I’m honored to be here, for a couple of reasons. First of all, I’m lucky enough to be in the presence of students whose talents are destined to make a difference in a world that needs you. Secondly, I’m glad to be able to talk to you when you’re all at finishing up one stage of your education and taking on the next set of challenges. You’re being honored tonight because you take your schoolwork seriously – not because you’re supposed to, but because you like to. That’s sort of unusual. And that’s why on behalf of my generation whose own revolution forty years ago didn’t do much to change the world, I want to asik you to go ahead and make the difference we couldn’t. Because I think you can. By following your heart. Listen to those who teach you. Absorb their wisdom. But at the end of the day, listen to yourself.
My generation was the first to recognize that we needed to start paying attention to the environment. But we didn’t do enough. We knew that poverty and hunger were a global affliction. But we didn’t do enough. I think you guys will. And here’s how I hope you’re going to do it: by being true to yourselves, and following the path where your passions lead you, and then finding that place where what you love to do meets with the place it can do us all the most good. And I don’t think that’s going to be hard to do. Because for the first time in a long time, our next generation has the right priorities.
I had some of the right priorities. By the time I’d finished sixth grade, I knew I liked to write. By college, I knew I wasn’t good at anything else anyway, so I kept at it, because it felt right. Now I’ve published a half-dozen books and a hundred magazine stories. I’ve made a living doing what I love. Which feels good…but I have one regret. I didn’t make enough of a difference. I’ve interviewed hundreds of celebrities and sports stars, met powerful people, and got published in a lot of fancy magazines. I took my talent…and used it for me. I had a gift, as a good writer, and I used it to advance my own career, and stoke my own ego.
Did my story about the late son of a baseball manager advance the AIDS cause? Maybe. Did my story about nuclear suitcases advance national security? Maybe. But did my stories about George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg and Derek Jeter make any real difference? No. That’s where my generation failed. We recognized what needed to be changed, but in the end, we didn’t make the change count.
So now it’s your turn. And I know you’re going to succeed. Because you guys go into the world knowing what has to be changed. But I’m going to give you a hint to help you: Follow your heart. Whether you want write songs, build bridges or make ice cream. Do it. Listen to yourself, and follow that voice. And let it take you where you’re needed most. If you have a passion, don’t let anyone stand in your way.
I mention songwriting because my own daughter has been doing it since she was 12. We kept saying, “Honey, don’t you know how hard it is to be a singer?” Thankfully, she didn’t listen. She’s a senior at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and she’s writing and singing her songs, and she is happy. Will her road be tough? Totally. Is the right road for her? Totally. Do her songs make people smile? Totally.
Ice-cream? Yeah. About ten years ago, I was writing a story about Phish, which happens to be my favorite band. They were holding one of their annual three-day festivals. This one was up in Plattsburgh, New York, at an abandoned air force base. And on the second day, Ben and Jerry – you’ve probably heard of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream – showed up on the stage. So after that set, I asked Trey Anastasio, the guitarist, why Ben and Jerry were up there, other than that they were all from Vermont. Trey told me, “Check out what they do.” So I did. And I found out that they put a lot of their profits into a foundation. Now, they now only have their foundation, they’re helping Vermont farmers sustain their crops without hurting the environment. Their foundation helps education in the region. And their ice cream, using local ingredients, is still really, really good.
Oh – and as for Trey? Phish’s guitarist? He went to a fancy prep school, but decided that music was what he was good at it. It’s worked out pretty well. Phish makes 20,000 people smile at every concert, 100 times a year.
Ben, Jerry and Trey didn’t do it for the ego. And it turns out that people don’t do the most good when we’re trying to be the center of attention. We do the most good when we follow our instincts. There’s a great book that came out last year called Drive, by Daniel Pink. It’s about what motivates people to do their best work, based on a lot of university psychology studies, and it comes up with an amazing discovery. For centuries –no, for thousands of years — it’s been assumed that we do our best work when we’re motivated by rewards. Money or ego or fame. But it turns out that money doesn’t motivate us to be our best. Material success doesn’t motivate us to be our best. A desire to be better than everyone else, to be famous, doesn’t motivate us to be our best.
