The Chumbawamba Principle: A Commencement Address
Originally published on Tue June 19, 2012 11:22 am
This is a commencement address I gave this weekend at the College of the Atlantic, in Bar Harbor, Maine. It's a small, highly interdisciplinary liberal arts college that I much admire. This is my talk to the graduating class.
OK. Finally you are at the door.
Today when you are capped, gowned and handed your diploma, you will be ushered down these stairs and you will step into what is called The Real World (which is not a house in Malibu with five camera crews) ... no, I mean the real world, the one you have to live in for the rest of your life.
And once you cross over ... from here to there, things will change a bit.
All these people with you today, your moms, your dads, siblings, friends, aunts, uncles who've been asking, "What are your plans? What's next? What do you want to be?" — now those questions will have even more urgency.
Though I presume by now you've got a cover line, something like, "No, no ... I'm fine. I'm going to grad school." Or, "I've got an internship." "I'm thinking about teaching." Or maybe your family doesn't push.
They just love you blindly and wish you well ... and you don't talk about it.
But still, it's time. Time to address this question: Who am I going to be? It's time to design a version of yourself that might work. That might make you happy.
For the next hunk of your life, certainly for the next four or five years, this will be your job. To Become Somebody ... defined by you.
In high school, in grade school, you didn't have to design yourself. The folks in charge were happy to do it for you. You were marched into a school building at age 3, 4 or 5, placed at a desk or put in a circle, inspected by your teachers. And after that, you did what you were told, what everybody is told to do: Show up and learn stuff.
So you did high school.
Then you came here, to this place. Here, the designers stepped back a notch and said, "Go ahead. Poke around." So because this is a liberal arts school, you chose to study various forms of "human ecology." ("Whatever that is," your parents have been saying.)
And you chose new friends ...
And you got to explore a little,
Or maybe you didn't explore enough.
Maybe you spent too much time with your friends, or not enough time,
Maybe someone broke your heart,
Maybe you lost your way.
Maybe you met an amazing teacher,
Maybe you bumbled into a subject that now has your total attention.
Or just some of your attention.
But by the end of college, by today, you aren't the person you were back in high school.
You know a little more. You discovered a few more things you're good at, a few more things you're not so good at. You're beginning to find a direction.
And today, the day you're supposed to leave here, part of you doesn't want to leave. But hey, they've packed your bags and you've got to be out of your room by the end of the week.
So it's time.
But you have to be wondering: How do I do this? How do I decide what I'm going to be?
Some of you are lucky. You already know. I'm going to be a doctor, you say. I'm in love with Ralph. I'm going to marry Ralph. And my bridesmaids, Sara, Alice, Nora, they will be my best friends forever.
Done, done and done. Just get me to church on time.
Well, I wish you luck on that. But for far more of you, the itinerary going forward is kind of vague, vague in the love department, vague in the life department, vague on your skill set.
When I graduated college I was convinced I wanted to be a lawyer. A very particular kind of lawyer, the lawyer I read about in To Kill a Mockingbird, who was played in the movie by Gregory Peck. That lawyer.
And so I went off to law school, which I sort of enjoyed, and in the summer after my second year, surprisingly far from Gregory Peck environs, I found myself in a skyscraper on Park Avenue in New York City in the bathroom at the urinal peeing next to Arthur Miller. Arthur Miller, the great playwright, author of Death of a Salesman, former husband of Marilyn Monroe and all around literary genius. And he was, technically — if I could stretch the truth a little bit — he was my client. Or anyway the guy I worked for's client.
The firm I was at — and law schools like Columbia have a habit of channeling you to corporate firms like this — represented Mr. Miller, kind of took care of him. And I had been assigned that morning to review and to pay his utility bill, which as I recall amounted to something like $9 and change. (It was 1973, before the great OPEC boycott, when energy prices were really cheap.)
Which was my point.
As I stood next to Mr. Miller, I said to him: "You know, I have just paid your utility bill, which was less than $10, and for my work, I will be paid $6 and you will be charged $12. It seems silly for you to fork over 12 bucks to pay a $10 utility bill."
