The name of the blog–50percentfinished–refers to my age, 35, and the fact that one’s average lifespan is 70 years. The Bible called that a couple thousand years again–three score and ten–and we haven’t really progressed beyond that. Yes, it’s more like 73-74 for a first world male, but honestly, that has more to do with infant mortality than anything happening on the back end. The deepest cut is we don’t even get the first four or five years. We’re too busy growing to remember shit.
And, it’s entirely possible that we’ll miss the last four or five as well. That we’ll basically be the equivalent of the heirloom furniture you have in a storage locker somewhere in New Jersey–too valuable to throw away, but worthless and a relative waste of space. Except this particular brand of furniture likes to drool, wander, and strip in public.. So altogether, we don’t have a bunch of time. Get on it.
Actually, I wrote this after the post you’ve already see, but I’m still getting used to the site. Here’s a speech I gave Wednesday, Oct. 5 for the National Honor Society Inductees. One student told me his mother “didn’t care for it.”
National Honor Society Notes
Wednesday, October 5
First, I’d like to thank those students who told Mrs. Aerni that I would make a good choice for guest speaker at tonight’s event. I can only promise that I will not keep you too long, and that what I’m going to say is important to me and comes from the heart. I hope it means half as much to you to listen to this as it means for me to get the chance to tell it to you. You see, twenty minutes after Mrs. Aerni asked me to speak to everyone tonight, I received word that a friend of mine from my old hometown had died, suddenly, a massive heart attack at 35. I’ve lost friends before, and he was never as close to me as others have been, but for whatever reason the news drew me up short. I’m 35. I know I’ve joked in class when I’m asked how old I am that I’m ”halfway done,” but there’s nothing like that kind of news to bring what’s important into focus pretty quickly. I decided that if there was anything I could do for J.D., it was try my best to not squander the oppurtunities given to me.
I guess all that was just a way of apologising to everyone who hoped I’d tell jokes for fifteen minutes. Sorry—but I promise I’ll still do that in class, when I’m actively squandering your educations and your parents’ tax money.
As I look out among you I can see a lot of familiar faces, and it was said at the meeting we voted to accept you into National Honor Society that this is one of the biggest and best groups of honors students to come along in a good while. Now I see the proof, personally. So I have good news and bad news.
The good news is that you are in the top ten percent of all students your age in the United States.
The bad news is that you had very little to do with that. Nothing, actually. With several probable exceptions—exceptions, I would argue, that prove the rule—everyone in this room who is getting pinned or poked or tapped or whatever it is you call it was born with innate talents and gifts most people do not possess. These include but are not limited to: a strong neurological chemistry, an emotional stability and perseverance rare in humans and darn near nonexistent in teenagers, and the relatively supportive, ambitious guidance of a person or group of people who love and believe in you.
I’m not saying everyone in here has all of those things. What I’m saying is that if you have any of those things—and all of you have some of those things–it’s not because of you. It has nothing to do with you. It’s nothing more than a trick of fate or wrinkle in the warp and weft of destiny’s tapestry. You are where you are because you’re lucky, not special.
You are blessed, not better. Always remember that and give credit where it’s due, to God or chemistry or karma.
I say this not to diminish your achievement. You deserve this. I say it only to introduce my charge, to give you your task. Mark Twain once said that a man who does not read cannot be distinguished from a man who can’t read. Similarly, I would argue that a person born into the blessings we’ve mentioned who chooses to ignore—or worse, rely soley upon–those blessings through laziness or a sense of entitlement is no different than a person who uses their blessings to diminish or oppress their fellow man. If you’re not making the world a better place, you’re making it worse.
You’re in possession of gifts you do not deserve, but that does not mean you can’t earn them. Call it the Spiderman rule—with great power comes great responsibility. I choose to believe that no matter how we’re born, all of us have one choice to make on a second-by-second basis: Am I currently doing what I can to make this world a better place? I’m not talking about a paperless society or electric cars or world peace, though things like that could be life goals, but only something as simple as realizing that everyone around you has thoughts, dreams, fears, and feelings. I’m talking about removing the “default settings” we’re programmed to operate under, as my favorite author D.F.W. has called them, and realizing that the way you conduct yourself matters as much to others as how they conduct themselves matters to you.
So what I’m saying is as easy as “right now.” It has to be, because it’s all we’ve got.
Think Kung Fu Panda: past is history, future’s a mystery but right now’s a gift, which is why it’s called the present. It took me twenty minutes to explain that idea to my kids. By the time they understood it the movie was over.
The point is, string enough “right nows” together—right now I’m working as hard as I can; right now I’m helping my little sister with her algebra because I’m good at algebra and I suspect that she sucks at algebra; right now I am helping someone else at the expense of my own wants and desire; right now I am tired and angry and want to be left alone but will not let my crappy attitude affect the happiness of the checkout lady ringing up my Powerade Zero and Mojo Bar—string enough right nows together and they add up to time well spent, which is all anyone can ask for.
