With permission from Jack Houghteling, we have reprinted his commencement speech below for your enjoyment. The speech was delivered at the 67th Annual Commencement Ceremony for the class of 2014 on May 17th, 2014.
Thank you to President Chodosh. Thank you to all our distinguished guests. Thank you to the administrators. Thank you to all the law-laying-down but big-hearted deans. Thank you to all the great professors. Thank you close family members- Mom, Dad, Sam. Thank you to the less immediate, impeccably tan SoCal relatives. I’m happy to see that John Boehner is impacting fashion, if not policy. Most importantly, thank you to the students — my friends. I still can’t believe we’re graduating, and that you’re letting me – the kid who fell into the sting ray tank on a 2nd grade fieldtrip to the aquarium – be your graduation speaker.
But I’ll try my best.
When I was applying to colleges more than four years ago, what struck me at first glance about Claremont McKenna College was its application, and particularly what it asked for in its supplementary essay.
Most schools had a similar template, one in which they left it up to the applicant to explain themselves and why they wanted to attend school X. CMC was different: “Write about a leader,” they told us, “and why you think that person is a leader,” the second part of the question obviously being more important than the first. It didn’t matter, after all, who you picked as your leader – whether it was Barack Obama or Steve Jobs, whether it was Thomas Pynchon or Groucho Marx or some not-very-famous chemist that no one here has ever heard of. Because it wasn’t about the person you chose —it was about you. That by explaining and vouching for someone else’s leadership abilities, you were writing about what you thought the word meant. And in essence, you were seeking to demonstrate your own leadership potential.
Yet it wasn’t until we got to campus that we realized that becoming a leader is no easy feat. That just because we were able to write about a leader did not make us one, and that becoming one would involve trials and tribulations more strenuous than any of us could have ever imagined.
In my case, it would mean the re-creation of a persona that I had spent 18 years building in my small enclave in Westchester County, New York. This process of re-creation would include the trivial, of course. I soon learned, for instance, that ‘delis’ are provincial rather than universal, and that unlike New York, not every block in Claremont would have one. That the New York accent was actually a funny, novel thing- seemingly the artistic brainchild of the Scorseses, Coppolas, and Seinfelds of the world. That as a Red Sox fan who grew up in Yankee territory, hardly anybody west of the Hudson seemed to care that the Yankees suck, and that Nomahh is soooo much better than Jeter!
Yet my process of re-construction would reach so much further, and deeper. It led me to Washington, DC and then to London, in search of adventure – but, more importantly, in search of freedom from my narrow and in many ways immature ways of thinking. It brought me into deep, sometimes painful connection with family members and friends — ones that I love fervently and unconditionally. Most importantly, it brought me into deep connection with myself – with the way I processed things; how I interacted with people; how I perceived the world to work; how I worked.
This process confused me, frustrated me, and humiliated me. There were even moments when I felt devastated, as I slowly and sometimes sluggishly discovered that my views, in many regards, were superficial, incomplete, and even, sometimes, straight up wrong.
And yet it also saved me. It saved me from my own illusions, my own figurative enclave. For this journey of discovery brought me closer than I had ever been to my own raw self. And it’s only once you get a glimpse of it do you realize that this oneness with yourself and that which is around you — with what’s real — is far more beautiful than anything you could have possibly imagined in that previous illusory world.
For the first time in your life, you feel like you kind of have control. You don’t need that boy or girl you’ve been crushing on, or that i-banking job, or that acceptance letter from law school, to make you feel meaningful, or happy, or alive. You don’t feel like you need to hide stuff from people. And most important of all, you feel, maybe for the first time in your life, like you can truly love people without expecting things from them.
I mention leadership because while I think there are many versions of being a leader, there is, as far as I can tell, only one way to become a leader. And it comes through this process of learning to examine yourself; and learning to willingly criticize yourself; and ultimately learning to lead yourself. That only by learning to lead you — your army of one — can you really begin to spread beauty and light to others.
I don’t want to make this process seem lame or boring, because it’s not. I’m reminded of what Terry Gilliam, the longtime member of Monty Python, said in a documentary about George Harrison of the Beatles. Far from mere caricatures, the reason why Monty Python and the Beatles were such successful performers, and more importantly such successful artists, he said, is because “they were having fun. They were entertaining themselves. And they weren’t actually thinking about the audience.” This, it seems to me, is a candid and essential insight when it comes to life and leadership: that what you need to get really good at, before anything else, is self-entertainment, which although trivial sounding is really the deepest and holiest form of connection you can have with yourself. And if you can’t self-entertain, and if you surf through life performing for others instead of yourself, you’re gonna be screwed.
I address perception as a subject because of how important it is, and because I think we oftentimes do a bad job at keeping reality and truth in the fronts of our minds. The reality of death, for instance. Just 72 hours ago, I was apart of what could have been a fatal car accident coming back from San Diego. Pretty weird- beach and friends and sun and terrifying car crash all in one past memory. Everyone was and is fine, but the incident really did remind me of how we naturally and inevitably tend to mask realities which seem brutal, but nonetheless realities which we need to understand and remind ourselves of in order to find meaning and joy.
And maybe this fear of reality goes back to the fear of ourselves, and of struggling to come to terms with who we really are. And how sometimes, frankly, we short-change ourselves. I mean, if only Blagojevich followed his passion for journalism, right? Or if Madoff became a Shakespearian actor? Or Kenneth Lay a zoologist? I’m joking, of course, and I’m not trying to play the pointless role of Captain Hindsight. But I sometimes wonder whether these people who go into lines of work CMC’ers notably go into would have steered clear of infamy if they had known themselves better. If they slowed down and took more time to learn to be kinder, and funnier, and stronger, and happier, and greater than the misleading and futile greatness that the title of Governor or CEO or hedge fund manager gave them.
And yet I’m convinced that CMC has helped us begin this journey of self-discovery. Because here at CMC, we’ve spent four years studying economics and politics and literature and Bio and other socially relevant disciplines. And yet we’ve also been given time to ‘study [our] home topography’, to borrow a phrase from Thoreau.
And let me be clear: this process of learning and discovering is so far from over. I do feel sort of wiser than I did when I arrived here, but I also know that the process has only just begun, as I have so much left to learn and see. And at the end of the day, I’ll learn — like many before me — that the world is too big for any of us to wrap our arms around, and that whether I like it or not, I’ll always live in a state of partial ambiguity. And yet partial is a key word, because it’s gonna be up to us as to how ‘partial’ we want that ambiguity to be. Because if we all dedicate parts of our lives to thinking, and seeing, and criticizing ourselves, and learning to put ideas together, then sure, we’re not gonna learn everything. But we’re gonna learn a lot.
I know all of you guys are going to do great things with your life – in law, finance, medicine, writing, public interest, teaching, raising vegetables, raising children, and in all sorts of other realms. But always be conscious that without this inner feeling that you’re doing and being you, and that you’re hanging around people that touch your hearts in the best and realest way possible, then you’re being less than you can be; and you’re not going to be happy; and you’re not going to be a leader.
Thurston Moore, the great guitarist of the band Sonic Youth, calls this feeling of life inside all of us the ‘lighted candle.’ And while I don’t exactly what that ‘lighted candle’ is for you, I know it’s there. So whatever you do from here on out, make sure your candle is lit; and that it stays lit.
Go out into the world and play your part daringly, play it humorously, play it skeptically, play it lovingly. And most important of all, play it truthfully. And if you do these things, you can be the epitome of “the liberal arts in action.”
And you will be a leader.
Congratulations to the class of 2014, and thanks.