Study after study say that we’re at our best at what we do – whether it’s building airplanes, searching for an AIDS vaccine or playing the clarinet — when we’re doing what we love to do, and finding ways to help others when we do it. It turns out that the greatest motivation there is is following your own instincts. And it makes sense, doesn’t it? Because I don’t have to tell you that your own instincts are to do good, right? We’re at our best when we’re contributing –in small ways, and big ways, and not for money or fame.
That’s why you guys are here, right? Because you’re not doing well because you want rewards. You know that the best reward is knowing you’re doing your best. And here’s a great example that will prove it, from Pink’s book. Imagine that fifteen years ago, someone told you that two internet encyclopedias were starting up. One was being created by billionaire Bill Gates of Microsoft. He was going to hire the best minds to write it, and pay them really well. He would hire business-manager people who had run successful companies to oversee the encyclopedia’s creation, and he would pay them well. It would be displayed on Microsoft’s network, and reach billions of people.
Now: the other encyclopedia was going to be written by everyday people who wanted to write about things that interested them, for no money, with no money behind the project, and no boss. Which one would you have predicted would have survived? Microsoft’s encyclopedia folded a few years ago. Wikipedia is the best encyclopedia in history. Written for free, available to all of us for free. The thousands of people who are bringing us bits of knowledge on Wikipedia, without their names attached to their work, have found a purpose in doing what they want to do – helping us learn.
Last week, I spent some time with a guy who found his purpose in a very tragic way. His name is Howard Lutnick. He was the president of a financial company called Cantor Fitzgerald. He was very wealthy, and he liked nice cars and big houses. And then, on the morning of 9/11, Lutnick wasn’t in the office yet. He was taking his son to his first day of kindergarten when terrorists hit the World Trade Center. His entire New York company was on floors above where the plane hit. They all died. 758 people. Today, ten years later, Lutnick has rebuilt the company. Each year he gives one-quarter of the company’s profits to the families of those who died. He no longer has a taste for nice cars. He spends all day, every day, helping put those families back together, as best he can. He is following his heart, and doing the best he can, in the only way he knows how. And he has done a tremendous amount of good. And now knows that success doesn’t mean you’re the best at what you do, and so you can buy the BMW. Success is knowing that you made a difference. And felt good about doing it.
Now: for you guys going into seventh grade, you’re going to have a blast. The academic challenges are going to be tough. But you’ll handle them, because you’re ready. For those of you stepping into high school, the challenges are more than academic: you’re going to see that all sorts of horizons are going to open up, but you’ll also see that a lot of adults are going to want you to take a path they want you to take because they think it’s the right one. Sometimes, they’ll be right. Sometimes they won’t. It’s up to you to listen to your heart when you make those choices. But don’t turn down any of those paths. Right now I’m directing a musical at a school over in Lakeville. My lead is a kid who came to the school to play football. Turns out he can act and sing, too.
And those of you going into college? who don’t know what they want to do, and for the last few years have been hearing all these adults asking, “So what do you want to do with your life?” You don’t have to know. If you do, you’re rare. If you do, of course, follow it. But if you don’t have your goal yet, don’t try and make one up because you think you’re going to have to have one. Wait for it to find you. You have a lot of time.
A study of “goal-seeking” by Harvard professors came up with this conclusion: “goal-setting should be prescribed selectively, presented with a warning label, and closely monitored.” What they mean is that going for goals that others set for you can be counterproductive. To narrow your focus on a goal can blind you to other possibility of other ways of doing things.
I’ll leave you with a lyric from a musical called Evita, written by the composer Andrew Lloyd Webber. It’s about the wife of a dictator in Argentina. And this is what she sings: “And as for fortune and as for fame I never invited them in though it seemed to the world they were all I desired. They are illusions. They’re not the solutions they promised to be.”
There’s a thing called the American Dream. Generations of Americans have bought into it. It’s a good dream. But for a long time now, it’s included too much success for “me” and not enough for “us.” Now we have a new dream: to take care of the planet and take care of its people. I have no doubt you’re going to find the solutions we need. As long as you follow your hearts.