Timesheets | Episode 1: Will The Dots Connect?
Timesheets is a series where I document journeys through adulthood and make entries about navigating through this odd and weird experience.
I turned 24 yesterday.
Since the pandemic, I’ve ended up releasing a podcast on my birthday since 2020. I released an episode yesterday - Episode 1 of Timesheets.
I’m currently in a different path. I’m not sure where I’m headed and I decided to make an episode about commencement speeches. I thought it would be the most appropriate way to start off a series about adulting.
I never did have a graduation ceremony of my own. CoVID took that away, but I have fond memories from my time as a student and one of the things I did do as a student was listen/re-listen to a lot of commencement speeches hoping to find the answer to living a good life.
This episode contains some of my favourite speeches, some thoughts and advice I may or may not revisit again in the future.
Give it a listen !
Transcript (be sure to check out the show notes for the links to all of the speeches)
I’m Nirmal Bhansali and you’re listening to Episode 1 of Timesheets, a new series where I attempt to document journeys through adulthood and make entries about navigating through this odd and weird experience.
Since the introduction episode to this series, a lot of things have changed. I’ll explore them in future episodes, but for now, what you need to know is that I’m currently embarking on a different path than the one I originally chose. This is a new beginning for me and I thought I should launch the series in the most conventional way possible - by making an episode about commencements.
This episode consists of some of my favorite speeches I’ve stitched together, some thoughts and advice I probably won’t pay attention to and forget.
Let’s get started.
Jad Abumrad: OK, let’s take stock: It’s 10:28 AM, June 10, 2022.
Do me a favor: Close your eyes for a second. Call into your consciousness a fast-cutting montage of the 120 million seconds of your educational experience that have led you to this moment. Bring it into your mind:
The pandemic waves. The gut-wrenching reckonings. The friendships. The papers. The Zooms. The masks. The readings. The labs.
All of it — call it to mind.
I want to spend one of those minutes, if you don’t mind, in silence. This is a trick I learned from the children’s TV host Fred Rogers. If you don’t mind, I’d like us all — not just the students but all of us — to close our eyes and think for a minute, just a minute, about the people who loved us up into this moment — family and friends, teachers and kind strangers. I’ll keep the time.
Jad Abumrad: You’ve already weathered a singularly difficult moment in human history: What could I possibly say to you, as you stand on the brink, that resembles wisdom?
And then I thought, perhaps that’s the point: There is a void out there. Looming. For all of you. That void is called tomorrow. What will happen tomorrow? What will happen the day after tomorrow?
I imagine some of you are already terrified of this. If you’re not, I bow to you, but perhaps in a few months, when it’s time to go back to college and you realize, Oh damn, there’s no college to go back to. There’s just life — the string of days that is my life, one after another, until I die.
Maybe then, in that moment, you’ll have that feeling of Uh-oh: What. Now. What do I do?
I would like to address this existential question and the angst it presents.
Narration: As you’ll continue to listen, these speeches always contain words of wisdom for lost souls.
There have been an array of speakers. These are writers, comedians, former lawyers, podcasters, CEOs and so many others who I haven’t even mentioned in this episode.
I’ve heard their speeches for years now. If you’ve met me personally, at some point, I would have shared links to their videos. These are people from different fields, who I either admire or have paid attention to at some point in my life. The way they share their stories is unique and also why I keep thinking about them.
At this point in time, I’m constantly surrounded by doubt. I’m dazed and confused, a feeling that is reminiscent of the time when I was a student. So, revisiting these speeches is often a way to seek an expression of hope. I find them reassuring. Maybe something in the speech will lead me to a revelation. Maybe, I’ll find something inspiring. Maybe, after watching the speech, I’ll get through to the next day.
Peter Thiel: When I was sitting where you are, back in 1989, I would’ve told you that I wanted to be a lawyer. I didn’t really know what lawyers do all day, but I knew they first had to go to law school, and school was familiar to me.
I had been competitively tracked from middle school to high school to college, and by going straight to law school, I knew I would be competing at the same kinds of tests I’d been taking ever since I was a kid, but I could tell everyone that I was now doing it for the sake of becoming a professional adult.
I did well enough in law school to be hired by a big New York law firm, but it turned out to be a very strange place. From the outside, everybody wanted to get in, and from the inside, everybody wanted to get out.