And Mr. Miller said something like "Uh hmm ... " and got kind of quiet, so taking his quiet as some kind interest, I said to him, "What I suggest is you find somebody in Connecticut in your neighborhood and have them come over and pay all your monthly bills for, like, $10 total, you know? It will be a win-win. Cheaper for you, just as efficient," I said.
Mr. Miller looked down at me. He was tall. Then he zipped up and said something that sounded like "thank you," and he left the bathroom. And when I went back to my cubby, the phone was ringing.
It was a partner, a man I very much admired, who worked directly with Arthur Miller. He said, "Robert, could you come in here for a moment?"
So I walked in, there was Arthur Miller sitting on a couch, and the partner says to me, "So Mr. Miller informs me that he met you in the men's room, where you told him our firm is overpaying you, overcharging him, and he should seek help elsewhere."
And I thought, "No, no, no. That's not what I said. No ... "
And the two of them exchanged glances, and I could see that they weren't going to fire me or anything, but in a gentle sort of way, the partner said to me that I didn't seem to quite understand my role here. And I said, "Wait a minute, I was only trying to give him some practical advice," to which he said, "That is not the advice that our client wants to hear from a 25-year-old. And, you know, Robert, this isn't the first time." (And he was right; I had been giving "advice" to several clients.) "You are 25," he said. "You know nothing, because if you knew anything, you wouldn't be making everyone around you uncomfortable." Uh-oh, I thought. This isn't good.
It was then suggested to me, in a very gentle way, that maybe, though I was clever and all and could do the work, maybe I would be happier doing something else with the rest of my life, and I was, well, a little embarrassed, a little ashamed. But the worst part was, I knew, deep down, that, you know what? He was right. My heart wasn't in it, not really.
So I had to reboot.
So what did I do? Well, a few weeks later, I took a Shortline bus to a place near West Point — Harriman State Park in New York, and I walked for five, six miles up the Adirondack Trail up into the hills, and when I passed a ledge, I saw a prominent rock with a kind of nook to sit on on the edge of a cliff with a sweeping view of the Shawangunk Mountains. And I sat down, all by myself, far from everything and everybody, and I said, OK, OK, time to figure this out. What am I good at? What do I really want to do? Do I have any idea?
What a lonely moment that was, me thinking, "What am I going to do?"
And it wasn't just about jobs. I also had "love" issues. Or maybe you could call it "love envy."
I had a friend at the dining hall at my college. His name was Ted, and back in those days, dinner was sort of formal. I went to a private coed college, Oberlin. And you're not going to believe this, but every night, the girls who lived upstairs would descend in a group, sort of pageant like, to the ground floor, and the guys would wait for them at the bottom of a staircase outside the dining room. Then a dinner bell would ring and an older woman, our "House Mother," would say "you may enter," and together we'd parade in and sit. And on Sundays we had to sit boy, girl, boy, girl — that was the rule.
And there was prayer before the meal — so it was a different age — an age which ended, by the way, during my time at school. But the thing is, when I was a freshman, we would wait at the bottom of the staircase. I would watch this guy Ted, who was completely, totally, madly in love with a girl, so much so that every night like a golden retriever he would stand, face up, gazing up to the staircase landing, aching for the first teeny sliver — just the sight of his girlfriend's foot. And when it came, that first glimpse of shoe, he would seize with love — you know, I may be exaggerating a little here, but honestly, it seemed that with every step she took down the staircase, Ted would get taller and happier and more full of wonder and joy. And I would look at this guy — not at the girl, at the guy — and I would ask myself, "Why can't I love someone like Ted loves that girl?" His feelings seemed so true, so profound, so deep, I'd see that glow in his face and it scared me because I'd think, "What's wrong with me? Why has this never happened to me? What if I've got a defect that means I'm never going to love that way, never find a job I truly love, never find a life that makes me whole and happy?" That can't happen. I have to do something to get myself on course, focused. But how? How?
So that day, sitting on my rock, I was — I will tell you truly — trying to rescue myself from a future that was getting away from me. I had to fix myself, but I didn't know how.
So I sat there.
