Thursday, June 09, 2011

My Pompous Circumstance

Simcha Fischer has published what she would give as a commencement address, if called upon to do so. That got me to thinking ...

In May of 2007, the Seattle Times reported that the speaker booked for commencement exercises at The University of Washington had to back out, and with only a few weeks before graduation, UW was having a very hard time finding another one. So I wrote to them and offered my services, even telling them I had a "step-uncle" on the faculty who could vouch for my character.

I never heard back. But I take these kinds of things seriously, especially when an honorarium of $10,000 is involved, and travel and living expenses are covered so I wouldn't have to mooch off my Aunt Shirley again. So I got my cap and gown out of mothballs, and prepared that which would have been shared with the University of Washington Class of 2007, at their commencement just four years ago today:

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President X, members of the Board of Regents, distinguished faculty and benefactors, [pause briefly and look over] Aunt Shirley and Uncle Bud, [pause briefly and look forward] and most important, the men and women of the Class of 2007.

I'm under no illusions that you couldn't do better than this. But as I told the lady from the committee over the phone, it doesn't get any better than this for me either [make gesture in reference to where you are], so we're even. [applause, we can only hope] Be that as it may, it would appear that I have not made the sort of mark on the world that would send the organizers of this event knocking on my door. But, I heard they were in a bit of a jam, and my schedule was pretty clear. That was when I knocked on theirs first. So, here we are.

What possible bit of wisdom could someone who is not a public figure, other than your parents and loved ones, pass along to you on such an auspicious occasion? Well, I thought about that. Mostly, I thought about two things.

First, for the past twenty-six years, I've been working in that other Washington you hear about, the one that is called upon to solve everybody's problems when no one else either can or wants to. We do not give them much credit for the ability, but at the prices you are about to be paying for the rest of your life, it never stops us from demanding it of them. And when it comes to who's going to be in charge, we assume that one side is the nation's savior, and the other one is the devil incarnate. When you stop and think about it, your view of which is which, is probably exactly the same as that of everyone around you. Go ahead. Take a look around you if you don't believe me. [pause and nod head] See what I mean? [anticipate uneasy murmur in crowd]

Now [shake head slightly and hold hands out in assurance] rest assured, this is not at all unusual. And this is the second thing that occurred to me. Most people, when they hear an idea, do not ask themselves, is this true? Should I believe this? No. They ask themselves, what kind of company will this put me in if I do believe this? The mainstream media knows this, and sometimes they go along with this so you will listen. Anyone in the entertainment industry whom you would rather see up here than yours truly, wouldn't be lost on them either.

But there is one problem with each of the conditions I described -- respectively -- waiting for the government to solve your problems, and following the crowd. No one in America has ever achieved greatness, never mind the right to stand up here and address such a distinguished collective as yourselves, by doing either.

Over there across the lake is a man who, at the very least, has made a rather comfortable living for himself. [turn and cup hand to mouth as if to confide] He got to speak at Harvard this year. [nod head to anticipated groans, pretend to calm the crowd with hands] Now I realize I'm not from around here and maybe I just don't know better, but it seems to me he could have saved himself a lot of time by crossing the lake on his yacht and coming over HERE. [applause, naturally, while nodding head emphatically] But being sought after in that way, by being among the wealthiest men in the world is not what made him famous. In fact, early in his career, there was a very good chance that he wasn't going to amount to anything. One day, when he was not much older than most of you, he visited the offices of a giant in the electronics industry which shall remain nameless. It is just as well, because your parents probably heard more about them than you ever will, and you will find out why in a minute. You see, this man had an idea to pitch to them, an idea of a set of coded instructions, what was called [enunciate as if a new concept] an operating system [continue] designed to run a computing device that would be small enough to sit on some one's desk. It would be the perfect thing for a small business, or even some one's home. These people did not buy the idea for a minute. After all, they knew for a fact -- they did their homework on this, you see? -- that there could not possibly be any market for such a thing. A pocket calculator that could do esoteric mathematical functions [mimic use of device with hands] for engineers and scientists, perhaps. But a computer for the home? To do what? Write letters? Figure out the household budget? [mimic use of device with hands, again] Play silly little arcade games??? [shake head casually] Not a chance.

You know the rest of the story, right? He developed an even better operating system that 98 percent of you sitting here take completely for granted. And you do, because back then, he could not afford to. And NOW [pause] he can afford anything he wants.

But most important, he avoided the two areas of conventional wisdom I mentioned earlier. He did it, [speak slowly here] by being the change he wanted to see in the world. He did not do it to be famous, he did it because it was what he loved doing, and because no one else would. There is not one person sitting out here today, who cannot do the same thing for the same reasons. Your families, your loved ones, they believe it. If you run into them later today, ask them. They believe it [point to others at platform], or they would not have let you in here to begin with. And that other guy I talked about? He didn't even FINISH college. If you ask him, he would probably say you have a leg up on him already.

Now, I've spoken for [pause to look at watch], uh, fifteen to twenty minutes, like it said on that paper they made me sign, and I'm sure all of you have much better things to do now, and for the moment, I don't mean looking for a job. [the usual whoops and hollers] This is the part when I'm supposed to leave you with some final inspirational thought. But you already know what it is, and what you have to do, at least after today. [lower voice as if to confide] You already know what you have to do tonight, right? [more of the usual] You've got the rest of your lives for that other thing [motion with thumb behind oneself], and don't forget where you learned how. Thank you, God bless you ... and [raise right fist in the air] GO HUSKIES!!!

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