The following is a more-or-less faithful version of the commencement speech I gave to Western Academy of Beijing’s class of 2019 during their graduation ceremony at Confucius Temple on Saturday, June 1st 2019.
The title of this speech is “On Jumping into Duck Lake”. Its subtitle is “A Fairly-Obvious Metaphor”.
Before I begin, though, a few legal disclaimers: the speaker is not responsible for injuries suffered jumping from an elevated surface into a body of standing water nor for loss of personality property ensuing from…you know what? I’ll just have you all sign this later. It’s a standard waiver of responsibility.
Two years ago, when a few students from the class of 2017 jumped triumphantly into Duck Lake, back when Duck Lake was, to put it politely, a cesspool, there were gasps of collective horror. I’m sure you remember. We imagined they’d all come down with cholera or hepatitis or be patient zeroes in some previously-unknown pandemic extinction event, but that didn’t happen. They were dirty and smelled bad and their parents, who’d come to watch the ramp walk and awards ceremony with pride, were less than pleased, but nothing terrible happened to any of them. I’m sure, in fact, the three or four of them are still pretty pleased with themselves for having made that jump.
One thing I remember clearly looking back on that day is talking to one of the jumpers’ friends who was supposed to jump with them but changed his mind at the last second. What stays with me is that he was the only one that day feeling any sense of regret. I’m not saying it was some existential thing where he’ll come to define that day as the wrong turn his life took and then obsess for decades only to return here as a middle-aged man to recreate this pivotal moment and get it right. But, I bet next time he’s staring down at some water from a bridge with his buddies, he jumps.
Also, no, I haven’t forgotten about your own daredevil lake-jumping antics a month or so ago. The truth is that I just wasn’t able to use what you did as a relevant jumping-off point (sorry) for a commencement speech.
Look, I’m not saying you should definitely go jump in Duck Lake whenever the opportunity presents itself. I don’t think that’s always the right call. There are people in intensive care wards and motorized wheelchairs and graveyards who’ve gotten there from jumping off of things. I’m just suggesting that you shouldn’t, as a default or as some personal defining trait, not jump into Duck Lake.
Since you’ve all presumably completed an IB diploma or high school English language & literature or literature course, I’m sure you’ve figured out by now that jumping into Duck Lake is meant here as a metaphor. Or as grade 12 students might write if they were analyzing this speech: “The speaker employs figurative language to convey the idea that risks are often worth taking. First, he grabs the audience’s attention with an anecdote and then he keeps the audience’s attention using meta-speech rhetorical techniques.”
There are pithy inspirational quotes about risk-taking I could offer here. At least half of them are by Ralph Waldo Emerson. There are well-known phrases in Latin and clever acronyms in wide use among people your age that are totally relevant to this discussion.
Here’s what I know. When I look at my own life from somewhere around the midway point, I regret the risks I didn’t take way more than the risks I took. I would rather have a do-over on the moments when I played it too safe than on the ones when I was rash and foolish. Here’s what I think: it’s often better to regret what you’ve done than what you haven’t done. At least when you’re taking a macro-scale highlight reel look-back on your own life. And at least when you’ve survived the risks you’ve taken.
I’m not holding myself up here as a paragon of risk-taking. I don’t always get it right. I don’t dance or sing in public…sober. I don’t approach unfamiliar animals or seize each day and live it as though it could be my last. But, I did relocate from one side of the world to the other to teach, and I have eaten some insane street food over the years on dares, so there’s that.
You, the graduating class of 2019, are now entering into the period of your lives with the most risks. Choosing or changing majors, career-trajectory stuff, meeting new people, deciding whether or not to chat up that alluring boy or girl over there in the corner of that lit off-campus party you’re attending. Uncreepily, of course. In the next few years, you’ll have many moments where you’re standing on that proverbial bridge over that metaphorical body of water considering whether or not to jump. Again, I’m not saying you always should. Let me repeat that since your parents are here and listening and possibly thinking about how to undo this disastrous life advice: I don’t think you should jump off every bridge you encounter. I’m just saying that you shouldn’t define yourself as the type of person who never jumps. As a person who doesn’t take risks.
I know you understand this already. A handful of you literally jumped into Duck Lake on your last day of classes. A few of you, in fact, will be more likely to experience moments where someone else has to say, “Yeah, the water level is too low to jump” or “Dude, it’s winter; the lake is frozen.” You’ll have to figure out how to get the balance right, just like the rest of us. I can’t help you there. Not all risks lead to glory. Some risks lead to pain.
I do, however, wish each of you…well, yeah, each of you well as you go forward from high school out into the world. If I’m using way-too-obvious metaphors here, I might as well use a few clichéd sentiments too. It’s fine. Don’t be afraid to take some calculated risks, even impulsive risks, once in a while in your late teens, your early 20s, 30s, 40s and beyond. Seriously, jump off of something and land in something else every now and then. Sorry, moms and dads in attendance.
Finally, in the words of countless high school students finishing an oral presentation, “So…yeah”. Thank you.
(Photos courtesy of Celebrating HS at WAB)