And if I could fly back through time, and whisper to that Robert On The Rock and tell him what I've learned since, here's what I'd say. And since there are many of you sitting here who are going to climb your own rock in the coming year or two, I also want to tell this to you, too.
You can't always name the thing you're going to be.
For most people it doesn't work that way. You have to back into it. Designing yourself isn't like being a conqueror. It's not Genghis Khan screaming "Charge!" thundering across the steppes, seizing his prize — no. It's more like you are nearsighted. You like salty snacks, and one day, fumbling along, you knock over a pretzel dish and think, "What's this?" You take a bite and think, "Hmmm! Do I like pretzels?"
It's more like that.
Accidents happen. The trick is to know when you've gotten lucky. To say, "I do," to the pretzel. This works for jobs. Works for girls. Works for most things.
When it comes to getting lucky in life, here's my strategy. When you leave here, you're going to try different things. That's how you begin. You experiment. For the young folks who work with me at ABC, Radiolab and NPR (they're trying out journalism), I tell them, here's what I want you to do: I'm going to expose you to a variety of tasks, but then, and this is important — I want you to notice how you feel when you do them.
For example, some days, you're going to have to chase a story, get it done, get it right, get it on. It's going to happen fast. Other times, you're going to have a week to mull, investigate, think. So there'll be slow days and fast days.
Somedays, you'll work alone. Other days, in a team.
Some days you'll be the star. Other days, you'll be behind the scenes, a producer. And as you try all these different roles, I want you to notice ... try to notice ... When am I happy and when am I slightly disappointed? Do I love fast days or slow days? Being in a group or solo? Do I like the library or the street? Thinking or doing? You may think you know now, but nobody knows. Doing it is better than imagining it. And here's what: You will discover tasks you thought you'd love will sometimes disappoint. And tasks you thought you'd hate, oddly, you might enjoy.
But here's the important thing: For the next year or two, whatever you do, you should be sorting your experiences into two piles: One for all the times you get a little bit high — and I'm speaking here about emotional highs — loving what you're doing. (Not loving what you're toking — that's a different thing.) So, one pile for all the experiences that thrilled you a little. And the other pile for all the things that didn't quite work. So a year or so from now, you'll have a more and more defined notion of where your pleasures are ... and aren't.
Those piles will keep getting more and more specific, and there's a lesson in that. After a while, when someone invites you to do a job, you will have a tangible feeling, "Yeah, that's the kind of thing I like." Or, and this is far more important, "No, that's the kind of thing I don't like," and you'll know when to beg off and walk the other way. This is a do-it-yourself way to get a little luckier and to avoid making stupid mistakes.
Nobody can do this but you. Starting now, the teachers, the coaches, the uncles, the friends will begin to fall away and leave you alone to figure out what will make you happy later in your life. For some people, it's not easy to listen to yourself, to honor your own feelings, particularly if you haven't done it much. But this is your job now: to listen, not to someone else's heart and expectations, but to your own.
Not that you won't make mistakes. You will make big, fat, stupid, oh-my-God errors as you go along. Everybody does. Even the things that seem most true, most elemental today can have a way, over time, of changing, of morphing into mistakes.
Ted, the guy at the bottom of the stairs who I told you about? He married that girl he waited for every night before dinner. But — and I don't why, I don't know when — all I know is 25 years after my graduation, I was told they were no longer married. So they did not live happily ever after.
Which brings me to my second thought. (My first thought being that now is the time to begin designing yourself.) My second thought is that — and I'm sorry to tell you this — the designing never ends.
The job you choose at first, the man or woman you choose at first, the friends you choose at first, they can change. The girl I chose, when I came to choose, is still with me. We've been married 30 years, and by some crazy set of circumstances, I found myself a true and lasting love, and it surprises me every day to have been that lucky. And my wife, she's been at the same company, being a reporter there, for 30 years, but not me. I've gone from law to radio to magazines to TV; from covering economics to politics to science, then back to radio again, now podcasting and most recently writing — I'm now doing a blog — so for me, I've had to redesign myself so many times, I can't tell you how many.
And all you parents here today, you know what I'm talking about: Some of you have changed careers, changed mates; some of you haven't. But I know that today, when you gaze over at your kid who is graduating, you are thinking what your parents thought on your graduation day, if you had one: May they be safe in the storm.
