I am a sucker for a good graduation speech.
Some of my faves are Conan O’Brian’s to Dartmouth in 2011, Dr. Rick Rigsby’s address to the graduating class of California State University Maritime Academy in 2017, Admiral William H. McRaven’s to the University of Texas at Austin in 2014, and Jane Lynch’s address at Smith in 2012. But it’s Steve Job’s address to Stanford in 2005 that I find myself going back to surprisingly often (my kids are probably sick of this, but whatever, they might as well get used to me being repetitive now (it’s only going to get worse)).
Jobs had a few quotable gems in that speech, including “Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice.” and “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” (appropriately attributed to the final 1974 edition of The Whole Earth Catalog). But my favorite take away, the sentiment that resonated with me because I have always believed it (and believe it still) is this:
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, your life, karma, whatever – because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off that well-worn path, and that will make all the difference.”
Sure, he was talking to a gaggle of freshly minted college graduates, and the whole ‘follow your heart, what you learn today you can use tomorrow, step off the well-worn path’ worked. But the reason that it leap-frogged the cliché was that Jobs preceded it with the ‘connect the dots backward’ thing.
The bits and pieces we cultivate today will eventually… fit.
Translation: The universe is wicked good at Tetris.
By the time I watched Jobs’ speech on YouTube, I wasn’t taking in his words and ideas from the mindset of vocations and avocations, or avocations becoming vocations. The corporate world hadn’t been a part of my day to day life for a few years.
In addition to raising three kids (and all that entails), my days found me mainlining knowledge of the cardiopulmonary system, neurology, why we are who we are – physically and chemically – and how we learn. I was becoming fluent in the language of EEGs, EKGs, MRIs, CT scans, ABRs, OAEs, fluoroscopies, and neuropsych testing (and all of the options and decisions that emerged as a result of each of those tests).
I had experienced, or would shortly, terrifying medical test results (including one that all but guaranteed a drawn out, terrifying and terminal illness), a life-threatening seizure, med flights, induced comas… When I say one of my kids had serious medical issues and learning disabilities, I’m not being hyperbolic (which I always feel should be a synonym for ‘supersonic’ (which I am also not being)).
It was not a club any of us would voluntarily join, and yet I was a card carrying member.
And I was not alone.
Membership cards had been forced into the hands of other parents and grandparents and guardians and families. It was terrifying, and surreal. Members – especially new members – felt alone, adrift at sea. No paddle, no map. No nothin’.
Some of us in those waiting rooms, and hospital rooms – it seemed most of us – realized we weren’t alone.
We rarely are.
We began to recognize each other, and knew we were all trying to learn the same things, know the same things… hope and pray and manifest the same things.
Folks who’d had their membership cards for longer than others, they not only could help with the maps and the paddles and stuff, they were glad to.
Have you had this test…
Have you heard of this doctor…
That learning specialist…
Let me write it down for you…
I’ll stay and color with him while you take her in so you can focus…
Even in some of the toughest, most frightening, and most personal moments these people would ever experience, they were willing to give of themselves… to help someone else. And when they couldn’t – when they just didn’t have any more bandwidth, and needed to sit with what was happening to them – one or more of us could, and would, help… even when the only thing we could do was sit with them.
All these years later, what do I remember, and feel, when I think of that time?
Yes… the terror, the panic… the boogiemen in the unknown. I won’t forget – nor do I want to forget – what that felt like… so real, and raw.
Also, I know how fortunate we were (are).
There was no ‘fight’ to be won, nor any shame (or blame) to carry when any of us got bad news… or the worst news. We were engaged with the physiological mysteries of the human body, along with the infinite cosmic cryptogram.
I am grateful for that over which I had no control.
And this I know:
Some of the folks I met back then (or know now), who have come close to losing – or lost – a child (or children), are the most open and compassionate people I’ve ever come across.
What a mystery.
Except… The Dots.
Back then, I knew that relatively few – if any – of the people I met and saw in those labs, doctor’s offices, and hospitals were going to apply what they were learning and experiencing to a new vocation in medicine or teaching or some other directly or tangentially related career field.
What they were unknowingly, unintentionally cultivating, embodying, and sharing (even then) were abilities that can truly put a dent in the universe, change the world.
Generosity of spirit.
These are the Quiet Superpowers.
These are the Attainable Superpowers.
We don’t have to be born with them, or find a power ring, or be bitten by some freaky radioactive spider.
They are often mined from our toughest experiences – those fraught with fear, despair, grief..
Say – oh, I dunno – living through a worldwide pandemic.
When we realize that these times are so universal, even as they feel so incredibly personal, we know we are not alone. And because we get it, we have the power to show – to even just one other person – that they are not alone.
It doesn’t matter that we don’t understand how our toughest stuff (or toughest stuff-adjacent) fits into The Whole. All of what we learn and experience matters, even when we hate our circumstantial teachers (and question the frack out of their lesson plans). Trusting in this makes it easier to stay present, when all we want to do is pull our heads in to our shells and wait things out… not cede even one moment of this crazy-wonderful life we’ve been given, to the void.
What I know, deep in my heart, is that everything I have learned – even when every cell of my oppositional reflex is screaming that I don’t want ‘this’ lesson – is going to be important for something (or someone) ‘later’.
And, perhaps, at that point
I might just be able to connect the dots
Thanks for readin’.
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