 15 months I’d lived there. So, I started going out learning to play music in public for people. And I was running out of money, and I was running out of time, but I was meeting people and having just the very best time.

So, I end up landing this interview — Austin school of real estate — and I absolutely crush it. He hires me on the spot. But he never calls me back with a start date or an official offer.

And so I get evicted from my apartment, because I can’t make the rent. Now, I could’ve moved home or in with my parents or whatever, but, that would be giving up. And I decided, “No, (forgive me, parents) fuck that. I’m going to live in my car, and spend my days doing what I love — writing and playing music.”

So I end up applying to this job at this big corporation for a writing job. Because I wanted to write! They said no to me four times before I was even offered an interview! And then I had an interview, and it took them two more weeks to say yes, and another three weeks for me to start! Now, I had never written before professionally, but they could see my eagerness to learn and my passion for the craft. And, sometimes, that’s all you need.

Now, the day I got that job, I drove to San Antonio to visit my girlfriend and my car got repossessed the same day. So, I swear to God, I rented a Jeep with my girlfriend’s credit card, and lived in a Wal-Mart parking lot for three weeks while I started that job. Then, with my first paycheck, I got my car back, and then I rented a room at this Red Roof Inn in a sketch part of town. I scoured for quarters on the side of the road to find enough money to eat an apple or a banana. For ten weeks, I dodged panhandlers and crack-dealers before I was able to get a place of my own.

Six years later, I still work at that company. I got to write some headlines for a revolutionary new desktop that went all over the world, from a launch party in NYC to the pages of Fader Magazine. I played pinch-hitter on another team at work, and wrote a bunch of big-ass signs for work that got to hang in airports. A lot of people liked them. So much so, that they ended up wooing me away from my old team, and in the process I received my first promotion at any job since 2006 and my largest raise ever. I re-branded a $75B company and my words appeared in the Wall Street Journal and on NBC. I’ve been promoted four times in total. And I’ve started a business of my own. And I went from homeless to making six figures.

I spend eight hours every day doing something I love to do at a place I enjoy doing it at. I sleep for eight more hours. That’s two-thirds of my life spent doing things that kick ass. Plus, I have various side-hustles that also overlap very nicely with things that give me joy and meaning. I spend my free time, energy and capital leaning things like Spanish and rock climbing, making things like music and more writings like these, experiencing things like laughter with friends and music festivals. It all worked and I guess you could say it was meant to be. A lot can change in six years. Or 12. Or 18.

You’ll mess up. You’ll lose your way. But losing your way and then re-framing the experience as finding your true path is the art of aging gracefully. It’s taking the twists and turns as a constant stream seeking its own level, never mistaking the waves for the ocean. There’s no crisis or memory that cannot be re-framed into an opportunity.

Hard times will always come. One day, you’ll get the call from the family physician, that their daughter has Lymphoma, and that this is absolutely capital n, capital n, Not Normal. Or, one day you come to find your spouse in your bed with someone you knew but wish you didn’t, and then papers come soon after and you need to find yourself a place of your own. Reality is gritty. Ask anyone who’s lost someone they’ve loved, or been given up for dead, or watched their family unit torn apart by drugs or mental illness or an overeager system of mass incarceration.

When you take the long view of life, the true “normal” is pure chaos. Death, adversity, illness, struggle, hunger, pain, suffering, war and distraction. But also remember, when tough times come — that bird is not a pelican’t … it’s a pelican.

There’s a concept in Japanese they call “Kaizen.” (That’s it above.) The rough literal translation to English is “perpetual incremental improvement,” or the idea of doing some small things a little bit better each day. The idea is if you keep practicing Kaizen, eventually excellence becomes baked into your default. To truly master anything requires this. And it requires humility.

You’ve only begun down this road. You are but young, un-evolved monsters — easy on the eyes, highly malleable but infantile in your progression to becoming true agents of change in a boundless universe. You will drive cars that drive themselves. You will see pictures on your smartphone from another solar system in your lifetime. You’ll be mapped, photographed, documented, analyzed, reported and quantified. But although that sounds clinical, I still want you to chase the elusive horizon, and keep your boldest ideas in your imagination for when the world is ready for them. You’ll need them for the dark times ahead.

As you’ve probably gathered by now, this life is not all rainbows. Racism, sexism and bigotry still run as wild as the old west in pockets of this nation and in the blood of our institutions. This country still preys on its underprivileged, its tired and its poor. And, especially, on black and brown people. Not enough people think critically and speak with empathy about the very real, disturbing tradition of racism and exploitation in this country.

