[What follows is the commencement speech I gave at my high school – Hackley – on June 9. It’s a “sequel” of sorts to my Ironman Texas victory speech. There are some specific references to things only Hackley folks will get that I’ll try to explain in advance.
- Black & grey are Hackley’s school colors (or lack thereof); cheerful, I know. Long story…
- Dr. Adrian Pierce was my Latin teacher for several years and is a close friend.
- Mr. Arthur Naething was a legendary Hackley English teacher who taught for almost 40 years, and who taught my sisters, but who retired just before I could have had him as a teacher. He ended every class with his famous phrase, “Go forth and spread beauty and light.”
- Mr. Chris Arnold was my freshman English teacher, in what was his first year of teaching (1994-1995) out of college; as a young teacher, I was especially hard on him at times, which led to me getting kicked out of class – I mean, “excused” – semi-regularly. He was also my lacrosse coach and now is a good friend.
- Hackley has a dress code; collared shirts tucked in are required for the boys.
- The concrete cinder block was my senior prank; we erected it inside the school in the middle of the night, but through some mishaps, some of my co-conspirators ended up getting caught and had to take it down several hours after we built it, right before school started that morning.
- The Hackley mascot is the Hornet. My senior year, I earned four varsity letters – football, squash, lacrosse and cheerleading – as I was the Hackley Hornet, complete with satin hornet costume with large stuffed butt and stinger, for home basketball games.
- I really was not good at girls. At all.
I think that’s everything. I’ve also included some links to various references that I thought were appropriate. The title of this post is an homage to Jack Gilbert’s “Failing and Flying” and David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water,” both of which inspired and continue to inspire me.]
Good morning Mr. Johnson, members of the Board of Trustees (especially my mother), members of the faculty and staff, and graduates of the class of 2012, it is an honor to be speaking to you all today.
I calculated that I could deliver this speech while still remaining intelligible in 12 minutes and 45 seconds, which Dr. Pierce said was proof that I make my living racing against the clock. But how long it takes me is also important because I swear that I remember what it’s like to sit in those seats, wearing a suit on a summer day, and wishing it were already over. I thought about trying to do my part for you all, coming up here and saying something really short like, “good luck; you’ll need it!” Or perhaps just citing some classic old Hackley phrase like, “go forth and spread beauty and light,” but then I realized that most of you probably hadn’t been born when Arthur Naething retired. Ultimately, the best I could do to show my Hackley roots was a custom pair of black-and-grey sunglasses that I couldn’t even wear because it’s raining and we’re under a tent.
I know what it’s like to sit and hear someone talk to you in vague terms about being a “leader of tomorrow.” At least, I think I do. I don’t really remember any of the speeches from any of my graduation events. That is probably more of a sign of my own priorities at those points in my life than an indictment of any of the speeches. But feeling a great deal of kinship with my fellow Hornets, I didn’t want to be “that guy” on stage telling you how to live your lives while pretending that I have even the faintest idea what the world will look like by the time someone else is giving you the exact same speech as you graduate from college. More than anything, I was desperate to not give some speech that put you all to sleep and was forgotten even before the first diploma was handed out.
I considered reading the late David Foster Wallace’s “This Is Water,” which I think is one of the finest speeches ever given at, as Wallace calls it, a “significant occasion” – the Kenyon College graduation – and which is certainly better than what I have to offer. But you can read it faster than I can speak it, and I think you would get more out of it discovering it for yourselves. And it’s also so good that I’d be afraid of cheapening it by poaching it. But please read it at some point in your life.
The more I tried to think of ways to show camaraderie with you all – to show that I’m one of you and not “that guy” on the stage who’s trying to tell you what to do with your life – the more I kept running in to silly anachronisms. I felt a bit like Dr. Evil, doing the “I’m hip, I’m cool…” thing in the first Austin Powers movie. And then I remembered “Austin Powers” came out 15 years ago. And then, like Neo in “The Matrix,” which only came out 14 years ago, it hit me. “I know kung-fu!” Well, not really. I realized that I was “that guy.” No, not the previous “that guy” who drones on about making your mark on the world but “that guy” who doesn’t realize that the world has changed, and, he’s not hip, and he’s not cool anymore. I remember my senior year having one classmate with a cellphone and how we thought it was funny to call him from the payphone by the dining hall because the airtime was so expensive. Is there even a payphone anywhere on campus anymore?