Steve Jobs: I am honored to be with you today at your commencement from one of the finest universities in the world. I never graduated from college. Truth be told, this is the closest I’ve ever gotten to a college graduation. Today I want to tell you three stories from my life. That’s it. No big deal. Just three stories.
Narration: One of the things I had overlooked about graduating and moving away from the structured life I had gotten used to, was just how unprepared I could be the moment I took on additional responsibilities. They don’t stop. This rigor of dealing with numerous difficult and confusing situations is endless and somehow, it doesn’t feel like I’m ready even now.
I’m sure it will get better. But it’s also definitely going to get a lot worse. As I go through the day to day, I often catch myself overthinking - is this it?
David Foster Wallace: Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about “the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.”
This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.
And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. Let’s get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what “day in day out” really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking about.
By way of example, let’s say it’s an average adult day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate job, and you work hard for eight or ten hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired and somewhat stressed and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for an hour, and then hit the sack early because, of course, you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there’s no food at home. You haven’t had time to shop this week because of your challenging job, and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of the work day and the traffic is apt to be: very bad. So getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping. And the store is hideously lit and infused with soul-killing muzak or corporate pop and it’s pretty much the last place you want to be but you can’t just get in and quickly out; you have to wander all over the huge, over-lit store’s confusing aisles to find the stuff you want and you have to manoeuvre your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts (et cetera, et cetera, cutting stuff out because this is a long ceremony) and eventually you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough check-out lanes open even though it’s the end-of-the-day rush. So the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating. But you can’t take your frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college.
But anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and you pay for your food, and you get told to “Have a nice day” in a voice that is the absolute voice of death. Then you have to take your creepy, flimsy, plastic bags of groceries in your cart with the one crazy wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left, all the way out through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive, rush-hour traffic, et cetera et cetera.
Everyone here has done this, of course. But it hasn’t yet been part of you graduates’ actual life routine, day after week after month after year.
John Green: You are probably familiar with the old line that a liberal arts education teaches people how to think. But I think it mostly teaches you how to listen — in your classes and in your readings, you’ve been listening. You’ve listened to your professors and to your peers, but also to Toni Morrison and Jane Austen and John Milton as you all together examine the big questions of our species: What do we owe ourselves, and what do we owe others? What is the nature of the universe, and what is our role in it? How best might we alleviate the suffering within and without?
You learned about these questions at Kenyon, but you won’t leave them here. And while making your voice heard on those questions is vital, you’ve also learned here that your voice gets stronger the more you listen — not just listening to loud voices, but also to those that are hard to hear because they have been systematically silenced.
I hope that listening will help inoculate you from the seductive lies of our time — the lie that strength and toughness are always assets, that selfishness is not just necessary but desirable, that the whole world benefits most when you act in your own narrow self-interest.
That seductive lie is appealing because it allows us to go on doing what we would’ve been doing anyway, because it imagines a world in which I am what I feel myself to be: The exact center of the universe. But living for one’s self, even very successfully, will do absolutely nothing to fill the gasping void inside of you.
In my experience, that void gets filled not through strength but through weakness. You must be weak before the world, because love and listening weaken you. They make you vulnerable. They break you open. And it is only when you are weak that you can truly see and acknowledge and forgive and love the weakness in others. Weakness allows you to see other humans not as enemies to defeat, but as collaborators and co-creators. In the end, we’re making humanness up together as we go along.
Narration: The commencement in a student’s journey becomes the last place where they can officially get educated.
After your graduation you’re out there by yourself. Finding support isn’t easy. You have to rely on colleagues, mentors, friends, and a lot of other resources, to get support. It won’t be handed over to you.
So, the commencement speech becomes the last place to officially get advice before you stop being a student forever.
The speeches are often conflicting. They’re filled with clichés. Each speaker has their own view of the world and life. Some have had common experiences, while others just differ completely on what a good life is.
Do you feel like doing art, but can’t find the motivation? Listen to Neil Gaiman. Do you want some sobering truths about life and death? Listen to Steven Jobs and David Foster Wallace. Do you want to laugh? Stephen Colbert and Conan O Brien can help you with that.Do you want to listen to an inspiring story of a late bloomer? Ira Glass will narrate one for you. There are many other great ones and I don’t know which one objectively provides the best advice, or which is the best speech. I pick whatever suits me the best, depending on my mood at the time.
