Graduation

This act of choosing—the stories we tell versus the stories we leave out—will reverberate across the rest of your life. Don’t believe me? Think about how you celebrated this senior week, and contrast that with the version you shared with the parents and grandparents sitting behind you.

-Lin-Manuel Miranda in his speech for UPenn's 2016 Commencement

As I was trying to come up with what I wanted to write this week, I stumbled over my frustration with graduation speeches. That might seem a little weird, given that I'm leading with a quote from a graduation speech, but give me a minute.

There are a couple of different kinds of graduation speeches. The first is the pretty common reach-for-your-dreams-and-change-the-world sort. Then there are the ultra-realistic, adulthood-is-hard, these-were-the-best-days-of-your-life kind, which I got more than a few of as a kid growing up in a lower-income, low-education community. But here's the thing: both of these are lies.

The speeches Miranda gives are another kind. They're the kind from people who Do Not Throw Away Their Shot, who trudge through the work and get to stardom. "Look," the cry, "at how this completely average person changed history!" They're inspiring. They're often emotional.

They're also lies.

Here's the thing: I think the UPenn speech almost gets it right. It starts and ends with "every story matters," and that's the real lesson of at least my first decade of adulthood. Living a great life is not about living a great story; it's about making your stories great.

The vast, vast majority of real lives are boring. They are jobs nobody else respects no matter how much you love them, or jobs you can't bear to leave even though they're breaking you down because everybody thinks you have the perfect career. They're the behind-the-scenes hard labor of cooking and cleaning and dressing and bathing that people don't acknowledge if your kids get tired and cranky at nap time, walking dogs and fixing cars and digging holes and scrubbing floors. They're nodding and smiling while someone explains something you don't care about, or maybe worse, something you do care about and also know more than the speaker, who won't step back and let you get a word in edgewise.

That doesn't have to mean they're not also brilliant, bright and shining. It's just that the bright, shining parts aren't often the ones you think about. They're not, or at least not only, the moments you want to photograph. For most of the people I know, building the photograph-worthy events is so stressful they don't get to take a breath and enjoy it. They sparkle, but they don't shine. The shining moments are small, but they put out their own light. 

From the outside, grads, your life will almost definitely be boring. The hard work of building the world is rarely glamorous. From the inside, though, it's what you make it. So a wish: may your boring be beautiful. May you notice the moments that shine and not only the ones that sparkle. May you understand the difference soon enough to avoid pain, and learn quickly how to do it. May you spend few years trying to be the most extraordinary and learn to find the things in yourself that are already extraordinary if you take the time to share them. May you realize that you are a block of marble with art inside waiting to be revealed, and that layering extra art on top just makes you feel heavy and tired. May you recognize that in that metaphor, the extra art is the personality shell we all for some reason feel like we have to create, but that maintaining it is labor at best and crushingly destructive at worst. May you also know that saying there's something worthwhile in you right now doesn't mean that every part of you, or of anyone, is good, only that by finding the good and bringing it forward, the bad is more likely to wither away.

Stories Wandering Out

The Taste of Cherries in Their Teeth