(This was a speech given at Evanston Township High School on Wednesday, May 3, 2017. The punctuation was meant to help me with pauses during the delivery, not for grammatical correctness -- so please don't ding me for that! Enjoy!)
Congratulations, National Honors Society students of 2017! What an accomplishment to be recognized in this time-honored way for Scholastics, Character, Leadership, and Service. NHS has been around for as long as I can remember – actually I looked it up. 96 years (for the record, that’s longer than I can remember). And it has always been a sign of a well-balanced student in not only what you’ve accomplished, but HOW you’ve gotten it done.
I’ve been asked to provide a few words of inspiration tonight…to leave you with some parting comments that might forever impact the rest of your lives. No pressure, that is…
As you look ahead to the future, realize that this is an exciting time. In a couple of years, you are about to start on your first big chapter on your own: College. You’re about to be possibly hundreds (maybe thousands) of miles from home for the first time, embarking on a field of study that will set your path for the remainder of your life.
Okay. Now who feels the pressure?
So I have three thoughts to leave you with tonight:
Please don’t stop thinking. It sounds ridiculous, but all you have to do is observe the world we live in, and realize that “thinking” doesn’t happen as often as it should. The world has gotten horrible about this. We gloss over details in the interest of getting out a 140-character tweet. We like and share headlines without reading the articles, follow the political rants of celebrities who know nothing about politics, and vote for people and issues just because of what’s on the nightly news. We have somehow outsourced thinking. Don’t outsource thinking. Don’t take everything that’s told to you as real. Don’t get caught in the wave of popularity, the “candidate of the season”, or “this month’s most important cause to save”. Focus on what YOU believe is important – for the right reasons. Go deep into what you care about, understand all sides of an argument, and always make sure you have data and science on your side. Allow your opinions to be altered by new information, and remember that it’s always easier to criticize than to solve, because solving requires thinking.
Second: Think big.
I have always contended that there are only two kinds of people in the world: Big people and small people. Big people are generous in spirit, always wanting to expand their knowledge of various subjects and experiences. They seek out different people who can help them understand the world, and are fueled by curiosity and adventure. They are comfortable getting out of their comfort zone – in fact they thrive on it – and enjoy pushing themselves to grow and learn, and realize that when times change, society needs to adjust in order to accommodate and embrace the progress that change can bring. Big people can be found everywhere – in any walk of life, income, and education level.
Small people have well-defined comfort zones. They enjoy spending time with people similar to themselves, and find no reason to venture out of that zone. As a result, they do everything they can to fortify that zone, by building figurative (sometimes real!) walls to feel safe inside, and to keep others out. They live, work, and travel to places that reaffirm a world they believe in. They try their best to have their kids spend time around people “just like them” so that their family can continue to operate within familiar territory. Small people can also be found everywhere – from trailer parks to the halls of Ivy League Schools.
Don’t be a small person. Keep your world big.
And finally, Think Back.
Look around you today. Your friends. Your teachers, Your family. Don’t ever forget these people. They are what got you to where you are, and regardless of where you end up, they will be a big part of that, too. If you find yourself twenty years from now not having kept in touch with any of your old friends, you’ve done it wrong. Because the people who are with you today will ALWAYS keep you grounded. They were with you when you were a dorky middle school kid, they saw you with braces, and they were with you when you didn’t know how to ride a bike, let alone drive a car. Thinking back will also ensure that you have a healthy dose of gratitude in your life -- realizing that you have been blessed thus far with some incredible opportunities. Even though you’re about to head in many different directions, there’s nothing like people from your childhood who will help you keep it real. Always keep them in your lives.
Congratulations again on what you have accomplished to date. Being recognized for Scholarship, Character, Leadership, and Service at this point in your life means you have the capacity to do great things. How you approach your life choices going forward will determine the degree of impact you will have. I wish you all my very best.