As you high school seniors sit patiently in caps and gowns waiting for that coveted piece of paper that will allow you to get up and on to what comes next, and I don’t mean the graduation party, it’s important to reflect on the journey of the past eighteen years. To begin, it’s important to remember all the advice and direction you’ve received along the way. Specifically, it sounded something like this. Wake up. Pay attention. Listen carefully. Sit still. Write this down. Follow your passion, or don’t follow your passion. Develop your skills. See the world. Find your place. Be yourself. Try out new identities. Oh, and drop out of college and start a tech company.
What you probably don’t recall as you slept through a study of Hamlet is the advice from Polonious when he advised his son Laertes, “This above all: to thine own self be true.” Of course, you probably remember from the Spark Notes, or from the Mel Gibson movie, that his advice didn’t work out too well for Polonious or Laeretes or Hamlet. Henry David Thoreau advised us to “live deliberately.” Basically, that fits with the wake up that many of us heard in various classes. We’ve all had those times when we’ve walked across campus or sat through a class or meeting and we have almost no recollection of it. It’s like when you’re sitting watching television for a while, and some one enters the room and asks what you’re watching, and you honestly haven’t slightest idea. If you’re going to watch TV or take a walk or sit in a class, don’t do it passively. Do so with deliberate and mindful practice. Pay careful attention to what you’re doing. Don’t live passively.
Regardless of where you go and what you do, don’t let people fence you in. Don’t let the world put boundaries on you. The contemporary world is one of standardization in which society and the consumer world seeks to maximize efficiency by making everyone the same. We will all eat at the same restaurants and listen to the same music and wear the same clothes and study the same subjects and take the same tests. Don’t let people limit you. But they will if you aren’t living consciously and paying attention. And, don’t limit yourself to any borders, literal or metaphorical. That means not being afraid to go where the job is. Even if the job is selling coffee in the suburbs. Or teaching English in Taiwan.
The world is becoming more standardized, but the American ethos of a “rugged individuality” and pioneering spirit was not about sameness. It was, however, about choice. And there may be nothing wrong with consistency and similarity as long as it is a conscious and deliberate choice. Henry David Thoreau was an original. In fact, he was the original original. And that originality has run throughout American history, mostly recently in the culture of punk, an ethos nowhere better defined than in the “Punk Rock Manifesto” from Bad Religion front man, Greg Graffin, who asserted, “Punk is: a belief that this world is what we make of it, and truth comes from our understanding of the way things are, not from the blind adherence to prescriptions about the way things should be.”
If we approach our lives with that sort of deliberateness and honesty, we will all be in much better shape.