Steve Jobs: My third story is about death.
When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.
Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
Peter Thiel: The other cliché goes like this: 'Live each day as if it were your last.' The best way to take this as advice is to do exactly the opposite. Live each day as if you will live forever. That means, first and foremost, that you should treat the people around you as if they too will be around for a very long time to come. The choices that you make today matter, because their consequences will grow greater and greater.
That is what Einstein was getting at when he supposedly said that compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe. This isn’t just about finance or money, but it’s about the idea that you’ll get the best returns in life from investing your time in building durable friendships and long-lasting relationships.
In one sense, all of you are here today because you were approved by the admissions office of Hamilton to pursue a course of study, which is now over. In another sense, you are here because you found a group of friends to sustain you along the way, and those friendships will continue. If you take care of them, they will compound in the years ahead.
Everything that you have done so far has had some kind of formal ending, some kind of graduation. You should, and I hope that you will, take time today to celebrate all that you’ve achieved so far. But remember that today’s commencement is not the beginning of one more thing that will end. It is the beginning of forever. And I won’t delay you any further in getting on with it. Thank you.
Conan O Brien: Your path at 22 will not necessarily be your path at 32 or 42. One’s dream is constantly evolving, rising and falling, changing course. This happens in every job, but because I have worked in comedy for twenty five years, I can speak best about my own profession.
Way back in the 1940’s there was a very funny man named Jack Benny. He was a giant star and easily one of the greatest comedians of his generation. And a much younger man named Johnny Carson wanted very much to be Jack Benny. In some ways he was, but in many ways he wasn’t. He emulated Jack Benny, but his own quirks and mannerisms, along with a changing medium, pulled him in a different direction. And yet his failure to completely become his hero made him the funniest person of his generation. David Letterman wanted to be Johnny Carson, and was not, and as a result my generation of comedians wanted to be David Letterman. And none of us are --- my peers and I have all missed that mark in a thousand different ways. But the point is this: It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique. It’s not easy, but if you accept your misfortune and handle it right, your perceived failure can be a catalyst for profound re-invention.
So, at the age of 47, after 25 years of obsessively pursuing my dream, that dream changed. For decades, in show business, the ultimate goal of every comedian was to host The Tonight Show. It was the Holy Grail, and like many people I thought that achieving that goal would define me as successful. But that is not true. No specific job or career goal defines me and it should not define you. In 2000, I told graduates to not be afraid to fail, and I still believe that. But today I tell you that whether you fear it or not, disappointment will come. The beauty is that through disappointment you can gain clarity, and with clarity comes conviction and true originality.
Stephen Colbert: Ok: You have been told to follow your dreams. But - what if it's a stupid dream? For instance Stephen Colbert of 25 years ago lived at 2015 North Ridge - with two men and three women - in what i now know was a brothel. He dreamed of living alone - well, alone with his beard - in a large, barren loft apartment - lots of blond wood- wearing a kimono, with a futon on the floor, and a samovar of tea constantly bubbling in the background, doing Shakespeare in the street for the homeless. Today, I am a beardless, suburban dad who lives in a house, wears no-iron khakis, and makes anthony wiener jokes for a living. And I love it. Because thankfully dreams can change. If we'd all stuck with our first dream, the world would be overrun with cowboys and princesses.
So whatever your dream is right now, if you don't achieve it, you haven't failed, and you're not some loser. But just as importantly -and this is the part I may not get right and you may not listen to - if you do get your dream, you are not a winner.
Neil Gaiman: And remember that whatever discipline you are in, whether you are a musician or a photographer, a fine artist or a cartoonist, a writer, a dancer, a designer, whatever you do you have one thing that's unique. You have the ability to make art. And for me, and for so many of the people I have known, that's been a lifesaver. The ultimate lifesaver. It gets you through good times and it gets you through the other ones.
Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do.
Make good art.
I'm serious. Husband runs off with a politician? Make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by mutated boa constrictor? Make good art. IRS on your trail? Make good art. Cat exploded? Make good art. Somebody on the Internet thinks what you do is stupid or evil or it's all been done before? Make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, and eventually time will take the sting away, but that doesn't matter. Do what only you do best. Make good art.
