Thank you, graduating class of 2017, for inviting me here to speak today. And thank you to the University of Colorado, to Chancellor DiStefano, and to the Board of Regents for supporting their decision. Congratulations distinguished faculty, and friends and family, and, of course, especially, congratulations to the graduates.
This is the scariest thing ever.
I am comforted by one thing: when I think back to my commencement speaker, it’s just a blank space – totally empty. Nothing. So, I’m telling myself this is all reward and no risk.
I actually solicited opinions about this speech from many people, including my parents, who are here today. The advice was wide-ranging: Just be funny! Definitely be political! Definitely DON’T be political! (Can we agree on nothing these days!?)
A few folks even suggested I should note the current work of the different schools here at CU, showing I’m in touch with the University. That would have been impressive of me, I agree, but let me be transparent: I boarded the plane here, to Colorado, using my passport because my driver’s license is lost. I’m using one of my girlfriend’s extra credit cards because my wallet is in Ithaca, at a coffee shop, hopefully soon being mailed to me. The oil change on my car is 8,000 miles past due and I had to file an extension for my taxes.
So, yeah, the likelihood that I’m up to date on the University’s research papers and grants … I’m not.
My parents are over there nodding. They’re probably still wondering when I’m going to follow through on what I promised them when I graduated college 13 years ago: that I’d take myself off the family cell phone plan. It’s just so convenient.
So I’m obviously also not here today to tell you how to be a competent, functioning adult. I am, however, going to be earnest with you about a few things that have been spinning around my mind lately.
I grew up playing basketball. Eventually, I played here, at the University of Colorado, but first I practiced, every day for almost a decade, spending afternoons and evenings working on my game in a gym empty of everything except my dad, a basketball, and me. During those years, I took 250 shots a day, which means that growing up I took approximately one million shots. One million shots that no one witnessed, no one applauded. And yet I remember, and feel, the undiluted sense of accomplishment and validation when I watched the ball arc toward the rim, when I watched it drop through the net. The gratification came from feeling the competence of my own body, which I had harnessed through repetition; hearing the snap of the net was the punctuation. The feedback loop ended by the time the ball hit the floor.
Perhaps you’re worried this is a story meant to illustrate the value of working hard when no one is watching. It’s not. This is a story about validation, about satisfaction -- about where we find these things and what happens when we start looking in the wrong places.
Because a shift has occurred: we now seem addicted to the reaction, to the applause. And even more than that: it’s as if nothing is inherently beautiful, but only if enough people agree that it is -- if it is liked 500 times, retweeted 100, if it has its own Instagram page and LinkedIn account. I don’t really understand Snapchat, or I would have included that, too.
Writing this speech was revelatory. For three months, I floundered, writing speech after speech -- in fact, seven different versions. All are still on my Mac. Actually, a few were on my girlfriend’s Mac, which I left in the seat pocket of a plane, and which Delta assures me, through automated email, they are diligently looking for.
But, buzzing in my subconscious was the hope that if I wrote the perfect speech, it would go viral on Twitter and Facebook, and maybe a publisher would even turn it into one of those little books, in which the very best commencement speeches are preserved.
You see the problem immediately: I was writing to the response. In none of those earlier versions did I attempt to capture what might be most useful to you, but instead I focused on what might get the most clicks if put on the internet.
So, after all my fits and starts on this speech, I asked myself: for whom am I writing this? Was it Option A: For me, so I can be called clever or insightful? Option B: For you guys, so maybe, you might remember something I say here today -- or even might forget it, until a later date, when you see and feel the thing for yourself.
Perhaps it’s Option C: For both of us. No new ideas exists, just new ways of presenting them, illuminating them, reminding ourselves what we know is real, but often forget as we drown in a pool of superficial.
So screw perfection, that little table book, and worrying about how people react after the ball hits the floor.
Fourteen years have passed since I sat where you’re now sitting. The truth is, there is very little I’ve learned that I feel comfortable standing here and telling you is unequivocally true. But there are a few things I feel confident enough to suggest you should consider.
Here’s one: Dust settles on people, too. We accumulate layers without even realizing it. These layers are the perceptions and beliefs of others – parents and professors, yes, but also people we don’t know, but see and hear -- and they weigh on us, and muddle our decisions in ways almost impossible to recognize. Right now, as you sit here, you might be coated in these layers. You might be headed toward a job, or a master’s degree, that was chosen using the rubric of someone else’s values. Even now, as I stand here, I know my recent decisions have been clouded by this accumulation of what I SHOULD do, not what I WANT to do. I should be on TV; I should want more money. But, underneath those layers, I know a different truth: I WANT to write more, even if it means I’ll MAKE less money. Try replacing ‘should’ with ‘want’ and, as frequently as you are able, make decisions with that rubric. Life is best when your ‘should’ and your ‘want’ are aligned. And when they’re divergent, ask yourself why -- and for whom, and what purpose, you’re doing this thing you believe you should.
