TAKING ON TODAY'S CHALLENGES
Commencement speaker Grant Lichtman on finding the points of resonance between the world and your soul
Graduates: Rising generations have always been faced with decisions that will profoundly impact the world they inherit, but your generation is faced with a completely unique challenge. Yours is the first in the history of humanity to encounter a world that changes faster than our ability to adapt to those changes.
We don’t yet know how to live effectively in this world, yet the challenge will neither go away nor decelerate. I’m an old geologist so it is with some degree of fearful appreciation that I now see rates of both environmental and social evolution more rapid than any other in the roughly four and a half billion years of Earth’s history. So what are we, and more specifically you going to do about it?
I suggest that there are a handful of human and intellectual abilities that will dictate the success or failure of your generation and perhaps many future generations. None of them have to do with solving the quadratic formula, correctly conjugating an irregular verb, quoting Shakespeare, or balancing a chemical equation.
Hopefully along with a wealth of knowledge you’ve gained some affinity for these critical abilities during your time here at Delphian.
First is your ability and willingness to engage in civil discourse. Democracy is a foundational hope for human society, and the designers of the great American experiment assume civil discourse is a way of solving problems. Our current generation of leaders, who your elders have elected, are in the process of destroying this profound foundation. Polarization of thought and the inability to compromise nurture fanaticism. The center may not hold. You must show us the way back.
Second is the ability and commitment to separate fact from fiction. To me the most profound inflection point in the history of humanity was the rise of the rule of law which requires that we collectively hold certain things to be true—not subject to the whim of those with the most power. Recent studies out of MIT prove that falsity travels six times faster on Twitter than does truth. It is profoundly dangerous that many Americans are willing to sacrifice the truth to their own selfish points of view. Dictators do this, and we are supposed to be better.
Third is respect for expertise. With the rise of social media anyone who can gather an online following can sway public opinion. As many as 50 percent of Americans accept the opinions of self-proclaimed experts over those by people with a lifetime of expertise behind them. It sounds politically incorrect, but not all opinions have equal value. Give more weight to those who have earned it.
Fourth is empathy. In a flatter, closer, more interrelated world, if we cannot see through the eyes and experiences of those that look and live differently than we do. Our version of society is doomed to the same dustbin history as the monarchial, communist and fascist experiments of the last thousand years.
And fifth is global stewardship. Humans are arguably the greatest plague, the most voracious cancer, the deadliest virus in Earth’s history. In some ways global warming, species extinction, and pervasive pollution are changing the global ecosystem faster and more dramatically than during the Cretaceous extinction event 65 million years ago. Chew on that for a moment. Environmental changes are happening as rapidly today as in the years after a huge meteor crashed into the earth with the impact of more than a billion Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs.
Ignore this as many of our last few generations have and we are all in really serious trouble. Sounds like a mess, right? How are you going to solve these big, hairy problems? I have no idea. That’s where the fun of living comes in. You get to actually do something important—not just for yourself but for the world at large.
Success is not guaranteed. As the Myth Busters say, “Failure is always an option.” This is the ultimate reality experience, dive in. The standard message of commencement speakers is that you will help solve big problems, create opportunities and be a lot happier in your lives if you follow your passions.
This is absolute truth. Life is just way too short and precious to be wasted in pursuit of fleeting rewards or stuff that doesn’t turn you on. But I want to add what I think is an important corollary to merely following your passion. It is this, dive deeply, find the points of resonance between the world and your soul.
I use that word resonance more intentionally than I can describe. Like a string or membrane that will vibrate at just the right frequency. You too can resonate when you match yourself to places, people and events in ways that are unique and powerful to you. When you find that resonance embrace it, explore it, push its boundaries. Find its joys.
"I urge you to find the right problems to solve"
My daughter, who recently retired as one of the best volleyball players in the world, knows something about what she calls mastery. “It is found,” she says, “at the intersection of ability and something much deeper within each of us.” She says she can see an athlete that has remarkable physical talent but who’s missing that deeper connection which might make her a master. Master Yoda might say, “Resonance that deeper connection is.” I hope you find it at least a few times in your life.
There was a long weekend years ago when I found such a point of resonance. It was not far from here. Across these deeply forested hills that lie just to the west of here along the rugged Pacific coast. I slowed down long enough to really understand that moment and place and to write it down.
I understood that place and moment. It had nothing to do with career or paycheck or fame. I found a note of resonance and it brought me both understanding and joy. Your resonance (graduates) may be in science or art, in hitting a ball or raising a child. It may be in solving a big problem for many people or in just helping one other person to find their own moments of joy in a crowded, busy and often abrasive world. That’s up to you to decide. As we used to say back in the hippy days of the sixties, “It’s your movie, make your movie as you wish. But for the sake of our collective futures, make a good one.”
You would not have thrived at a school like Delphian, not that there really are any other schools like Delphian. You would not have thrived here if you were not tenacious, creative and had the ability to structure your own path.
Too many of our brightest, self-starting young people think that the path to happiness lies in creating the next meaningless phone app and selling it for millions of dollars. That kind of success is shallow and fleeting. Do you really want your epitaph to be, “She wrote the code for a silly game, upon which millions wasted their valuable time”?
We need our best and brightest young people to take on the toughest challenges that will have real impact on a world short of solutions. Malala is the young Pakistani activist who won the Nobel peace prize. We need more Malalas and fewer angry birds. We need more young people registering as voters and far fewer designing the next bestselling slasher video game.
So with the benefit of having become a Delphian, of participating in a community that values ethics, integrity, leadership and knowledge, I urge you to find the right problems to solve. Not the niggling annoyances of everyday life, but the big, hairy challenges that beg for big audacious solutions. You will succeed at overcoming some and you will utterly fail at others. Relish both equally. If you know what resonates deeply with you, you will overcome the failures and find your way back. If you can find the resonant frequency of understanding and joy, and if you can make the world better for even a few hours even a few times, then you will have lived well. Congratulations, graduates and families, and thank you for having me here.