The more I tried to pretend I wasn’t so far removed from those seats, the more I ended up confronting the fact that somehow and in spite of my best intentions I had become… an adult. This was confirmed definitively when your very own classmate Will Johnson sent me an email that started off, “Mr. Rapp.” That used to be my dad. I don’t think that’s ever been me. All of this is perhaps a round about way of saying that I have no idea how to speak to you about being a “leader of tomorrow.” I don’t even know how I ended up at today. Luck, mostly. And also a lot of help from other people. You definitely need both. But do your best not to mix them up. Especially don’t mistake someone else’s help for luck.
While reflecting on the tragedy of my growing up when I wasn’t looking, I thought back to an interview I did for the Hackley Review with a good friend and fellow Hackley alumnus – Tim Sohn, class of ‘97 – where I talked about how I ended up making a lot of what ultimately turned out to be significant decisions out of failure. I became a rower because I failed to make the Princeton lacrosse team. I became a triathlete because I failed to make it as a rower past college. I became a long distance triathlete because I failed at the shorter races. I became a husband and father because… Well, at least I can do some things right the first time. But I had failed at a lot of things. Or, at least, that was the way I looked at it for a long time. And, for those of you who may have managed to find one of my online incarnations, this is where we get to the stuff I talked about three weeks ago in Texas after I won the Ironman there.
Being Hackley graduates (in a few minutes, anyway), I don’t worry too much about making references to Greek mythology. But since some of you may have been a bit like I was, where teachers like Mr. Arnold had to “excuse you” from the classroom from time to time, you might have missed the particulars. Or, more likely, you may have just stuffed it into the deep recesses in your brain as the fire-hose of learning that high school represents continued at full blast. So I’ll give a quick refresher.
The story of Icarus is generally told as a warning against hubris. Icarus’s father, the master inventor Daedalus, crafted two pairs of wings from feathers and wax. The plan was to use these wings to escape the island of Crete, where King Minos was holding them prisoner. However, being made of wax, the wings were relatively fragile, so Daedalus instructed his young son not to fly too close to the sun, lest the wax melt. As you might expect when you enable a young man to fly, that warning didn’t last long once they got in the air. That was certainly my experience as evidenced by my illustrious driving record in the years right after I got my license. Icarus flew too close to the sun; the wax melted, destroying the wings; and Icarus fell to his death. The lesson is simple – man needs to be aware of his limits. Man was not meant to fly like the gods. Man’s place is with both feet firmly on the ground. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
But the poet Jack Gilbert has a different take on the matter. As he says in the opening line of Failing and Flying, “Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.” And he’s right. Icarus flew! How amazing is that? How incredible is it that he left the earth and soared? And this is where I’ll diverge from my Ironman speech, because as much as I originally thought it was appropriate to compare Ironman and high school because they both seem to go on forever, I realized that wasn’t such a great analogy, at least in part because I think all of you have at least four more years of college staring you in the face. It’s like that cheesy locker room quote says, “There is no finish line.” Ironically, while that’s pretty much never true in sports, it seems like it really is true when it comes to school and, more generally, learning.
However, I’d be lying to you all if I said this wasn’t a massive achievement. What you all have done is way more significant than finishing or even winning an Ironman. And for those of you who end up with jobs where the dress code isn’t a skintight one-piece, you’ll just have to trust me on that. But given that you are all graduates, the whole “failing” or “falling” part of the Icarus message might also be a bit off. Though I’m certain that as you look back over your time at Hackley, I’d be shocked if you didn’t have some things that you wished had turned out differently. I remember finishing my career on the lacrosse field with a loss to Hamden Hall in the Ivy-Fairchester tournament that was the big deal at the time. Of course, the lacrosse team this year has no such regrets. Congratulations to them. And I remember my most masterful piece of engineering – a concrete brick wall that no one ever got to see because senior pranks don’t always turn out the way you plan. And maybe there were just those simple moments of doubt – like when you opened up the SATs and realized you really should have paid more attention in class – when you just weren’t sure if you could do this. Or that moment when you first asked a girl on a date, by which you really meant, “would it be okay if my parents drove me to your house and took us to the movies and then your parents picked us up?” Unless, of course, as I imagine was most likely the case, you all were a bit more socially savvy than I. But still, rejection – or the prospect of it – is scary.
