Kevin Kelly, one of the founders of Wired magazine, turned 68 on April 28, a fact of which I am aware only because, in honor of and in congruity with this milestone, he decided to publish on his blog “68 pithy bits of unsolicited advice as my birthday present to all of you.” Now is the season, if not the optimal year, for graduation speeches. In honor of the genre—of which unsolicited advice is invariably an element—and in acknowledgment of the send-off ceremony that our own Class of 2020 was intended to experience this weekend, I offer you some of Mr. Kelly’s wisdom today….
“Being enthusiastic is worth 25 IQ points.” The fact that hard work and passion are more indispensable to success than native ability will forever require repeating, especially in school.
“Show up. Keep showing up. Somebody successful said: 99% of success is just showing up.” A former colleague of mine once asked, “What if the only awards we gave in school were for perfect attendance?” The fact that hard work and passion are more indispensable to success than native ability will forever require repeating, especially in school.
“There is no limit on better. Talent is distributed unfairly, but there is no limit on how much we can improve what we start with.” The fact that hard work and passion are more indispensable to success than native ability will forever require repeating, especially in school. Okay, I will move on.
“Gratitude will unlock all other virtues and is something you can get better at.” I shared with you earlier in the school year David Brooks’s observation that “people with dispositional gratitude are continually struck by the fact that they are given far more than they pay for—and are much richer than they deserve.” Both halves of Kelly’s statement about gratitude are hopeful: that it begets other virtues (compassion, respect, honesty, loyalty, courage, grace, humility) and that it is never too late to be grateful.
“The more you are interested in others, the more interesting they find you. To be interesting, be interested.” A similar piece of advice was once given by my aunt to her daughter: “To make a friend, you have to be a friend.”
“Being able to listen well is a superpower. While listening to someone you love, keep asking them, ‘Is there more?,’ until there is no more.” Only seven sentences into F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby, the narrator Nick Carraway observes, “Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope.” To listen well is to reserve judgment—to hope for the best in people.
“When someone is nasty, rude, hateful, or mean with you, pretend they have a disease. That makes it easier to have empathy toward them which can soften the conflict.” Again, “reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope.” I am reminded of similar advice that I once received and have never forgotten: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is engaged in a great battle.”
“Pros are just amateurs who know how to gracefully recover from their mistakes.” For some reason, this statement brings to mind Buzz Lightyear’s “flight” across Andy’s bedroom at the beginning of Toy Story. “That wasn’t flying!” protests Woody. “That was falling with style.” The reference is not perfectly apt, but if fear of failure—and shame of its occasion—impede our capacity for graceful recovery, let alone learning and growth, then Buzz’s fearlessness is his essential strength.
“If you are not falling down occasionally, you are just coasting.” So let us all fall down occasionally—but with style!
“To make mistakes is human. To own your mistakes is divine.” It costs us so much never to say the words “I was wrong.” It profits us—and others—so much when we say them.
“How to apologize: Quickly, specifically, sincerely.” An exemplar from the poet William Carlos Williams: “I have eaten / the plums / that were in / the icebox / and which / you were probably / saving / for breakfast / Forgive me / they were delicious / so sweet / and so cold”
“You really don’t want to be famous. Read the biography of any famous person.” Fame and success are not equivalent. Our confusion of the two is a peculiarly modern problem. That we should ever seek the former was perplexing to Emily Dickinson: “How dreary – to be – Somebody! / How public – like a Frog – / To tell one’s name – the livelong June – / To an admiring Bog!”
“Don’t be the best. Be the only.” We tend to misunderstand a “genius” as “the best,” but an authentic genius (from the Latin verb “gignere,” “to give birth to”) is “the only.”
“Trust me: There is no ‘them.’” From the eighth chapter of Don Quixote: “Look there, Sancho Panza, where thirty or more monstrous giants present themselves, all of whom I mean to engage in battle and slay.” “Your worship,” said Sancho, “what we see there are not giants but windmills.” “It is easy to see,” replied Don Quixote, “that thou art not used to this business of adventures; those are giants.” With my children, I am Sancho Panza, but with the cable company, I can become Don Quixote, tilting at windmills. I still have growing to do.
“The universe is conspiring behind your back to make you a success. This will be much easier to do if you embrace this pronoia.” In 1955, before the word “pronoia” existed, J.D. Salinger’s character Seymour Glass exclaimed, “I’m a kind of paranoiac in reverse. I suspect people of plotting to make me happy.” In the same way that Nassim Taleb’s neologism “antifragile” understands stress as beneficent, “pronoia” understands conspiracy as beneficent. If there must be a “them,” let “them” be Seymour Glass’s imagined allies, not Don Quixote’s imagined adversaries. “They” do not have to be like the cable company; “they” can be like your family.
Happy birthday to Kevin Kelly, and many thanks for his wonderful unsolicited advice! Always reason, always compassion, always courage. I wish you a joyful spring weekend with your loved ones.
Head of School