The Class of 2018 selected History and Economics Master Regan Kerney as its faculty speaker. Kerney spoke to the Fifth Form on May 26, the evening before graduation. Here is his address:
Head Master Murray, parents and honored guests, faculty colleagues, members of the magnificent Class of 2018, and anybody I have left out, although that pretty much ought to cover everybody.
First, thank you for your kind introduction, Brianna, and thank you also for your benevolent leadership of the student body this year.
Next, thanks to the Class of 2018 for inviting me to speak today.
Frankly, at my age, it’s nice to be invited anywhere.
What a great class. You come from Bermuda and Brazil, from Pakistan and Princeton. You include several sets of twins, and, incredibly, the children of not one, but two former Cleve housemasters. Let’s have a round of applause for the Class of 2018.
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Let me begin by telling you something you probably did not know.
All of life is divided into three parts – youth, middle age, and “What am I doing at this end of the house?”
Why am I telling you this?
Well, my remarks here today may sometimes seem to wander. I may at times seem to be hopelessly lost. And I regret this very much, because this might lead people to mistake me for a member of Congress.
But that’s enough about old age. Let’s talk about the joys of being young. To be young is to know so much, to be untroubled by the complications of experience, to have so much energy and so few doubts, and to have that fresh sense of adventure and confidence that says, “Why not touch that hot stove?”
I am always inspired when the new young faculty show up each fall, brimming with wisdom that has somehow eluded me. I recall being 23 or 24 myself, and being struck by how incredibly stupid my parents were.
I must have been a good influence on them, because by the time I reached 30, they had learned a lot, and by the time I hit 34, they had become downright geniuses. I apologize to my old friend Sam Clemens for stealing his idea there, but it’s still valid more than 100 years later.
But you are young, and full of hope.
And all sorts of well-meaning people will tell you to enjoy your youth to the fullest, because these are the best times of your life.
That’s a bunch of nonsense.
The best days of your life lie ahead, and I don’t mean college, either. Your journey has only begun. In between where you are now, and that time when you won’t remember why you came to this end of the house, a lot of great things will happen. Hang on for the ride, because it’s going to be fun.
In order to make the ride go better, I will offer you a couple of pieces of bad advice. So here we go, a little advice, in no logical order.
About speaking out
Calvin Coolidge once said, “You don’t have to apologize for something you never said.” Coolidge didn’t say much.
A woman approached him once and said, “President Coolidge, my husband bet me I can’t get you to say more than two words.”
Coolidge replied, “You lose.”
When it was announced that Coolidge had died, somebody asked, “How do they know?”
But Coolidge was onto something. As one of my old teachers used to say, “It’s better to have people suspect you’re a fool than to open your mouth and convince them.”
Coolidge came from an era in which people thought over something before they put it in writing. Today, in the Internet era, we have adopted a “Ready, fire, aim” process for replying to people, even when they are not speaking to us. The comment sections that follow many articles on the Internet offer sad evidence that Calvin Coolidge was a genius.
My advice, which I hope a few of you will follow, is simple: Avoid social media whenever possible. Talk to your friends in person. Hug a human. Catch up face to face. The Websites of social media can be a great place to wish somebody happy birthday, but they are also the places where reputations go to die. You may think your wit will impress your friends and future employers, but beware. On the Internet you don’t just open your mouth. You carve your foolishness in stone. That angry outburst you later regret comes to define you.
On taking yourself too seriously
If you should have learned something here at Lawrenceville, it is to question. Don’t be a cynic, but be a gentle skeptic. Don’t be surprised if you get a little more conservative as you get older. It’s normal. That doesn’t mean it is necessary, but it is not abnormal.
What IS abnormal – or at least unhealthy – is to spend your precious time habitually angry about everything and everyone around you. There is a terrible bitterness that characterizes the polarities of our extremes today – both right and left. Don’t fall for it.
Don’t ever lose your sense of humor, particularly your ability to laugh at yourself, and to laugh with, not at, other people. The world already has too many people who take themselves too seriously. It’s commendable to have a purpose in life, but come on, lighten up once in a while. Everything is not a crisis.
Be kind to everybody on the way up, because you’re going to run into every one of them again when you’re on the way down. Why? Your chances of moving up if you are in this room are good. Unfortunately for you, so are your chances of moving down.
We are a far more mobile society than we like to think, according to two professors, Mark Rank and Thomas A. Hirschl, who looked at 44 years of superb data and found that nearly three quarters of Americans will spend at least one year in the comfort of the top fifth the income ladder. Unfortunately, nearly 80 percent of us will spend at least a year in the less cozy bottom 20 percent. In other words, a lot of us are going to visit both ends of the rainbow.
