In December of 2018, I had the opportunity to speak to the winter graduates of the Davis Applied Technical College (DATC). So impressed by the graduates, many of whom have risen above challenging circumstances to better themselves and their communities. The experience gave me the chance to reflect on some of the key life lessons that I’ve learned over the years. Thought it was worth reposting those thoughts here …
Good evening graduates, parents, and families.
I love graduations because they represent moments of great promise–milestones in our lives. The work done, we can savor the results and look forward to new opportunities and new horizons.
When I was asked to speak a few weeks ago, I happened to be walking along the Ogden River, and I picked this up [a smooth, round stone]. Anyone know what it is?
It’s a rock. Just a plain old rock. Given where I found it, it’s probably pretty young by rock standards, maybe 20-30 million years old, and it will last a few thousand years more at least before it crumbles to dust.
I know what you’re thinking, “Did I walk into the wrong room? Is this Geology Class or a graduation speech?” My point is this: when you consider the age of a rock–tens, if not hundreds of millions of years old–a human life is just the blink of an eye. We have just this one, brief moment on earth, and so the question becomes: what do we do with that moment?
It was with that kind of perspective in mind that Henry David Thoreau, at age 27, decided to spend two years living in a cabin he built near the shores of Walden Pond. Thoreau’s goal wasn’t to become a hermit. Rather, he relocated there, within walking distance of family and friends, because he wanted to live his life in a certain way. Here’s how he described his decision:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
In a day long before cell-phones–these wonderful but horrid little attention grabbers–Thoreau realized that life is full of distractions–things that blur our vision and make it hard to see what’s most important, what’s most valuable.
It’s with that perspective in mind that I’d like to share with you the three most important life lessons I’ve learned in nearly 50 years on this planet.
Lesson #1: don’t fall for the fake.
I don’t know what it is about human nature. We all seem to want the same things. We want to be happy. We want to feel loved and valued. We want our lives to have meaning. That’s not strange, but what is strange is this: too often, we fall for the fake, for the counterfeit. For stuff that promise happiness or love or meaning, but delivers none of those things.
What kind of fakes am I talking about? Let’s start with social media. When Facebook first came on the scene I signed up, along with tens and then hundreds of millions of others. Initially, it felt fun. I reconnected with old friends. I made new friends too. That’s great, but there’s an odd thing about social media: the more time we spend on it, the *less* connected we feel. Social media can make us feel insecure–like we don’t measure up. Our home isn’t as nice, our vacations aren’t as exciting, our significant other not as handsome or as beautiful … You get the idea. So, weirdly, even as we spend time and effort to stay “connected” on social media, it can lead to feelings of loneliness, isolation, and insignificance. In short, we’ve fallen for the fake. Instead of real, human interaction and connection, we’ve settled for a cheap counterfeit version of it, and that’s lame.
What’s the solution? Don’t fall for it. I’m not telling you to sell your phone and close all your social media accounts. I am telling you that being connected online is no substitute for investing in and being present in the relationships that matter most. Those relationships will benefit if we make an effort to put down the phone and focus on being mindful and being present: listening, and laughing, and connecting with others.
There are plenty of other fakes we can fall for. For example, we often think that money or fame will bring happiness, when in truth, not only do wealth and fame not guarantee happiness, in many cases they frustrate it. Consider Robin Williams, Kate Spade, Junior Seau, Sylvia Plath, Kurt Cobain, Ernest Hemingway, Marilyn Monroe, and a long list of other notables who, having found fame and fortune, ultimately lost themselves and then took their own lives in a fit of depression. Would we trade our boring lives for theirs? I wouldn’t, and I trust you wouldn’t either. So, don’t fall for the fake.
Let me give you an example from my own life. By my late 20s, I’d become successful by most measures. I’d graduated from college and a prestigious law school, and landed at a top tier law firm in Washington, D.C. where I made a lot of money, ate at fancy restaurants, and worked on Supreme Court cases with some of the smartest people around. Should be happy, right? Well, I wasn’t. I was miserable. It wasn’t the work itself, which was interesting, or the people, who were, by and large, terrific. It was the relentless pressure of it all. 16-18 hour days glued to a computer screen, sometimes 6 or even 7 days a week. I felt like I was suffocating.
