In this post, someone asked what a Stoic commencement address would look like. I thought this would be an interesting thought experiment in couching Stoic lessons in that format without the technical jargon that often features in our discussions.
To the graduating class of 2015:
Congratulations on your achievement, and I wish you excellence in your coming endeavors whatever they may be. Some will enter the workforce immediately, others will commit themselves to some form of national service like the armed forces, and some will go on to college or university. You are preparing yourselves, regardless, for big changes, new adventures, and exciting challenges.
High school, however, is a microcosm of the larger world. For instance, while all of you here have made this achievement, your paths have been very different. Some of you struggled and fought to make Bs, others acquired As easily. Some maybe skated by, “D is for diploma,” right? Classes varied from remedial, grade level, to honors and Advanced Placement. You each took a different journey. The same will be true in your coming fields.
I have something uncomfortable to tell you. Soon, this achievement will fall by the wayside. Enjoy today, but tomorrow, this will be in the past. Once you’re in college your high school GPA is of little importance. The same for the workforce or military. Once you take the next step, the previous one matters less. Each new challenge becomes the focus, and previous victories will become smaller in comparison.
For those going on to higher education, once you leave those institutions and enter the workforce your college GPA will become less important. At your first ten year work anniversary, no one will say “Remember when she got a 4.0 four semesters in a row?” It will fade.
But one thing, however, will not fade. One thing is far more permanent. The character you build in yourself while working hard for a B, or cruising easily in a cake class for an A will stick around. You will, day by day, step by step, build and create the person you will be for the rest of your life. Character. Character development is not something that happens in the future. It is not an activity one takes up once “things are settled.” Character development happens regardless, the only question is, will you do it consciously or accidentally?
Many of us have a person, maybe a grandparent, neighbor, or family friend. Some good, older person. We admire their character and think, “I’d like to be like that one day.” If we want that, the time is now, because if we wait until the future to work on that, it will be too late.
Character is like a boat or a ship. We take the rude and rough materials that we are presented with. We start with a tree, which is felled and carried to the worksite. Once we begin to examine and work with the tree, we find defects, burls, gnarls, and knots. These are not up to us, we don’t chose them. Maybe someone or something else had, but that is not important. We have what we’re given. Ours is to make the best of it.
So we take out our tools and begin to work the tree, ripping planks and boards from its trunk. These planks are rough, splintery, and not too pretty to look at. This is where we are now. You’ve made choices, built habits with new and green wood, still wet from the earth.
Next, we begin to plane down the planks, smoothing the surface, taking off the rough parts, and producing a useful plank. This is a lot of work. Based on the grain, the shape, the bend, the flexibility of this plank we choose to use it for the hull, or decking, or a decorative handrail artfully carved. Each one, its natural character determining its use can be taken and fitted to our ship. And when it’s finished, we have one plank, with many more to go. Each of these choices, these planks helps build our ship. But if done haphazardly, what kind of vessel will we have? It is only by conscious, focused, and neutral judgement that each part can be fitted to its appropriate use.
A shoddy ship might float in the harbor, where it is safe, but that’s not what ships are made for. We must take it out into the wild and fierce waves, test it against the untamed seas of real life.
When you go into the world, as a worker, manager, teacher, or other role: you will find folks doing the minimum, doing less than, and other yet excelling. It is not yours to compete with them but to compete with yourself. To quietly, doggedly, and determinedly do better tomorrow than you did today. You might end up with the same salary, the same awards, and the same qualifications of these others, but those things are temporary and transient. They will pass.
But that character you build in the process is yours for the rest of your life. Did you do your work with honor? Did you do it with determination and discipline? Did you do it with kindness, lend a helping hand? Did you cheat? Did you lie? Did you steal? Which ship are you building?
You have a short period of time where it is slightly easier to change course, the degree of change is small here, but further into the journey it will be many and many miles to correct your course. If you’re headed in a rough direction, change now, at the beginning. Suit your ship for the seas ahead, build it well, and track your right course.
I leave you with this, congratulations on this achievement, and there is the possibility for glory on the horizon for you. Your ship stands in the yards, not yet complete, but its shape is beginning to become visible. Which one will you build?