Society in all corners of the world are devolving into chaos and unrest, and it’s hard to find reprieve from the myriad injustices, inequalities and insanity that gripped Planet Earth. The world order has collapsed, xenophobia and nationalism have spiked to surreal levels, and you’re just in time to see it all turn into ash.

All that said, this means it will become more important than ever for you to have real answers to questions like — how will you use your next hour? Your day? Your week? Your year?

Additionally — and this shouldn’t need to be said, but in the darkness that is where I live, it bears note — make it a point to be kinder and more curious to people you see regularly. Take disciplined, measured action to protect yourself and others, reach out to our most vulnerable, aid in your communities, work hard, stay healthy and stay true to your destination. At every turn, ask yourself: How far are you willing to venture — to secure the safety, the freedom, the rights, the homes, the culture, the lives of those who stand to lose the most in the darkness to come?

Change is inevitable but progress is indeterminate. Think of a couple things you yourself would like to learn — and learn those things. Do those things. Become those things. You are the protagonist in your own story. You control the movement and the action. Even if you can’t control how people or whole societies act around you.

3. The present is all we have.

All you get is a set of moments. Some big, some small, but all pretty equally weighted at the final bell. Time never comes, it only goes. I want to show you something important now:

If you take nothing else away from this speech … make sure it’s this.

You’re going to run into a good chunk of people in this world, who will say things like, “Another day, another dollar.” People who view life as a checklist. A straight line. A path. A road. A home. A place. A HOV-lane to the grave paved in ordinary.

What holds so many of us back? Short answer: We’re all very fucking afraid. And the thing with fear is on a surface level it’s indistinguishable from laziness. 90% of the time it’s the former and 90% of people will assume it’s the latter. It’s the type of thing that leads us to say things like, “I’ve got everything I want right here,” and not really mean it.

Breaking through fear isn’t about knowing more. It’s about acting on it. Making decisions takes logic and reason. Most of us have that. Acting on those decisions requires emotion. And if our dominant emotion is fear — we’ll exist in a constant idle. Paralyzed while in motion.

How do you fix that?

  1. Do lots of scary shit.
  2. Repeat.

Think about it: Everything you do the first time sucks! Sex! Trying sushi! Long division! And yet … we get better at things the less we’re scared by them. You have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. That’s how you overcome fear.

But you can’t do it all. The only proper way to manage that realization is to make a very loose plan, leave yourself a lot of wiggle room for your whims, and find peace where you are.

Time’s relentless attack on memory erodes our experiences into something resembling a linear narrative. Life is not that. It is not a list. It’s a blank sheet. An ellipsis. A trail to be blazed. A route to be charted. Life is always right now. And right now only. Look around. These are your five senses. This is your life. Embrace it. Explore. Jump. Draw. Write. Sing. Play. Laugh. Hide. Seek. Live every day like its both your first and your last. Struggle well.

Sometimes, regrets can eat at you like mosquitoes by the lake at dusk. Some days, waking up in the morning requires lifting a family sedan off your chest first. Yes, We are the sum of our stories, but we are not slaves to them. Embrace each day and never stop moving, no matter how much it rains and no matter how hard the winter wind whips your face.

You do not need to fret over your feelings and thoughts. Of would’ves and could’ves and should’ves and oughts. Mistakes are a man-made construct. No one is truly a failure who keeps stepping into the batter’s box, and the path laid before you can only be walked in the shoes of the one who is wearing them.

The moments that matter are the ones that pass when no one is watching, when no one cares and when nothing is on the line. Downtime management as not just a key to success, but the cornerstone of it. Read a book. Start cross-fit. Get a better job. Go to grad school. Mentor some kids. Walk shelter dogs. Backpack through Asia. Meditate. Brew a tasty IPA. Bike across town. Pick up guitar. Paint the skyline. Create. Make. Do. Share. Find a way to be interesting. All that separates you from your legacy is how you spend your time.

More importantly, I’m going to tell you that the secret to success is giving up on the idea of success altogether. Much like mistakes are man-made and do not exist, success doesn’t exist, either. It’s a fairy-tale people tell you to inspire you to continue reading more fairy-tales and make you feel like you’re on the road to somewhere great without actually getting you any closer.

Success doesn’t exist because, once you achieve it, you’re going to look around and ask yourself, “What else?” Everyone does this. That’s the Hedonic Treadmill. What you had before may not compare to what you have now, but what you have now will almost certainly not be enough. Your mind tricks you. For every moment that passes after achieving a thing, your enjoyment of that thing wanes over time.