So I left it all and went to work for a non-profit here in Utah, making ¼ of what I’d made before. Money became tight. We struggled. We drove old cars, panicked when we had to replace an appliance, struggled to pay medical bills and the monthly mortgage and, guess what? I was far happier than I’d ever been at the big firm. I spent my days doing work that was rich and rewarding and interesting. I was able to go fishing and count it as work. I went on walks with my wife in the middle of the day. I wrote and published articles. I coached my kids’ soccer teams, and went to all their events, and taught a college course on ethics and pursued cooking and gardening and photography and all the things I loved. You get the idea: it was a wonderful, beautiful time of life.
And guess what? None of that should come as a surprise. There’s a raft of social science research to prove it. What makes us happy? It isn’t money. What makes us fulfilled? It isn’t fame. What delivers both is meaningful, human connection–not the number of friends we have on Facebook or the number of likes on Instagram, but the quality of our real, face-to-face relationships. Choosing to spend our time in ways that are outward focused and that bring true and lasting joy. Serving, helping, teaching, laughing, uplifting others. These are the real McCoy, and the keys to a happy and fulfilled life.
Lesson #2. Be “in it to win it.”
When I got to law school I didn’t feel like I belonged. I was a kid from a small town, a product of public schools, attending law school in New York City, and everyone seemed so much cooler and smarter than I. I remember being afraid to make comments in class, because I feared I’d look dumb, and it would confirm what I thought people suspected about me already: “How’d that guy get in here? He’s from Utah.”
During my second year, I signed up for moot court, which involves a group of students making arguments to a panel of smart lawyers and judges who pepper them with tough questions. I thought I’d try it out, but with no real hope of success.
And then something happened. I met a fellow competitor named Maureen Nakley. She was a transfer from a smaller school and she approached moot court with this amazing confidence and energy. I was blown away. She went on to win the whole thing. Took home the prize for best oral argument. Seeing that, I decided that, if I did moot court again, I’d be “in it to win it”–that I’d go about it with confidence and just do my best. And so that’s what I did third year. I busted my butt. I prepared and prepared and prepared some more. And then I just went out and did my level best.
I made it to the finals, where one of the judges was Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a sitting Supreme Court Justice. In the previous round, I’d been so nervous that I’d run out spit and could barely talk. So, when the day of the finals arrived, I was sure I’d be terrified. But I wasn’t. In fact, I felt this amazing feeling of peace and calm that came from knowing that I’d done my best, and, having done that, the results just didn’t seem to matter all that much.
I stood up, made my arguments, didn’t run out of spit, and then I sat down. I told my wife, “I didn’t win. I think so and so won this prize and so and so won that. But it’s okay, because I did my best, and I feel good about it.” You know what? I was wrong. I won the whole dang thing. Took home both the big prizes. But here’s thing: winning the prizes wasn’t what made me happy or at peace. Rather, it was the feeling that I’d given it my all–that I’d done my best to the point that there was nothing left to give and, given that, I was content to let the chips fall where they may.
The current term for this way of thinking is “vulnerability,” by which we mean embracing the possibility of failure—choosing to risk ‘looking dumb’–as an opportunity for growth and personal progress. When viewed through that lens, the “safe” option, by which I mean the risk-free option, becomes a bad idea. In short, we have to embrace the possibility of failure if we want to grow and have a chance to succeed at the kind of things that matter most.
On a related note, let me share with you an insight from a leadership training I went to at the Air Force Academy a few years ago. They’d done this big study to determine what characteristic defined those most likely to succeed at the academy and in the military. Can you guess what it was? It wasn’t smarts. It wasn’t good looks. It wasn’t the number of friends one had on Facebook or the number of likes on Instagram. It was, in a word: grit. Grit! The quality of being able to stick to a task and see it through to the end. To do one’s best, even in the face of difficulty or adversity. In short, to be ‘in it to win it.’