OK. You’ve been given the gifts necessary to make the world a better place, and the charge to consider how you’re using them on a second-by-second basis. So how are we going to do this?
By failing. Everyday. By failing everyday.
So hold it, right? Mr. Lykins has now spent the past five minutes telling us we don’t deserve this whole shindig, and now he’s telling us that we’re going to fail for the next sixty years? He’s not getting paid to be here tonight, is he? Geesh—get the tar and feathers, the torches and pitchforks, the dogs and bees and dogs with bees in their mouths so when they bark they shoot bees at you!
Just let me finish.
Do you remember being a little kid and trying to draw a unicorn or butterfly or Superman or whatever? And then you finished–sweat dripping off you face, hands shaking, it’s like three hours later—and your mom or dad or whomever looks over your shoulder and tells you how great the picture is, the best they’ve ever seen and you’re so talented, and it’s totally going on the fridge.
And all you can think is: this is SO not the unicorn/butterfly/Superman I wanted to draw.
Not even close.
Are my parents on drugs? Why, oh why, do they lie to me?
Then later, say sixth grade, you’re assigned a project by your favorite sixth grade teacher—to build a scale replica of Fort Sumter out of toothpicks or re-enact Napoleon’s fateful blunders at Waterloo using Polly Pockets, say, and you work and you work, same sweat, same shaky hands, same result—your teacher drops to the floor in ecstatic, thankful rapture upon seeing your toothpick Fort Sumter and/or Polly Pocket Waterloo.
And what is your reaction?
Same as when you were little: It looked so much better in my head. It’s not what I wanted. Not even close.
Is my teacher on drugs too?
Never lose that feeling. Well, you can stop wondering if everyone else is on drugs—it’s not really your problem to solve—but don’t stop feeling frustrated when your efforts don’t—can’t–conform to your expectations, because it’s within this vicious cycle that you will make yourself and your world better.
I am a firm believer in the concept that we are not who we are but what we do. And what I always want you to do is try to live a life with standards you will never attain and goals you will never achieve, all the while being conscious that what you do attain, and what you do achieve, will and does bring a measure of joy and satisfaction to yourself and others.
It sounds dumb, but within that hellish circle, you will find a driven, restless happiness that will never leave you and never let you down.
I want to share two quotations with you, by two of the smarter human beings to walk the earth: Irish playwright, novelist, and Nobel Laureate Samuel Beckett, and former Steeler Defensive Tackle “Mean” Joe Greene.
“Mean” Joe Greene once said that “In my mind, I believe that I am capable of making every tackle, making every play in an entire game. Until that game occurs, I will never be satisfied.”
Samuel Beckett was a bit more succinct, but the two quotes are of a piece, I think. He said, “Ever tried, ever failed. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
So, This is not the speech I wanted to give. It doesn’t sound like I wanted it to sound. In a real sense I’ve failed because I’m sure it has not elicited the exact reaction I want it to elicit from everyone in this room. Maybe my old friend J.D. would disagree. I hope so. I hope I did him proud–from what I read about his life, he tried his best, lived everyday like he was supposed to. But if he were here I think he’d agree—he failed, everyday.
When I teach, not everyone learns–not the first, second, third, or last time I teach the same blessed thing. So I fail.
When I’m doing my P90X and trying for fifteen pull-ups when everything sane and sentient tells me I can only do ten and I manage to squeak out twelve anyway, I fail.
When I go home and can’t give my kids the attention they need because I’m busy with schoolwork or dinner or turning off the lights they seem genetically programmed to leave on all over the house, and I snap at them because I’m stressed about school, and dinner, and turning off lights, I fail.
I fail because I can’t possibly succeed. Not with everything. But that’s ok. It’s why I get up the next morning, look in the mirror and say: be better than you are, and why I look in the mirror at night and hope the next day brings the same.
But don’t be like me. Be better than me.
Fail better than me.
Fail better than the day before.
And success won’t be far behind, I promise.
If you’ve made it this far, a couple things: the Mean Joe Greene quote was from memory. It’s possible he said something similar but not exactly like I have it in the speech. It’s in fact possible that he didn’t say it at all. Could’ve been Deacon Jones or Jack Lambert or Dick Butkus. I know I’ve heard it though, and our NHS advisor is a huge Steelers fan, so…
Bonus: Books I’m Reading:
Love it when random strangers tell me about books they’re reading, have read, or want to read. So here goes:
Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope
Feast Day for Fools By James Lee Burke
The Magician King by Lev Grossman
Linchpin by Seth Godin
4 Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferris
The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
IQ84 by Haruki Murakami
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Euginides