When you affix your self-worth to metrics and results, you are postponing your own happiness and placing it outside the realm of your control, all while — even worse — you’re convincing yourself that you’re “on your way” to being happier and more successful than ever, that you’re this close to “making it,” without realizing that once you reach where you thought was the horizon, the goalposts keep moving back and now you’ve got somewhere new to go to be happy and searching for meaning. Success only finds you when you don’t go out looking for it. Achievements may give you accolades, but they don’t necessarily make you a better person because you did them.

So instead of focusing on goals, try this instead: Focus on Process. Focus on a perfect process and not on perfect results. Your practice isn’t practice. It’s a performance. Your education isn’t preparation. It’s the real actual thing. The means don’t justify the ends — they are the ends. Doing things in life is an astonishing rush of awesome. It’s an accomplishment. It shouldn’t be discounted. But, only when it’s a result of sustained, perpetual effort and improvement does it signify “progress.” Routinely ask yourself, “what would you like to learn?” “What would you like to experience?” “What would you like to make?” Learn those things. Do those things. Make those things. Share those things. The present is all you’ll ever have — make the most of it.

4. Love is real.

Imagine: Our souls float across the sea of life, taking on water as they go, occasionally sinking ever so slightly — perhaps even imperceptibly — into despair. Happiness is the bucket we use to pour the water out of our vessels and keep us afloat. What we really need is peace. Peace patches the holes and stops the leaking. And, thus, we will no longer need to seek happiness. Peace comes from love.

Love isn’t like a sugar-sweet love song with its earnest words and heart-tugging melody. Its jazz. Complex, virtuous, atonal, visceral and totally made up as you move through it. And that makes it more interesting. The greatest things we will ever do in our lives are those things which breathe life into the souls of others. Love without regard for your safety, sanity or solitude. Kiss longer. Make love more often. Do both in the summer rain. Love. Love. Love. Hard. I’ll tell you why.

As I’ve said, our lives are inherently lonely. The opposite of that loneliness is intimacy — the act of revealing your whole self to someone else and having them reciprocate. That’s true love. It is something you can only do one-on-one, face-to-face, soul-to-soul. It’s gritty, emotional, raw, unfiltered, unabashed, unpretentious and unguarded. It’s more than talking about things together. It’s being about things together. Understanding takes intimacy. Intimacy takes effort. And it won’t always come.

For what are we in this world if not connectable, interlocking parts? What is this joy, suffering, talent, wisdom if not to be shared and imparted? How much has gone wasted or unremedied due to an inability for intimacy, our own tight-lipped tendencies? A soul is not a silo, a mind is not a mine. We worship, learn, aid, sing, watch, call, visit, fuck, create, talk, love, try, read and write to bring ourselves closer — to make whole what we lack in the emptiness of loneliness. Each deeper connection creates deeper character, with more room to grow, more to lose and more to become. A heart unbroken is a life unwagered. A dream undashed is a life unlived. To play safe, to play solo, is to play a fool’s game. Love is real. Embrace it. Early and often.

Inthe end, our ability to live by those four truths are what define us.And whether that takes the form of being in a moment, writing a song, sharing a pizza or nailing a joke, this is how we bring people together, raise people up, and set new ideas in motion. That’s the rage against the dying of the light: Making the universe work that much harder to write over everything you’ve done, before even the canvas itself fades to black, before there’s no one left to say goodbye to and nothing left to miss when you’re no longer there. If what feels like everything amounts to nothing, and what looks like nothing amounts to everything, then perhaps we’re all just as well served making as many moments from our minutes as possible — we don’t get that many of them.

Noone is immortal. Not even you. Change is inevitable and unstoppable. The present is all we have. Love is real. These are the only four truths I know.

Everything you love will die. Everything you know will change. All your memories will fade away, and your expectations will be thwarted. Build anyway. Love anyway.

Life isn’t about living a great story, it’s about love. It isn’t about going where you want to go all the time. It’s about laughter, friends, family and health. It’s about believing in other people and letting others believe in you.

Change, love, death and the present are the only truths we have. Everything else — the expectations, thoughts and memories — clouds them and makes us tragically sick. The sooner we can detach ourselves from these clouds, from the weight of tragic memories, the suffering of incessant overthinking, or the hell of high expectations, the happier we will be, the freer we will be. We will find a way to accept change, to love with all our hearts, to come to terms with death, and to be truly present here — these are the most human, most righteous and most noble of pursuits.

Everything else, all the way trying and failing and wondering if you’ll ever be enough, all of it: The rest is just noise. The rest is just lies. We’re more than the stories we tell ourselves, even if the stories we tell ourselves trick us into thinking we should be more than what we are. In the end, we are ultimately left and forgotten. That doesn’t mean that none of this matters. It means that all of this is all that ever will.

Thank you. I’ll meet you at the keg party after. Go easy on the jello shots.

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