But how do you stay safe in a world where jobs are scarce, where there's downsizing and outsourcing? Because that's how it is now, and that's how it's likely to stay for a while. It's rough out there. So how do you prepare for the bad weather of The Real World?
Well, maybe you've just done it. By coming here. Maybe choosing this school, a truly liberal arts college, taught by people who improvise, who teach across departmental lines, who believe in knowing more than one thing, and, above all, who are teaching you every day, by example, how to learn. Maybe being here, learning this way, will protect you going forward.
Because schools like the College of the Atlantic teach you three important things. Other places teach them, too, but I suspect they do it better here. First, they get you comfortable with how to explore and question and learn. Second, they teach persistence. After all, you finished your senior project, made your deadlines, you are graduating. Not everybody made it, but you did. (Congratulations.) And finally, this is a place that teaches that you aren't stuck with the world you've been handed. You can change this world. You can imagine a different one. You can dream. I'll get back to that in a minute, but all three — the learning, the persisting and the dreaming — they all protect you. Yes, you're going to get bounced around in the real world, but these three gifts will teach you how to bounce back.
I call this The Chumbawamba Principle, proclaimed by a small group of philosophical musicians in Britain, who said, when facing misfortune:
I get knocked down.
But I get up again.
You're never going to keep me down ...
That is the gift of a school like this, because learning here is unorthodox, it's "get lost in the woods and find your way back" learning — sometimes literally.
It's full of "how am I going to do this?" moments, and I may be romanticizing a little, but, hey, it's my commencement speech — students here know what it's like to get lost in a problem and have to "learn yourself" out of it.
And this is a skill that will serve you all your life, not just when you're starting up — but 50 years from now, when you're winding down.
My mother, for example, loved going to the movies. And as she got older, she thought it was extra important to see films so she'd have something to talk about with her grandchildren, because she didn't want to be that old lady who sits on the couch, pretending to be in on the conversation but not knowing what anyone's talking about, and movies give grandmas something to talk about. So she kept going to see films, even though she would tell me, "It's getting harder and harder."
And I said, "What do you mean? What's hard about going to movies? You look up the time, you pay the money, you sit in a chair. That's not hard."
Oh, no, she said. When you're 80 it's hard. Because all your life, going to the movies meant going to a place with one or maybe two films listed up on the marquee. And you walk up to a glass booth with a ticket seller inside, and you hand her cash money, and she gives you a ticket and you take that ticket into the lobby, where another person tears it in half and hands you a stub, and you keep walking, to a popcorn stand, buy your popcorn, walk through a door, sit down in a velvet seat and you watch the film. That's going to the movies.
OK, I said. So?
So, she said, that's not what it's like going to the movies now. Now, she said, I have no idea what's playing because the marquee, if there is one, lists, like, 10 films, and I have to put on glasses to see if mine's up there, and I can't find the ticket seller, who's sometimes in the back of the lobby, sometimes in the front; meanwhile people are walking in with computer printouts, popping plastic cards into machines, hitting buttons, and I don't know anything about computers. Meantime, I can't find my movie because it's not on the lobby level, it's upstairs, or downstairs; there are escalators, elevators going to different floors, and all I can think is ... I can't do this. But if I don't do it, I won't see the movie and won't be part of the conversation, which makes me that silent lady on the couch, nodding like she knows what's going on, but I don't want to be that lady, so I learn, about computers, about debit cards and about the attractiveness of vampires.
Thirteen-year-olds don't know that all this is all new, because everything for them is new. But for me, she said, I have to concentrate. And this is The Chumbawamba Principle as practiced by grandmas: This is my mom's way of saying, "You're never going to keep me down. Because I'm going to keep learning. I don't dare not to."
And this persistence, knowing how to learn, that you can learn, this knowledge will protect you all your life. It will keep you in the game.
But before I conclude, let me remind you that change is not just something you have to do. There are times when change is what you want to do. There will be moments when you see something that feels wrong and you want to make it right, or at least try.
