Monday, August 5, 2013

My Commencement Speech for Florida State University 2013 -- Excerpts, Bits, and Quotations

Below is a recap of my commencement speech for FSU's class of 2013 where I stitch the speech together and give some pull-quotes. The speech started with a page of somewhat comedic background on my life and education and then the next two pages flip that background into more universal lessons.

I started with, "... I have to say that, I’m pretty sure that my invitation to speak today is part of an embarrassing clerical error, like instead of Baggott, someone actually requested famous Italian musician and composer Baglioni. Kindly, they didn’t yank the offer."  

But later in the speech, I circled back to this with a comment specifically for the women in the audience. "At the start of this speech, I said I was likely here due to a clerical error. It was a joke, but one that stems from outdated baggage. Be the generation of women leaders who shrug off this antiquated self-deprecation. Don’t make light of your accomplishments. You’ve earned what you’ve gotten. Take credit where credit is due without apology or excuse."

Early on, I said, "I lacked the early earmarks of success. For example, when the gifted and talented teacher walked into my classroom telling the gifted and talented students to collect their things for gifted and talented class, I didn’t have to collect anything. I could stay put. I was good at something. During the Presidential fitness test, I could hang onto the chin-up bar for so long the other kids got bored and walked away." 

Later, I explained the three myths that, to my mind, are the most destructive to American innovation. "Our culture is deeply invested in the concepts of inspiration, luck, and innate talent. These three concepts have one thing in common: they require no work, which is why they’re enticing. No matter how hard you beat these ideas down to replace them with hours of work – on ball fields, at piano keys, in library stacks, and labs – you cannot shake them, culturally.
"But if you want to succeed, you have to shake them personally. Otherwise, they will do you in."

I broke down each of the three myths and summed with this, "Choose the hours. Better yet, choose a field that consumes you so wholly that hours don’t feel like hours passing at all. In the end, it’s better to think of yourself as ungifted and not talented, but good at hanging onto a chin-up bar for a ridiculously long period of time. The ability to hang on is hugely undervalued." 

I talked about my two strongest desires to write and have kids. After graduate school, "I still never thought I’d have a career, when the #1 adjective used to describe your chosen field is the word 'starving,' a reasonable person must consider this. But I wanted two things – to write and have kids. I had my first child when I was 25, another at 27, another at 30, and, after a suspicious seven year gap, one more baby at age 37."

I followed it up with advice on living a resentment-free life. "I understood that if I sacrificed having children for my career, I’d resent my writing. If I gave up writing to have kids, I’d resent my kids. Those were my issues, yours will be your own. But this should still stand – Living a resentment-free life requires awareness of what you might regret. Be vigilant for the onset of resentment and create a life that defies it."

I talked about money. "Our first two children were born under the poverty level. We aspired to the poverty level. We looked at it and said, One day, poverty-level, we will meet. We ran a boarding house for foreign students out of a three-bedroom condo, telling Koreans and Brazilians that fish sticks were fine American cuisine."

I circled back to it this way, ".. my husband and I were willing to sacrifice things like a new Ikea couch, basic privacy and, well, a little dignity for our more lasting goals… a wise choice.
"Falling for the trappings of grown-upedness and success – the right car, clothes, well-appointed home -- will bury your dreams faster than anything else.
"If your dream is the right car, clothes, and well-appointed house, aspire to more. You’re better than that."
Just in case that wasn't clear enough, I also added later still, this warning, "If your success is a greedy, narrow minded, bigoted, petty, insular, judgmental, self-righteous, materialistic success then you have not actually succeeded because you have not helped further humanity.

"Don't be a wealthy failure." 

And on failure alone, I wrote, "I’m here because of my so-called successes, but my failures are far more important. I can say I’ve been published by most of the major publishing houses in New York, but I don’t usually mention I’ve also been rejected by all of them. Here’s the thing: If you’re not willing to risk failure, you’re really only committing to safe, easy goals. This is where storytellers have an advantage. We understand failure as just a narrative plot point. When you're failing, it feels like the end of the story, but it's not. When you fail in your career, it's just part of a larger, more interesting story. The same goes love..."

As each commencement speech is allowed one quote from someone else, I quoted Nick Krieger, the author of the memoir Nina Here Nor There, which recounts his transition from female to male, a quote I keep taped to the wall in my office.“I wish someone had told me, not that my life would be hard, but that it would be phenomenally rich. I wish someone had told me that through my own self-inquiry and my own unique experience, my empathy would deepen, my compassion would expand, my gratitude for being alive would be huge.”
Obviously a transgender person’s quest for authenticity is incredibly brave in our society. But I keep that quote present because we all should strive to know who we are in this world.
"Success without self inquiry, without seeking your own unique experience, without empathy, compassion and gratitude is empty." 

Of course, I also told them, "No matter what path you take, your life is going to offer you chances to stand up and do the right thing – in big ways and in small daily ways. Stand up -- for someone else, not just your own interests. Do the right thing."

And I ended this way, "I wish you inspiration, hopes for your innate talent, and good luck – but only as a return on the investment of your hard work. And I wish you hours and days and years of doing something that engages you. I wish you failure -- to learn from -- as well as self-inquiry, a unique experience in the world, empathy, compassion, and gratitude.

"And my wish, for the world, is that each of you goes forth and furthers humanity."

[The full story at The link to my final wish is here -- go to the 1:40 mark or so. And my apologies for the font issues above. Formatting was tricky.]