You Are Not Special, Yet
A collective of my favorite commencement address advice...plus a little of my own.
Hello everyone, I hope you all had a great Memorial Day filled with both family and gratitude. This week I’m mixing up the typical format in light of graduation season. These are a few pieces of wisdom aimed at new grads but vital for us all to remember.
I’ve also shared my personal favorite commencement address at the end. But first…
“Like accolades ought to be, the fulfilled life is a consequence, a gratifying by-product. 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.”
— William McCullough, from “You Are Not Special,” his commencement address to Wellseley High School
“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.”
— J. K. Rowling
You are not special…yet
Without a doubt, the number one folly of youth is to believe yourself deserving of anything. When I sat in your place ten years ago, I felt entitled to the life that was lining up in front of me. I earned a degree from, what was at the time, the top public engineering undergraduate program in the country. Several months before finishing, I had signed a lucrative offer to begin a position after graduation.
I walked into my first day of work with a sense of nervous anticipation, but also with an unerring sense that they were lucky to have me. I was, after all, pretty awesome.
My sense of entitlement came from a misconception of what college is and a misunderstanding of my relationship with my new employer. I thought that college is a training program to teach you the necessary skills for your prospective profession. Since I had been trained in this whole engineering thing, I was thus valuable, special, and deserving of the high salary that I was offered.
I was wrong. Completing college is something to be celebrated. You are deserving of admiration for setting a goal and doing the consistent work to accomplish it. But your work in college does not make you valuable. Yet. College is more of a selection filter than a training program. At best, college will teach you how to think critically and avoid logical fallacies. For most students though, college is little more than a long, drawn-out test of general aptitude and ability to commit to a long-term goal. I don’t mean to undermine anything that you have learned or diminish the efforts of your professors, many of who I’m sure are very effective and committed to their roles. I simply aim to shift your perception of where you are in your journey. Graduation doesn’t certify that you have mastered much of anything, only that you are now ready to begin the real journey (that’s why is called a Commencement!). You are at Level 0 and have just entered the playing field. Despite your great potential, you have not yet done much of real value.
I attended perhaps the most useful Bachelor’s program available. Mechanical engineering curriculum is so practical that it resembles a vocational school with heavy math and theory. My program also followed the motto of “Learn by Doing,” a recognition that hands-on experience always trumps theoretical understanding. Despite the practicality of my education, I still had very little value to my first employer and none of the domain-specific knowledge that I needed.
I was not first hired, nor will you be, for the value that I already possessed. My first employer didn’t really see me as having much current value at all. Rather, they saw my university experience simply as confirmation of a certain level of aptitude. My degree lent a bit of credence to the belief that I could develop into a valuable asset.
You are a brand new racehorse. You might have shown a bit of promise with a smooth stride a few fast laps on the training field, but investing in you is a gamble to any employer. Your salary is not a gift. It’s not even correct to think of it as something that you earned. Like playing the stock market, an employer places a bet on your prospective value in the hope that their investment will bring an even greater return. This is your job. Enter your next steps, whatever they are, with humility and a commitment to prove your worth. Wherever you end up, they will be happy to have you and eager to help you grow.
When in doubt, do the bold thing.
Security and prudence are only prudent some of the time. I often hear advice about caring for your future self. This advice usually comes as guidance to plan, save, and create a safety net. We do need to consider the future and make arrangements for potential worst care scenarios, but caution and prudence can very easily come to prevent all of the best things in life. I care for my future self in a much different way. In my experience, future selves (that is to say, present selves looking back on past decisions) do not feel proud of the security they have built. Instead, they lament bold actions not taken. We don’t look back on prudent behavior and laud our maturity. We look back with fond pride on the bold and impractical choices that bring richness to our life.
I left that first engineering job that I mentioned earlier after about three years. In the seven years since I have been to dozens of countries and lived long-term in several of them. I have held dozens of different jobs, all low-paying but exciting for other reasons. And twice I have dropped everything, gotten rid of nearly all of my possessions, and left the country on a one-way ticket with no purpose other than exploration. Such a nomadic and dynamic existence is not necessary. However, the modern world and the Standard Model of Western life are unhealthy and unfulfilling at nearly every level. Thriving today requires an intentional choice to live outside the norm. Thriving today requires bold action (and probably always has).