Everybody has such moments. You think, "Hmm. I think I can improve this, make it better. I'm not sure my idea will work," but you go up to the boss, and you say, "Can I try?" and boss says, "I love your idea, YES! But ... "
Beware that little word ... "But ..."
"Yes, but we don't have the time. Yes, but we don't have the money, Yes, but the audience won't like it, the voters won't like it, the client won't like it, the lawyers won't like it." Yes, but. Yes, but, and the "yes" gets softer and the "but" gets louder. And this happens all the time, because despite what they say, people like what they already know. The power of routine is enormous.
And these things can be so trivial. One time, I was about to do my very first piece at the CBS network, I was on the set, sitting on a stool, and all these cameras were gathered around me, and if any of you have listened to Radiolab or other things I've done, you'll know that I don't talk like a broadcaster. I don't go down in the voice, I don't intone. I just sound like myself. Back in 1982, that was unusual. News reporters learned to speak like Walter Cronkite, like Howard K. Smith, you know, from the chest — knowingly, omnisciently. But me, I'm a little nasal.
So here's what happened. As the floor director fastened the microphone to my lapel (he'd heard me talking, running over my script), he leaned in, very close to my ear, and in an urgent voice he whispered, "Talk from your chest, not from your nose. They don't do nose here." He was trying to help me.
But my new idea was: I'm going to talk like me. It's more honest, natural. And he was saying: "Yes, but don't. You can't. You shouldn't. You mustn't. They'll fire you." And I'm thinking, "Come on ... "
So up go the lights, cameras start to roll, the director flashes "You're on!" and as I open my mouth, part of me is thinking, "Oh my God, they're going to hear me and say, 'Leave!' "
So what did I do? I talked ... like I talk, the vowels cascaded down through my nose, growing nasalier and nasalier ... and out they came ... and nothing happened. They didn't fire me. I survived. But I have had so many of those moments. Big ones, small ones. There are "Yes But" people everywhere you go, everywhere. They never tire. The smallest changes will be resisted. And you have to fight back, all the time.
But here's the thing. While Yes Buts dominate most institutions most of the time, there are also, everywhere — sometimes off in a corner, sometimes not — Why Not? people, and Give It A Shot people and Just Do It people, and this school has a lot of them. Of course, there are Yes Buts here. Of course there are. As I said, they're everywhere, but you don't go to a school like this unless you're comfortable with taking risks. Many of you are here because you wanted to try a different kind of education, a bolder kind, and you stayed, and there's a lot of you. (Well, not a whole lot, but in a clump you look kind of formidable.)
And because you've lived with people who aren't as afraid of being a little different, who know how to explore and dream, and you've studied with them, been taught by them and made them your friends, by now, you know one when you see one.
You'll be sitting in a room, saying "How about this idea?" and across the table you will catch just a glint, a little warmth coming your way, maybe just a passing smile. It will be familiar. It will remind you of some of the people you met here, and you'll know ... without knowing how you know, that, "Yeah, she's going to help me."
This is very important, crucially important, to notice potential allies — and to recruit them, keep them close and to keep doing that all your life.
They've saved me so many times. My partner at Radiolab, Jad Abumrad, when we met, I just knew — in my bones — that with him, doing dangerous things would be a whole lot easier, even, though I should say, just because you're a Why Not? person doesn't mean you can't be, when you want to, a Yes But person. Jad "buts" me all the time, but that's to make the work better, not to make me go away.
Here's the point: When you are trying to create a version of yourself that will one day make you happy, half the battle is know your insides — know your pleasures.
And the other half is to know your outsides — to find allies, partners, mentors.
You don't become yourself by yourself. You become you, boosted on others' shoulders, buoyed by others' smiles. You may be a singular person, but your success will always be plural.
And so ... about-to-be-graduates of the Class of 2012, ladies and gentlemen, at the College of the Atlantic, it is time now. Time to step up, get your diploma and address the question, "Who am I going to be? How can I design myself so I have a chance at happiness?" You have the advantages of this school. Because you are sitting here, on this campus, at this time, with these teachers and these friends all around you, you now know how to learn, how to persist and how to dream. You've gotten the gifts. You're on your way.
So, to all of you, congratulations — and now get on with it.