Sunday, June 10, 2012

To the class of 2012 -- Be yourself. Or not.

Hi graduates. Exciting day, huh? Thanks for asking me to be your speaker. As Principal Skinner said, "You've covered so many graduations as a journalist, we thought you'd be perfect."
Oh yeah. Yes I am. So much good advice here today. I know even though I had my ears buds in. After all, this isn’t an end, but a beginning, right? You'll miss each other, but make new friends. You’re going to look back with affection and nostalgia and go out into that brave new world. Oh, the places you'll go!
Did I leave anything out? Oh, right.
How about that advice to be yourself? Has anyone told you that yet? Don’t care what other people say, just be yourself!
Oh – heh heh – whoa, okay, calm down. Woooo! Biggest ovation of the day. Yeah. I get it. To your own self be true. Two roads diverged in a yellow wood and you’re taking the one lest traveled by. Letting your true colors come shining through.
But it’s that one piece of advice about all others that are being thrown at you today that should make you sad. Because everyone says it -- over and over. They even believe it. But few live it. 
Sorry to say for many of you, it’s too late.
Wait, Principal Skinner, don’t pull the plug on the microphone! Hear me out. I promise I’ll say something uplifting by the end.
Where was I? Right. For many of you, it’s too late. Don’t worry, it’s not your fault. It started before you were born when your nursery was painted in gender-specific colors. There was a lot I was going to say about how important it is for girls to be pretty, boys to be strong and sporting. But you've heard that all before, too. You know it, because you've lived it.
Whatever the categories, labels, stereotypes, you all learned pretty early on how important it is to fit the expectations and try not to stand out, except in the ways that are socially accepted. Most of you even convinced yourselves a long time ago, without even knowing it, that that's normal. That's what people do.
So, face it, graduates, you're only 18, but as far as being yourself, for a lot of you, the ship has sailed.
And how about you kids who truly were yourselves? Rough ride, huh? Bet you’re glad to be done with high school. Bet maybe when you heard that advice from the valedictorian to be yourself you sneered a little bit, maybe even gave the old finger under your robe.
They didn't like yourself much for the past twelve years, right weirdo? Dork? Freak? So now they’re telling you to be yourself. With feeling.
For the sake of argument, let's say everyone who says it means it.
The problem is, though, no one tells you how to do it. Easy to say, not easy to be.
For a lot of you, it'll be easier just to stuff down whatever it is that makes you “different” enough to fit in, something you've probably been doing most of your life. 
Others of you maybe were stuffing it down, but now think it’s going to be safe, in the world of grownups, to let your freak flag fly.
Then there are those of you who have been yourselves all along -- you are probably giddy with relief.
I’ve got bad news for those of you who think the time to be yourself has come, because it’s not going to get any better. The adult world doesn't want you to truly be yourself any more than many of your classmates, teachers and parents did.
Being yourself is going to be a lot of hard work.
As the poster boy for being yourself, Bob Dylan, put it, “I try my best to be just like I am, but everybody wants you to be just like them.”
The really lucky ones, like Bob, are talented enough, driven enough and work hard enough to make it big –  Stephen King, Lady Gaga, Ellen DeGeneres. All the things that would make them weirdos if they were working in the cubicle next to you are brilliant because they managed to get to a place where they can be themselves.
There are also the lucky ones who are so confident being themselves that they don’t care what everyone else thinks. Because, truly, that’s the biggest impediment to being yourself, isn’t it? What keeps you from doing it? Most people care what other people think, even if they say they don’t. That’s why we look, speak and behave the way we do. Those who don't care are rare cats.
Then there are the stubborn ones or the ones who just can’t help it -- they are who they are. Most of those who are themselves fit into this category. It's the toughest way to be, because you have to learn not to care, or at least learn to fake it.
Here’s what the speaker who told you to be yourself also didn't say: A lot of people aren’t going to like it if you're yourself. 
People frequently will comment on how you’re different or helpfully point it out to you – as if you didn’t know. Sometimes it will anger people or annoy them for no good reason. They’ll think you being yourself is about them even though it has no effect on their life and that will make them mad. Your personality may become an issue at work, in a relationship, with your friends. This isn't about the Golden Rule stuff either, the stuff that makes you a good or bad person, but the "different" stuff. 
Sooner or later you will overhear someone who’s a good friend talking about how weird you are behind your back. Or the love interest who loves you just the way you are makes it clear he or she would love you better if you just stopped being yourself quite so much and started being more like he or she wanted you to be. You know, more normal.
This might make you bitter or resentful. It might make you do the crazy Twister game of trying to please a partner instead of just getting the hell out of the relationship. You may keep trying to fit into that job or career that makes you miserable instead of figuring out what you really want to do. It may even make you a little paranoid or wary of others.
So, graduates, do you still want to be yourself?
Good for you. Because here’s the other thing they don’t tell you. If you’re yourself, truly yourself, it will pay off. First of all, the mental exhaustion of trying to pound the square peg that is you into the round hole of what people want you to be will be gone. Particularly if you’re one of those people who have a hell of a time trying to figure it out. But the best thing is, you will be you. It will feel good. You’ll find it easier to figure out what you want and who you want to be with and how you want to make a living and how you want to spend your time. You’ll even start to feel sorry for the rest of them.
And your friends will really be true friends who do, indeed, love you just the way you are. And if you get one note like this in your life, it will make it all worth it:  I have learned so much from you about living life honestly and forthrightly, and damn the rest. These are lessons I have needed and benefited from so much.” (Real note from real friend. Thanks, friend.)
Yes! Be yourself! When you leave here today, vow to.
How to do it? It’s hard and simple at the same time. All it takes are two words: “Yeah? So?”
Try it. Whenever you think that if you follow your heart it won't be what everyone else will do, say "Yeah? So?" Whenever someone points out in a bemused – or hostile – way how you are different, say, “Yeah? So?” Two roads? Scared of taking the one less traveled by? Yeah? So?
It may be hard at first not to argue, or feel guilty or feel diminished or embarrassed. Or feel you have to change. But after a while it will be empowering. And there’s nothing more empowering than knowing who you are and being that person and damn the rest.
So, graduates, when someone tells you to be yourself, and they will, keep in mind what it really means.
Then go ahead and do it anyway.
And for those of you who think this is just a pile of hooey?
Yeah? So?

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