The final thought that I will leave you with is a particular flavor of boldness that has been such a powerful force in creating my life that it deserves its own discussion.
Commitment Precedes Opportunity
Shane and I live by (and often teach) the maxim that “inspiration follows action.” It is easier to act your way into a new what of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting. In other words, you need to put in the difficult early reps to teach your body to love the rewards of something before you can expect your mind to crave it. Your rational thinking only comes online after to justify the choices that you’re already leaning towards.
I find a similar relationship between commitment and opportunity. The best opportunities require that we meet them halfway.
Opportunities arise all the time. You can always make a lateral change, say yes to a new offer, or switch fields completely. But the special opportunities, the ones that bring meaning to our lives and allow us to pursue the things that touch the deepest place of our hearts, require an initial investment. You need to lean in with confidence to bring great opportunities to you.
Commit to a field, an idea, a person, or a path first. Only once you have filled your focus without regard to any specific outcome do the best opportunities present themselves.
I learned this lesson first while traveling. I once traveled solo for nearly one year. I purchased only one-way tickets. I booked a place to stay only after arriving in a new city. I never chose my next destination until deciding the leave the previous one. I remained open to input and committed to discovery. The “homes” that I found and the relationships that I developed would never have come if I traveled with a more structured itinerary. I now bring this approach to everything in life.
When I began coaching, I didn’t make a plan or set specific goals. I surrounded myself with the people and influences that I admired most and committed to learning in the areas where I had the most curiosity. Once I saw something that I wanted, I focused and worked hard to achieve it, but I could have never planned to be where I’m at now.
This approach also defines the two most pround new relationships of my life: my partnership with Marika and the origin story of IHD. Upon meeting, Shane and I discovered our shared passion for youth development and a broader view of “fitness.” We began to collaborate on an online course that, in hindsight, was mostly a way to build a relationship and determine where our ideas overlapped and where they differed. IHD emerged from this exploration over a year later and still took many more years to come to its current form. We could not have planned for this. We had to commit to building, learning, and being of service for the current form to present itself.
Marika and I met through a chance encounter at a CrossFit gym just before she moved to New Zealand. When she learned that I spent several months there, she asked for a few recommendations and our online pen-pal relationship began. Our connection grew almost by accident and after several months of increasingly frequent correspondence, it was clear that there was an opportunity for something more. I planned a trip to New Zealand to explore our possible connection. A trans-Pacific trip, especially when I couldn’t afford it, seems a rash action. But I had already learned to be bold in moments of indecision. I knew I had to demonstrate my commitment to this possibility before the opportunity could fully emerge. The trip went well. I moved to New Zealand a few months later. We just celebrated 4 years together this month and plan for a lifetime more.
Everything meaningful in my life came from exploration and a commitment to my beliefs rather than any prescriptive planning. I can’t compare a life of security and savings to the path that I’ve chosen. I only have my perspective. But I can say that nearly everyone I know wishes they would have taken more bold actions, in whatever that means to them. And I will never lament my choices to forego comfort and security.
You have reached the most exciting phase of life. You have enough maturity and experience to know that you can handle yourself, but you have yet to travel down any narrow path. Lean into exploration and know that a bold choice that brings heartache and failure was still worth the risk. Feel confident in your ability to improve in any pursuit you choose, but never overestimate your value at the beginning. Humility is the secret sauce to all relationships and the force that welcomes new opportunities into your life.
Commencement addresses are one of my favorite sources of positive influence. These are my three favorites. I return to each one often and I hope that you enjoy them as much as I do.
Make Good Art by Neil Gaiman
You Are Not Special by William McCullough (cited above)
Admiral Willam H. McRaven to University of Texas, Austin in 2014
Live is too short to be normal,
Thanks for penning this, Justin. My first batch of students are currently in their first year of university and reading this filled me with hope for these guys, just beginning to embark on the rest of their lives.
Cheers and keep up the good work!