And in those moments, maybe you wondered, “maybe I’m not that good at lacrosse. Or, maybe I’m not that smart. Or, maybe I’m just not good at girls.” I know I did. But then I found rowing instead. And I found a career where being smart is probably a disadvantage; if you think too much, you might realize that swimming 2.4 miles and then biking 112 and then running 26.2 is totally insane. And, somehow, I got married; remember what I was saying about the importance of luck. I promise this is really not meant to imply that things always work out in the end. What it’s meant to say is that sometimes failure isn’t really a bad thing. If you never took a chance, if you never left the ground, it’s true that you’d never come crashing down. But you’d also never fly. And I think that’s what Hackley really prepares you to do. It prepares to fly.
You’ll still have doubts. I had plenty in Texas when, getting off the bike, they told me I was 12 and a half minutes down to the leader; since most of you probably don’t know much about Ironman racing, that’s a lot. Did I think, “maybe I cannot?” Yes. But I also thought, “maybe I can.” And that’s what I focused on. And that’s what I want you to focus on. And this is really the “leaders of tomorrow” part of the speech, even though I was hoping I could avoid talking about something so clichéd. But I do think that being a leader doesn’t have to be clichéd or trite. It doesn’t mean being a doctor or a lawyer or something inherently white-collar, though if it does, that’s obviously fine. We need doctors. Lawyers, on the other hand, I’m not so sure of… Or it can be no-collar at all and made of lycra and be sleeveless. At least, I hope it can be. You don’t need to dream of being the next Mark Zuckerberg. You can if you want, just don’t do it because the world tells you that your value is measured in how many billions of hooded sweatshirts you can buy. Of course, that is a surefire way to become great friends with the alumni giving office, and they are all great people that are worth being friends with. But it’s a bad reason to dream. Don’t dream about what the world tells you that you ought to dream about. Just dream.
There’s a wonderful short film entitled “Why?” that features on of my heroes, the long distance mountain biker Rebecca Rusch, nicknamed “The Queen of Pain.” Rusch says, “people ask me why I do what I do? And I say, ‘because I have to. I don’t know any other way to live my life.’” And that’s what I wish for all of you. That you fly because you have to. Because you don’t know any other way to live your life. Because Hackley didn’t teach you how to live your life any other way. It only taught you to fly.
I think that feeling is incredibly hard to hold on to when you leave high school. College is hard. The “real world” is hard. My advice? Avoid it as long as possible. Because the “real world” has come to mean, “not flying.” It’s come to mean, “be humble.” Being truly humble is a good thing, but it’s come to also mean, “don’t take risks” or “know your place” or “be safe.” But that’s a lie. It doesn’t mean those things. It means don’t be arrogant. It means learn from your mistakes, because you will make some. But it doesn’t mean don’t fly. The real world was built by people who wanted to fly, and people who continue to fly push it forward. Whatever you do, don’t let anyone tell you to keep both feet on the ground. Don’t let anyone scare you about flying too close to the sun. Remember that in order to do that, you’d have to be flying, and that alone is truly special. It’s not hubris. It’s wonderful. Yes, you might fail and come crashing to the ground. Actually, scratch that. At least some of the time, you will fail and come crashing to the ground. I’m sure you already have, even if it was just something small like messing up that first go at parallel parking. Sometimes, you might get lucky and right yourself midair and resume your journey, like when you manage to tuck in your collared shirt before a teacher catches you for a dress code violation. And some of the time you’ll take off in a totally new direction, like when you discover your inner cheerleader in a satin Hornet costume. But at least some of the time, you’ll crash, and you might crash hard. At least, it will feel that way at the time.
The failing part is a challenge. Only life can really prepare you for that, and it does it, as the old adage goes, by giving the test first and the lesson after. It’s only by failing and then dusting yourself off that you figure that part out. But the flying part? That’s what you all know how to do right now. Because that’s what it means to graduate from Hackley. And that’s what I think you all ought to do. Because you can. And because failure isn’t really so bad. Sometimes it’s not even really failure. Sometimes, just like high school, it’s simply the end of that particular journey. I think that Jack Gilbert sums it up well with the closing line of that same poem, “I believe that Icarus was not failing as he fell, but just coming to the end of his triumph.” Thank you.