Don’t forget that. There are few things more pathetic than seeing somebody who has ruthlessly stomped his way to the top on the backs of everyone else, end up having to beg for mercy and charity from the gutter he’s fallen into. I imagine every adult in this room knows somebody like that. I know several. If they had only been kinder on the way up.
For heaven’s sake, be kind to each other.
About your view of life versus somebody else’s
A lot of life depends on your point of view. Here’s a case in point. A snail was run over by a tortoise. They took the snail to the emergency room and asked him what happened. “I don’t know,” he said. “It all happened so fast.”
(Okay, I’m sorry for that one.)
The point is, what’s fast for you might be slow for another person. What’s comfortable for you might be painful for somebody else. Try to see things through somebody else’s eyes before you judge.
Try to be an optimist
There always seems to be plenty of bad news in the world. I understand that nobody in the news business – and it’s a business, just like selling toaster ovens – nobody in the news business is going to get what they want by telling you that 9,600 banks were NOT robbed yesterday.
But all the news is not bad. According to Max Roser, an Oxford economist, as recently as the 1960s, a majority of humans had always been illiterate and lived in extreme poverty.
In fact, if you go back 150 years, what we now define as extreme poverty and illiteracy were the global norm. Now fewer than 15 percent are illiterate, and fewer than 10 percent live in extreme poverty. In another 15 years, illiteracy and extreme poverty will be mostly gone.
Here’s the take-away:
Deep poverty used to be the rule. Now it’s the exception.
Literacy used to be the exception. Now it’s the rule.
Whenever you hear bad news, let this give you hope.
While going over old ideas for my remarks today, I found an old issue of the New Yorker magazine with a story about a life coach and his four favorite pieces of advice.
I found these four rules useful enough to plagiarize them for this speech. Actually, as you know by now, it’s not plagiarism if I cite the New Yorker magazine from April 22, 2002 in a footnote, which I now do. Whatever. Anyway, I think you might find them useful, too.
The first rule is simple. “Life is good.” You have to believe that. Think about that. There are so many people who look for a cloud in every sunny sky. Don’t be one of them. Wake up each morning and seize the day. Carpe Diem. Go for it. Life is good.
Rule number two: Be happy now.
As opposed to what? Don’t say you’ll be happy when you make your first million, or sell your first novel, or meet the love of your life.
The love of your life may turn out to be a cheat, the novel may never sell, and a million isn’t what it used to be.
If you make the joy of life contingent on some future event, you’re wasting an amazing opportunity called NOW.
Don’t do it. Be happy now, while you have the opportunity to be happy. The future may indeed bring great gifts, but don’t take the present for granted. It’s a great time to savor life, and to be happy. Now.
Number three – and this is a really tough one – let it go. Whatever it is that is bothering you, whatever grudges and pain and anger you are dragging behind you like a ball and chain, cut that chain and let it go.
About 40 years ago, I worked for a man who embodied every character flaw I can think of. Just working for this fellow was traumatic because he tried to develop in each of us the character flaws he embodied. For a long time after we went our separate ways, I dragged my resentment toward this sob like a thousand-pound anchor as I tried to get on with my life. I would wake up in the middle of the night, obsessed with revenge. I was determined to outlive him just so I could dance on his grave. And the more I thought like this, the smaller I became as a human being. Look at me. I am not a tiny person. But I was working on it.
And then one day, I woke up and said, “What are you doing to yourself?”
So I let it go. I got over it. I made the difficult but essential effort to look forward, not back. Ever since then, life has been so good.
So, okay, life is good, be happy now, and let it go (or get over it, I prefer to say). Then what?
Well, rule number four is a little more complicated. It is, “Declare victory and move on.”
What does this mean? Let me explain.
You are going to face a lot of challenges in life, challenges that are important to you. Sometimes, though, you won’t be able to convince your parents to let you have the car. You won’t be able to convince your roommate to turn down the music. Sometimes you won’t be able to persuade the person you love that you are worth loving, or the person who disrespects you that you are worthy of respect. Sometimes, you won’t be able to convince the company you want to work for that you’re the best candidate to come along ever. Yes, ever.
Give it your best. Give it all you can. But if you can’t make it work, don’t collapse and pout and fade away.
Declare victory and move on.
“But you didn’t.”
“Oh, yes, I did, and I’m taking the incredible me and moving on to better pastures.”
Those are going to be some lucky pastures.
Okay, one last thing.
When you’ve said all you have to say, shut up.
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