Today we celebrate two months in site as Peace Corps Volunteers!
It took us two years to get where we are now. So far, I’d say it has been totally worth it, but, ask me in another two years…
On this most auspicious of occasions I have decided to share two of my favorite Commencement Speeches. One was recently delivered at Princeton University by author Michael Lewis. It may look long but it’s worth reading the entire thing. I’ve always believed in Seneca’s quotation, “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity,” and I’ve always believed myself to be a very lucky person.
The other one was never a real speech, it was printed in the Chicago Tribune in 1997, the year I graduated from high school, as one writer’s attempt if she were ever asked to make a graduation speech. The result is: Advice, Like Youth, Probably Just Wasted on the Young by Mary Schmich. Some people thought it was written by Kurt Vonnegut and delivered at MIT but as we know that was just an urban legend.
In 1999, Australian film director Baz Luhrman (one of my faves) remixed and recorded this song as the popular, “Everybody’s Free to Wear Sunscreen,” which I hear playing in my head from time to time. Like when I have to put on sunscreen, which these days is every day. I also hear other echoes from time to time:
“Live in New York City once but leave before it makes you hard. Live in Northern California once but leave before it makes you soft. Travel.”
“Be kind to your knees – you’ll miss them when they’re gone.”
“Do one thing every day that scares you.”
Below you can enjoy the very 90s video that was made of the song. It’s almost so bad it’s good, although watching it now I realize how un-diverse the images are. People of color need to wear sunscreen, too!
“Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)”
“Don’t Eat Fortune’s Cookie”
June 3, 2012 — As Prepared
Thank you. President Tilghman. Trustees and Friends. Parents of the Class of 2012. Above all, Members of the Princeton Class of 2012. Give yourself a round of applause. The next time you look around a church and see everyone dressed in black it’ll be awkward to cheer. Enjoy the moment.
Thirty years ago I sat where you sat. I must have listened to some older person share his life experience. But I don’t remember a word of it. I can’t even tell you who spoke. What I do remember, vividly, is graduation. I’m told you’re meant to be excited, perhaps even relieved, and maybe all of you are. I wasn’t. I was totally outraged. Here I’d gone and given them four of the best years of my life and this is how they thanked me for it. By kicking me out.
At that moment I was sure of only one thing: I was of no possible economic value to the outside world. I’d majored in art history, for a start. Even then this was regarded as an act of insanity. I was almost certainly less prepared for the marketplace than most of you. Yet somehow I have wound up rich and famous. Well, sort of. I’m going to explain, briefly, how that happened. I want you to understand just how mysterious careers can be, before you go out and have one yourself.
I graduated from Princeton without ever having published a word of anything, anywhere. I didn’t write for the Prince, or for anyone else. But at Princeton, studying art history, I felt the first twinge of literary ambition. It happened while working on my senior thesis. My adviser was a truly gifted professor, an archaeologist named William Childs. The thesis tried to explain how the Italian sculptor Donatello used Greek and Roman sculpture — which is actually totally beside the point, but I’ve always wanted to tell someone. God knows what Professor Childs actually thought of it, but he helped me to become engrossed. More than engrossed: obsessed. When I handed it in I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life: to write senior theses. Or, to put it differently: to write books.
Then I went to my thesis defense. It was just a few yards from here, in McCormick Hall. I listened and waited for Professor Childs to say how well written my thesis was. He didn’t. And so after about 45 minutes I finally said, “So. What did you think of the writing?”
“Put it this way” he said. “Never try to make a living at it.”
And I didn’t — not really. I did what everyone does who has no idea what to do with themselves: I went to graduate school. I wrote at nights, without much effect, mainly because I hadn’t the first clue what I should write about. One night I was invited to a dinner, where I sat next to the wife of a big shot at a giant Wall Street investment bank, called Salomon Brothers. She more or less forced her husband to give me a job. I knew next to nothing about Salomon Brothers. But Salomon Brothers happened to be where Wall Street was being reinvented—into the place we have all come to know and love. When I got there I was assigned, almost arbitrarily, to the very best job in which to observe the growing madness: they turned me into the house expert on derivatives. A year and a half later Salomon Brothers was handing me a check for hundreds of thousands of dollars to give advice about derivatives to professional investors.
Now I had something to write about: Salomon Brothers. Wall Street had become so unhinged that it was paying recent Princeton graduates who knew nothing about money small fortunes to pretend to be experts about money. I’d stumbled into my next senior thesis.
I called up my father. I told him I was going to quit this job that now promised me millions of dollars to write a book for an advance of 40 grand. There was a long pause on the other end of the line. “You might just want to think about that,” he said.
“Stay at Salomon Brothers 10 years, make your fortune, and then write your books,” he said.
I didn’t need to think about it. I knew what intellectual passion felt like — because I’d felt it here, at Princeton — and I wanted to feel it again. I was 26 years old. Had I waited until I was 36, I would never have done it. I would have forgotten the feeling.
The book I wrote was called “Liar’s Poker.” It sold a million copies. I was 28 years old. I had a career, a little fame, a small fortune and a new life narrative. All of a sudden people were telling me I was born to be a writer. This was absurd. Even I could see there was another, truer narrative, with luck as its theme. What were the odds of being seated at that dinner next to that Salomon Brothers lady? Of landing inside the best Wall Street firm from which to write the story of an age? Of landing in the seat with the best view of the business? Of having parents who didn’t disinherit me but instead sighed and said “do it if you must?” Of having had that sense of must kindled inside me by a professor of art history at Princeton? Of having been let into Princeton in the first place? Read More…