Make it on the good days too.
Ira Glass: I’m guessing some of you are focused and directed and you know exactly what you want to do. But I bet many of you are like I was all through my 20s, when I really struggled to figure out how to do work that was meaningful to me. The work I do now really came from that long experience of being lost and trying to invent something that made sense to me. And seemed special to me. Something I was actually good at.
So if in the coming months and years … you feel lost and you’re stuck in some job that isn’t what you want … I just wanna say to you and to your parents … that’s normal. You’re not crazy. Happens to lots of us. You just have to get in there and make stuff and try things and push yourself hard and that’s the only way to find your way.
For those of you who feel like your work still isn’t at the level of skill that you want it to be, I can offer this: I started at NPR when I was 19 … and was not a decent writer or reporter until a decade into it. Editing I could always do. But those other skills were hard fought and didn’t come easily. I was 36 when I started This American Life, 17 years into doing this.
I realized this thing recently …
We’ve always had a paid internship at This American Life. It’s so competitive that eventually we had to stop calling it an internship and we now call it a fellowship. Like one intern came to us from a reporting job at NBC News, another from the digital staff of the New York Times. We were like “we can’t call these grown-ass people ‘interns.’”
And at some point … I looked at the skills of the candidates applying and I realized, “oh … if at any point in my 20s I’d applied for the internship at This American Life … I wouldn’t have gotten it!” Like … I couldn’t have been an intern on my own show! I wouldn’t make the cut.
It can take a long time to be as good as you want to be.
And be kind to yourself, during that period. And work hard.
Steve Jobs: And 17 years later I did go to college. But I naively chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford, and all of my working-class parents’ savings were being spent on my college tuition. After six months, I couldn’t see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out. And here I was spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting.
It wasn’t all romantic. I didn’t have a dorm room, so I slept on the floor in friends’ rooms, I returned Coke bottles for the 5¢ deposits to buy food with, and I would walk the 7 miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple. I loved it. And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on. Let me give you one example:
Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and sans serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.
None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But 10 years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backward 10 years later.
Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.
David Foster Wallace: I know that this stuff probably doesn’t sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational the way a commencement speech is supposed to sound. What it is, as far as I can see, is the capital-T Truth, with a whole lot of rhetorical niceties stripped away. You are, of course, free to think of it whatever you wish. But please don’t just dismiss it as just some finger-wagging Dr Laura sermon. None of this stuff is really about morality or religion or dogma or big fancy questions of life after death.
The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.
It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:
“This is water.”
“This is water.”
It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.
I wish you way more than luck.
John Green: So anyway, I’ll shut up momentarily. I can offer you no real advice on how to live a successful adult life. But I don’t need to. The people you thought of, during that minute of silence — they are who you want to be when you grow up. They have been strong for you, but also weak for you. They listened to you. They were irrationally, impossibly kind to you. It’s not just that you wouldn’t be here without them; you wouldn’t be without them. If they are here today, I hope you’ll take a second to thank them. If they aren’t here, they may call later, to ask you how it went. They may even ask what the weather was like. Tell them it was rainy, inexcusably cold for late May, and remember to ask if it is raining in their pocket of the world.
Narration: I think the reason I listen to these speeches is because it takes me back to a time when I was filled with nervousness but also a deep sense of excitement for the future.
I thought of my life as one big and long adventure. A year into adulting, and I am not thinking about it that way anymore. I’m meandering through each day. Adventures have taken a backseat at the moment. That sense of excitement I had in the past, is slowly dwindling. I believe a lot of life to be magical, let’s be clear about that. But there are a lot of days when I find the magic to be fading away into an abyss.
When I listen to the stories of these speakers, I take solace in the fact that they’re doing well for themselves. They found a path they’re okay with. It took them a while, but they are enjoying their adventure and living magical moments. I find that inspiring.
I’m surrounded by a fog of doubt. I don’t know if the choices I’m making right now will make sense in the future. I will have to take a few leaps of faith and hope the dots will connect. Somehow.
That was it for this episode.
What are your favorite speeches? What’s a piece of advice you hold dear to you? What do you think you would want to say to a young student?
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