By Matt Gordon
There’s nothing like a good commencement speech. Well, save for another good commencement speech. And that is because—industry secret forthcoming!—they are all kind of the same. Here is the template:
- Congrats on graduating.
- Here is a bunch of stuff I did in my distinguished career (see your program or check my website for more details).
- You can do stuff too. What stuff? Anything you put your little, supple mind to . . .
- Here is a bunch of stuff I put my big, robust mind to in order to achieve massive success.
- Congrats on graduating. Good luck being like me.
It feels amazing, just sitting there and being reminded of the endless possibilities before me. I can do anything, be anything, earn anything. The world is my oyster—whatever that weird saying means. But even weird as that saying is, I now have the gumption, moxie, and now the degree to figure it out.
And then I go home. The message stays with me, but the earth shattering idea somehow stays away. Turns out the speech did not grow my IQ. Nor did it add a single inch to my vertical or shave time off my forty. My entrepreneurial leanings have stayed precisely the same—launch something really successful and make a bunch of money without having to do a whole lot. I check my accounts and there is still no Dogecoin; my superman status seems closer to Kryptonite than crypto.
What gives? I listened to every word of that speech. I grinded through two or four or six or ten years of school to earn this degree, a supposed rite of passage from have-not to have.
Perhaps I missed something? Yes, I must have. I read the commencement speaker’s latest work. That puts me onto other self-help tomes which tell me to cultivate healthier habits and manifest my destiny and pray bigger prayers. I’m instructed to live with more candor, climb aboard the bus to happiness, and engage more grit.
And still I don’t have the things I’ve been told my whole life to so desperately want. Where is the wealth, the fame, the world-changing endeavor?
Splendidly intelligent people tell me to begin thinking more like they do and I will be rewarded in turn. Their success, it would seem, has nothing to do with natural intellect and unique opportunities.
Athletes motivate me to work harder and dream bigger and rise above it all to soar into the modern coliseums, as if their genetic advantages had little to do with their rim-rocking success.
I keep pushing because I’ve been told my whole life that “anything is possible.” Kevin Garnett famously shouted the phrase after his 6’11” frame crouched in emphatic embrace of the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Shoot, even the Bible tells me so.
“With God all things are possible.” It says that, right?
Even Steph Curry’s sneakers tout the winsome platitude of Scripture, “I can do all things . . .”
The Spirit of the Age meets the Spirit of the Faith and slow clap me onward toward being someone that matters.
And I chase and I chase and I chase. Things I don’t really want or need to be who I’m not made to be. I have graduated into this new course, Disillusionment 101. It lasts for the rest of one’s life.
Unless there is a truer narrative. One that invites me to live instead of chase. One that tells me that there is no prerequisite to being enough and that “success” can exist sans fame or wealth or jaw-dropping achievement. That “mattering” is a done deal and not a deal to get done.
I revisit the Bible to see that the thing that is “possible” for God isn’t making me rich and famous. Sure, He could do those things if He is any kind of god at all. But if He is any kind of God at all He doesn’t settle for what I want or, worse, what the culture makes me think I want. He gently leads me toward what I need. What is “possible” in the context of the verse is for Him to love me, accept me, and take me and make me new. To allow for me to be just as I am, yet simultaneously transform me into a beautiful new thing.
Or take the example of me holding the Bible hostage for wealth and fame when it tells me “I can do all things.” Yes, it is in there. Philippians, in fact. And there the author is talking about being poor, imprisoned, and possibly executed. Those are the “all” things God is allowing him to graciously endure. Not commencement virtues but the very antithesis.
That same author, in another book to a group in Thessalonica, sounds like no commencement speaker ever: “And make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands.”
I mean . . . is that allowed?
Can God really be content with me if I’m content with a life that isn’t fabulous by worldly standards? If I just teach kids or mow lawns or write a middling blog—is that really okay? Is it epic enough? Is it worthy? And if so, what do I do with all this shame? Without the forever nagging sentiment of Ricky Bobby—“If you ain’t first, you’re last?”
What would my life look like—nay, feel like—if I just worked hard at what I was good at and was, gulp, content with being a loving human?
I picture my high school reunion. A group of friends compares their haves and judges the have-nots of those around them. It would be so freeing not to care. But better still: what would it be like to care with fathomless depth, unbound by circumstance or scorecard? What if I could begin living a life free from the speech of our times? A life of hard work, doused with dignity, and covered in contentment. Now that is a worthy commencement, epic, fulfilling, and profoundly ordinary.
To watch a talk from Matt, on the same theme as this post, simply visit this link.