So, don’t worry if you’re not the smartest, or the best looking, or have the most friends. If you have grit–if you can fight through difficulties and do your best–you have in your possession the single biggest key to success.
Lesson #3. Choose to tell a positive story.
I know what you’re thinking, “Is this Mr. Rogers Neighborhood or is this a graduation speech?!” When I was growing up I used to think that success or failure in life largely turned on our choices. Making good decisions brings success, just as making bad ones brings failure. While that’s true on some level, it’s also more complicated than that. I know chumps who are wildly successful, just as I know decent, hardworking men and women who struggle with all kinds of things. Turns out that making good decisions doesn’t guarantee an easy life.
Still, there does seem to be a powerful element of choice when it comes to our happiness, and that choice boils down to this: what story do we choose to tell about our circumstances? More importantly, what story do we choose to tell about ourselves?
I’m amazed that two people can go through the exact same circumstances, and emerge with vastly different perspectives. You know what I’m talking about? One guy loses his leg and “Oh, why did this happen to me?” and “I’ve seen no end of suffering and bad luck” and “Why does God hate me?” and another guy loses his leg, and he’s like, “Well, I’m glad I still have one good leg,” and that guy runs the New York City Marathon, and gives a TED talk, and makes a bunch of money as a motivational speaker and marries a cover model and they live happily ever after … on a yacht … in Fiji. You see: it’s all about perspective!
I believe that we have the freedom to choose–not our circumstances necessarily, but the story we choose to tell about those circumstances and how we react to them. That’s where the most powerful and meaningful choice comes in. You, my friend, may choose to see the glass as half empty, but I choose to see it as half full.
And those “glass half full” people seem to live much happier and fulfilled lives than those who choose to tell a more negative story.
So, what if you’re Eeyore or Charlie Brown? What if you have hard time finding silver linings in a world of clouds and shades of gray? My advice to you is to practice. Just like you’d practice the piano, or learning Spanish or anything else that requires consistent and sustained effort. Just try to tell a positive story–to find the silver lining–and here’s the amazing thing: before you know it, you’ll start to become better at it, and the better you become at it, the better you’ll feel about your life, about others, and about your future.
Yes, you’ll fail—we all fail at some things—but the positive story teller will pick herself up. I’m better than this. I will learn from my mistakes. I will move forward and be the kind of person I know I can be.
One last illustration. Nearly 18 years ago my mother died, tragically and unexpectedly. She’d was such an amazing person, and had been such a positive influence on me and many others for many years. A short while later, my wife went into premature labor, and the baby died before it could draw its first breath. I remember sitting in a hospital room and holding this little lifeless baby in my arms as the heat slowly slipped away from its body. I felt alone, and helpless, and sad.
While I’ll never fully understand why those things happened to me and those I cared about, I’ve come to see those experiences as some of the most important, defining experiences of my life. They taught me to take nothing for granted. To love a little deeper, and laugh a little louder, and to savor each precious moment I’m blessed to spend on this earth with those I love. Life is short, but life is sweet, and all the more sweet because it isn’t guaranteed.
You see: that’s not a story that happened to me. Oh, those things did happen, but the story is one I choose to tell about myself. And that choice doesn’t make it a fiction as it’s as real and powerful as anything in this life.
And so, as you leave here tonight, as you graduate and move on to find your own place in the world, I hope you’ll learn to tell a positive story. A good story. An uplifting story. A story where you’re the hero. Because you are a hero, or at least you can be, if you give it your all, and choose to savor life, and try your best to learn all the positive lessons it has to offer.
Let me close with the words of Mark Twain, who wrote the following to a young friend who was soon to be married: “There isn’t time, so brief is life, for bickerings … heartburnings, [or] callings to account. There is only time for loving, and but an instant, so to speak, for that.”