I wrote this as my commencement speech application and, alas, it didn't make the cut. For a couple of years now, I've wanted to write a real "This, I Believe" essay, and this ended up pretty close. It was really fun to write (thank you mucho to those who edited!), and I think the words and ideas can still be valuable. I hope this helps someone.
There's a story I heard once, from David Foster Wallace:
Two young fish are swimming along in a pond. An older fish comes by swimming the other way, nods at the youngsters and says, "Morning boys, how's the water?"
The young fish just look at each other and keep swimming. Eventually, one says to the other, "What the heck is water?"
Sometimes, the most obvious, important realities are the hardest to see and talk about.
I think a very obvious, rarely-mentioned truth around here is that none of us really knows if we’re on the right track. It's something we've all felt, more strongly in some moments than others, but often it's worn as a badge of shame - a scarlet letter of cluelessness.
But this is actually Carnegie Mellon's gift to us. Normal people give gifts wrapped in festive paper, adorned with a bow. But we don't do things normally here. This gift comes as a difficult exam, a harsh critique, or an impenetrable problem set, piled on top of the struggles in our personal lives. The gift of failure. It’s a gift that makes us question whether we belong, whether we took a wrong turn somewhere. And we feel vulnerable. But in vulnerability lives connection.
In these moments, when we allow ourselves to be seen, and concede that sometimes, our best isn't good enough, we admit that we are human. And slowly, but surely, we realize that our friends are too. And that it's not a race. There is no finish line, and there is no winner. And common to us all is that we could not have done this without a little help from our friends. When I say friends, I mean not only our fellow students, but also our faculty and staff, our families, and even Pittsburgh’s strangers who brighten our days.
Even though we are at the crux of new beginnings, something special is ending today: Our wonderful years at Carnegie Mellon. And now is as good a time as any to think back on them. Some moments are more vivid than others, and in this lies another obvious truth: We have these memories because of how they made us feel. We keep the happy ones and the sad ones. The explosive joy after two thrilling minutes of everything your buggy team has struggled for. The moment when you're working late with friends and suddenly everything is funny, and you can't stop laughing because everyone else is laughing, and your abs start to hurt because you haven't had time for the gym lately. Or that day when you woke up to a phone call from your mom, tearfully saying that your dog died, and you've got 3 finals and a capstone project in a week. But your friends forego their own studying so that they can keep you company.
We need to be grateful for the good times and the bad, because we can't have one without the other. You know that day in the Spring when, after weeks of stale, colorless weather, the Sun finally comes out? And everyone on campus is magically having a great day? We love that day.
Sometimes, those clouds are necessary, and without them to contrast our sunny days, our years here would have been an unremarkable, emotionless blur.
As a sophomore, my friend and I spent a period sketching out our lives on one page each – a friendly bucket-list dare.
My plans then were to become an “aerospace engineer”. Soon after, I picked up a tutoring job that grew on me, and I began to question whether I wanted to commit my life to my engineering major. That dissonance was stressful for months until I realized that those words on my diploma are not a contract. And today? I’m going to be a High School Physics teacher. It’s good to have a plan, but there’s no need to be married to it.
Another item on that bucket-list is simply, "Have the best stories."
I didn't really know what that meant, but I wanted to do it. And then, listening to an hour-long podcast while waiting for the 61C, I got a big hint from Ira Glass: "Great stories happen to those who can tell them."
That can be any of us! It can be all of us. We can feel uniquely alone, or beautifully connected. Working on your booth can be that thing your club makes you do every April, or it can be the time when you and 30 people with no construction experience basically built a house in a few weeks. In our years here, we've lived the stuff of great stories, and we've made close friends who will listen to them.
Just because we don't know what we're doing doesn't mean we're lost, it doesn't mean we messed up, it doesn't mean that it's too late.
It only means that we're still writing our great story, and we've all got a couple of chapters now about our Tartan years, with titles like “Finally, It’s Cool to be Weird” or “I’m Not as Smart as I Thought I Was.”
After spending most of our lives doing black-and-white assignments in the classroom, the fuzzy, gray problems here were difficult and sticky, with no clear answers like our problem sets had. Nothing ever went according to plan, and we had to come to terms with the fact that uncertainty and risk are necessary and rarely comfortable. These challenges are here to stay, so work with them.
Make your story a great one. None of us knows what we're doing, and that's the vulnerable, beautiful truth. Embrace it.
As Whitman said,
All the past we leave behind,
We debouch upon a newer mightier world, varied world,
Fresh and strong the world we seize,
Tartans! O Tartans! Go forth.