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graduation speech at Kells Academy

Here’s a speech I gave at the graduation of the sixth and eleventh grades of Kells Academy in Montreal on  June 3 :

I am honored to have been asked to address this year’s graduating class at Kell’s. We are a recent family at the school. Oliver, who is graduating, and his brother Zachary, who will be a senior next year, came in the middle of this year. They were immediately embraced and engaged by their teachers who know how to make the things they teach interesting largely because– I have met almost all of them– they are interesting people themselves. So our boys are flourishing here. The small classes, the child-centered educational philosophy, and the teachers who have the ability to turn their students on to the endless fascination of what is out there make this is great place to be educated.

So here you are at the end of your secondary education with just a couple of more years of being teens left. What can 64 year old guy like me tell you at this important milestone in your lives ? Plenty, and I only have have ten minutes, so let me get right to it and share some of the things that I have learned in my life and travels, some of the things people have told me and that I have done and wish I had done, and pass on a few special moves that may help you get through some of the difficult moments you are inevitably going to be facing in the years ahead.

The first thing is something a Maasai man in Tanzania told me. You probably have seen the Maasai on t.v.. The men have long spears and robes and dreads dyed red and lots of beautiful beaded necklaces and bracelets. He told me something his father told him when he was a boy : whenever you are wondering what the right thing to do is, just put your hand out with your palm up. That is the right thing to do. Then put your palm facing down. That is the wrong thing to do. Listen to your heart, and you will always know the difference.

What this Maasai man was saying was that we all know right from wrong, we have a built-in moral compass and  a scale of justice. This is a very useful thing to have in the modern world which is based on providing material comforts and consumption and doesn’t always give you much moral guidance. You are going to face decisions about what the right thing to do is throughout your life. Many of you I’m sure already have. So you have to listen to your heart and learn how to collect and evaluate information and so you can make an informed assessment of the situation. This is the main purpose of your formal education, to learn how to think logically, and to gain as broad a knowledge base as you can. So open yourself to everything. Whatever walk of life you end up choosing, having a broad frame of reference can only be useful. Let’s say you become a professional musician. Math, physics, neuroscience, and anthropology and being informed and concerned about what is happening in the world will only help you to understand the very mathematical harmonic progressions of melodic sequences, the way the ear organizes sound in the 12-note octave and the cycle of fifths, the physics of harmony that is the same in every culture, and their ethnomusicology, which  is
very different, and to write powerful lyrics, if that is what you are going to do.
All too soon you will be asked to chose your area of specialization. But  you should never lose your curiosity and should be interested in everything, especially the study of natural history, which is tragically not part of many school curriculums. Get out into nature as much as you can, because nature is the beginning and the end of everything. Learn the trees and the birds and what we are doing to the natural world so we can have all our comforts and gizmos. A few weeks ago an Ojibwe woman I met deep in the boreal forest of eastern Manitoba told me, “Each of us has little gifts that we must share to give balance, to know where we stand in the circle of life.” A friend of mine wrote a book about the brain in which he says there are 180 different kinds of intelligence, and no one has them all. So the first order of business is to find out what your talents and your passions are. But this make take a while, so try different things and keep an open mind and do your best at whatever you undertake, because even if something isn’t what you end up doing, giving it everything you have and doing well at anything builds  self-confidence and opens unexpected doors.
The other thing I recommend as an essential part of your informal education is travel. Go out into the world and see things first hand and draw your own conclusions. Nothing is more educational than seeing how different kinds of people and forms of life are living.

But always think for yourself. And believe in yourself and be true to yourself. You can only be who you are, so the sooner your find out who you are– gnosthe seauton, know yourself, as Socrates put it,  what your passion is, your dream, and go for it, the more you will have to contribute. The teenage years and even  into adulthood are full of questions about identify, doubts about who you are and what you’re supposed to be doing here, and whether you can do it.  You don’t know if you have the stuff. Other people are better athletes or students or are better looking and more popular than you are. But this is all in your mind. Whatever you want to do, you can do. You may stumble and fall and fail a couple of times, but if you persevere and give it everything, you can do it. As Thomas Edison said about his inventions, they were the result of 10% inspiration, and 90% perspiration. So anything you put your mind on, you can usually get there. Let’s say you’re learning a new chord on the guitar. The first hundred times you play it you’re not going to be able to play it clean without some strings buzzing. But after a couple of thousand times, it comes automatically and you don’t even have to think about it.