But, like, don’t misinterpret this point. We often we must do things we don’t want to: Go to a funeral, pay our dues at our first few jobs, take added sugar out of our diet cause apparently it's the worst, change the oil on our car, file our taxes -- or at least an extension.
But seriously: check in with yourself, frequently, to make sure you're waking up for your actual life, and not just because you're addicted to the side effects -- the money, or prestige, or social status -- that it provides. This is not easy. Nor am I particularly good at it. I’m just suggesting you should be aware.
This is a conversation I often have with myself about working at ESPN, while others usually have a much simpler question:
They want to know how I got to ESPN. I tell them I got to ESPN by not trying to get to ESPN. The year after I graduated from CU, I started freelancing for the Boulder Daily Camera. I desperately wanted a job writing for the Camera. One afternoon, I asked one of their sports columnists, Neil Woelk, for advice. “How long should I wait for a job with you guys?” I asked. He said: “Not a minute longer.” At first, this advice disappointed me, because I liked having such a specific goal -- it comforted me. That’s how the world works as we’re growing up; it’s like we’re climbing a ladder. And while climbing the ladder can be challenging and tiring, we’re never worried we’re expending energy in the wrong direction: study, practice, take the SATs, apply to schools. So much of growing up is paint-by-numbers. And now, before most of you, the world is like a tree, with branches in all directions, and branches off the branches. And how do you know which direction will take you where you want to go, which might be a dead end?
That day inside the Daily Camera, Neil Woelk asked me what my goal was, and I told him I wanted to write for their paper. And he asked what I wanted more: to write, or to write for their paper. Without hesitation, I said, “to write.”
Two weeks later I started a job at the Daily Record, in Eastern Washington State, in a small rodeo town called Ellensburg. Here’s the point: the dead ends I’ve hit are when I’m more worried about the headline than the content. I mean that literally and figuratively: the stories I’ve struggled the most with are the ones I tried to tailor to a clever headline; similarly, the times I’ve boxed in ‘success’, defined it as something specific, I’ve always felt a sense of disappointment when it doesn’t look exactly like I’d planned.
In journalism, one thing you quickly learn is to never ask yes-or-no questions; always ask open-ended questions. Present them with a wide swath of space in which to roam, so that they can carve their own path within it.
Consider making your goals the equivalent of open-ended questions, so that dozens of paths are success.
All this might sound like a fancy way of employing the cliché, ‘Focus on the journey, not the destination,’ and in some ways it is, because cliches are true, and because there are no new ideas, but in one specific way, it’s different, because our technology is quickly shifting how we view things, including success.
At first, as I mentioned, I wrote a speech tailored to be shareable. This thinking did not materialize by chance, in a vacuum: I thought this way because this is how we now think. We have hacked the human mind, discovered what types of headlines we’ll be unable to resist. Our online world is like Las Vegas, designed for addiction. And more and more, we are creating stories to elicit reactions instead of mining ideas to reflect our world.
It is for this reason that I started with the story of taking jump shots in an empty gym. The paradigm of value and success has shifted; we are being taught to focus on what happens after the ball hits the floor, and tailor our shot to maximize the response. When I first started at ESPN, my editor refused to share page view numbers with me, no matter how repeatedly I requested the info, telling me, "I don't want you choosing stories based on page views."
Now, I’m not just worried about stories, I even know exactly which Instagram photos will get the most likes -- the ones when I include a pair of Nike kicks -- and routinely construct situations to get my sneakers in pictures. I have created a crude algorithm in my head, and I'm now altering THE STORY OF MY LIFE, to chase page views.
This is the buzzing superficiality that is hijacking our minds, steadily distracting us from sitting still and thinking, letting our mind connect ideas, seeing what meaningful thoughts come up in the silence. This is not a trivial matter; this is actually the fundamental process of making art: sitting in silence and seeing what bubbles to the surface.
Working to notice the world is being replaced by trying to BE noticed by the world.
Please, Class of 2017, don’t let this keep happening.
Noticing the world helps us make sense of it. What each of you notice about the world will be different than what I notice, then what your best friend will notice, then what anyone else will notice. And some of us communicate these observations through words, some through numbers, others through design, or engineering – but it all starts with a vibration of insight that we allow ourselves to recognize.
Noticing and naming – that’s your voice.
Keep using it and keep exercising it -- regardless of how many people cheer after the shot hits the court.
Good luck to you, Class of 2017. Shoot your shot.