I have always wanted to be a singer, but even to this day I don’t have confidence in my voice, I’m always worried I am going to miss a note or a beat or forget a lyric. My wife and I watched this season’s American Idol, and it was really inspiring to see these kids– the finalists were only sixteen and seventeen– conquering their nerves and belting their hearts out. So self-confidence is really important if you want to create a life in which you can be who you really are to the fullest and most effectively and usefully. It is particularly important in the performing arts, but also in golf, in presenting your case if you are a lawyer or getting elected and your bills passed if you are a politician or advocating for your client if you are a lawyer.  A few years ago I had dinner in dublin with Bono, the rock superstar who is playing the Bell Centre this weekend. Bon is very sure of himself– you have to be to be a superstar– but he is a good guy and has used his high profile to do a lot of good for the poor people in Africa. I asked him why he had such a big ego, and he said, “The ego is always at the wheel.” You are in charge of your own life, so the sooner you take charge of it the better it will be for you and for the world.
Ultimately– and this realization may not come until much later in life– you realize as a woman whose husband suddenly died of cancer in his forties, leaving her with three kids to raise alone,  told me, life is fragile, it is precious, and it is not about you. It is about doing what you can for the world, and the world these days has many terrible problems.  And this is your world, the world you are going to grow up in, so you are going to have to do something about these problems, particularly the environmental problems caused by their being so many of us, so many cars on the road, so many houses to heat, so many toilets to flush. The more you can travel and see things for yourself, the more suffering you are going to see, the more you are going to realize how good we have it here in Montreal, although there are pockets of poverty and misery in this city too. Most of the adults in this  hall today, or their parents or grandparents, came from some other part of the where things were really bad and they needed to find a better life, with security and human rights, and the basic necessities of food, shelter, health care and education. The suffering of the people in Haiti, for instance, and the problems of the environment are so horrible that many people are overwhelmed and resign themselves to doing nothing about it. But in fact, there are unlimited things you can do to make a difference, whatever line of work you end up going into. There are so many problems that there is no shortage of causes to take up.  If you become a musician, you can write a song that moves people to take action for positive change. If you’re a lawyer, you can do pro bono advocacy for people who have come here to ask for political asylum. My wife just started work as a clinical social worker, and she already has her hands full with people with all kinds of problems. If you are a journalist, you can expose something that is not right, and force the powers that be to do something about it. In The August issue of Vanity Fair you will see a big piece I did on elephants and the ivory trade. We’re hoping it will help persuade the new Chinese middle class to stop buying ivory, which is causing the slaughter of 100 elephants a day in Africa. If you are planning to make a lot of money, you can give some of it to improve the lives of the billions of people less fortunate than you, give them a chance to have a decent life and make something out of themselves. All of us can take simple basic steps to reduce our carbon and ecological footprints, which I’m delighted to see Oliver just did a paper on.
One of the greatest people I have met is a Kenyan woman called Wangari Maathai, who won the Nobel Peace prize for starting something called the Green Belt movement and getting the women of Kenya to plant millions of trees. She told me a fable about a hummingbird that I always remind myself of when I am discouraged and wondering what can I do and what different is what I am doing going to make ? There is a great forest fire, Wangari related, and all the animals are fleeing from the forest except for the hummingbird, which is flying back and forth from a spring and scooping up slivers of water in its tiny beak and dumping them on the roaring flames. The other animals who are standing at the edge of the forest ask the hummingbird, derisively, what do you think you’re doing, stupid little bird ? And the hummingbird says, I’m doing what I can. That’s the best any of us can do, but to do nothing, to just think of yourself when there are so many problems and so much suffering in the world, is not the path to fulfillment and it is not going to make you a happy person.
Finally I want to tell you about another simple practice you can tdo whenever you are overwhelmed by the suffering around you, or even by your own problems. I learned it in six years ago in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Kathmandu, Nepal when I was writing about book about that 2500 year old religion, or ethical system. It’s called Giving and Receiving.  Put out your arms and breathe in the suffering of the world, while slowly pulling in your arms to your chest. Then breathe out love and thoughts for peace and harmony and health and enough to eat and clean water and an end to war for all of your fellow human beings and an end to the destruction of the environment and  death of the sentient beings we share the planet with, and this will take you out of yourself and make you realize that your own personal problems don’t really amount to a hill of beans. We are not here for ourselves, we are here to do what we can to make the world a better place for everybody.
So on this note, I want to tell my son, and all of you graduating today, how proud I am of you. So go out there and make us even prouder. But don’t do it for us, or even for yourselves. Do it for the world.  It needs all the help it can get. Then you’ll really be somebody.