June 2, 2008
I was asked to give the commencement speech at the Oklahoma School of Science and Math for the class of 2008 graduation this weekend. Here’s a copy of my speech.
The book continues to go well. A little slower than I’d like, but hopefully I’ll have the final revisions for the proposal and first three chapters done next week and my agent will start shopping it to publishers soon thereafter. Then in Chapter 4, I finally get to start writing about Ramallah.
Cheers and love,
Commencement Speech for the
Oklahoma School of Science and Math
Class of 2008
Congratulations to all of you. You’ve just completed one of the most challenging and memorable chapters of your life at a place that is a world-class springboard for many more to come. And hopefully they won’t be quite as excruciating as this one was.
I’ve been asked to speak with you about what I’ve learned during the ten years that have passed since I was sitting where you’re sitting right now. As Laura mentioned, I went to Stanford, where I studied physics and minored in political science. I didn’t know much about anything besides science and math at the time, so I took classes in many different fields, from anthropology to yoga, just to see what was out there.
I kept myself so busy that one of my most vivid memories from college was the morning I woke up and realized I had nothing to do that day—no classes, no problem sets… even my to-do list was empty. And what I felt in that moment was… sheer panic. Because I realized that when I wasn’t overwhelmed by an enormous workload, I actually had no idea what to do with myself. This should have been an early warning sign, but soon enough my obligations closed in again and I forgot about the whole thing.
But then when I graduated in 2002, the same feeling of panic came back. Once again, without a list of well-defined obligations, I had no idea what to do with myself. I could have gone to grad school in physics, applied to be an investment banker in New York, done policy work in Washington, or picked something else entirely. And I had supposedly been working my entire life to be in a position where I could have all these options. But now that I was here, every career option I could think of filled me with dread, and I felt sick and scared and paralyzed. And I had no idea why.
The Lessons of Improv
To explain how this situation was resolved, I’m going to backtrack a little and tell you about the class I took at Stanford that taught me the most important lesson I’ve learned since leaving OSSM. The class was called Improvisation for Theater, and the lesson was to accept life’s offers instead of being lost in my own head all the time.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. Imagine you and I are on stage and we’re given a prompt to do a scene about animals. Maybe I’m thinking of a scene about tracking cheetahs in the jungle, and you’re thinking of a story about a horse ranch in Nebraska. So let’s say the first thing you say is, “Those are some mighty fine stallions.”
Ordinarily this would catch me off guard, because I’m thinking about cheetahs. But if I’m trained in Improv, what I’m supposed to do is accept whatever you say and build on it. So I might say, “You’re right, Billy Bob. And those elephants are lookin’ fine, too.”
Now, if you’re still thinking about a horse ranch in Nebraska, this would throw you off. But if you’re trained in Improv, you’ll also accept whatever I say and build on it. So you might say, “Yup, this here circus is the best in Texas. And did you hear what the Bearded Lady did to that preacher over in Lubbock…?” And off you go.
It’s fascinating to watch this on stage, because if you don’t know the trick of ‘accept and build,’ it looks like the two people are either secretly acting out a script, or they’re telepathic. But that’s only because unconditionally accepting what other people say and then building on it is so counterintuitive in our culture, where we’re generally conditioned to protect our own ideas and opinions, and ultimately our own egos.
The essence of ‘accept and build’ is that it shifts you from thinking to awareness—from clinging to mental constructions to accepting and building on moments of reality as they occur. I took these concepts to heart and was soon performing on stage without a script, something I never imagined I’d be able to do.
This would have been great enough on its own. But my old roommate at OSSM, Emily Pyle, was fond of saying that life was one big improvisation. After a while I put two and two together and wondered whether the lessons from Improv might also make for a more interesting, creative, and successful life.
So I tried it. I tried accepting random offers when my reflex was to block them. I tried saying yes when my reflex was to say no. And almost immediately, life became more bright and interesting, and things tended to work out in unexpected ways, but almost always better than I could possibly have planned.
Back to the Post-College Panic Attack
So anyway, back to my post-graduation panic attack. I had no idea what to do, and the only thing I could come up with was just to stop. Stop doing, stop thinking, get rid of all the stress, open up some free time, and observe what fills it up.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but what I was doing was what Improv had taught me to do: Shifting from thinking to awareness—from worrying about outcomes to accepting what life had to offer moment by moment. It was a terrifying leap of faith, but at the time it was the only idea that didn’t turn my stomach into knots of dread.
So I went back to California and got a job building environmental experiments on the Stanford campus. It was just an easy 40-hour-a-week manual labor job—a total vacation compared to being a student at OSSM and Stanford. And I found that working on campus had all the perks of being a student and none of the drawbacks—no tuition, no classes, no black cloud of constant obligations. For the first time in as long as I could remember, my free time was actually free. I read whatever books I wanted, played a lot of sports, enjoyed hours-long conversations with friends, and let my thoughts go.
After a couple of months passed like this, life finally made me an offer: A debilitating case of insomnia. For about a month I couldn’t sleep more than three hours in any give 24-hour period. I had a vague sense that some idea or revelation was trying to break through, but my subconscious was resisting it fiercely. I couldn’t do anything but wait it out.
After a month of semi-conscious hell, some light finally began to break through. And I realized, to my horror, that I had been living my life up to that point based primarily on a mental construction—a self-image—rather than on reality. When I was about eight years old, I had apparently decided that I was a scientist. Since then I had been adding bits and pieces to my image of who I was and working very hard to act the part, without ever questioning it. For the past several years I hadn’t even had time to question it. But finally the game was up—the image didn’t seem to resemble me at all anymore.
So here I was, at age 22, and not only did I have no idea what to do—it turned out I didn’t even know who I was.
I felt ashamed and scared, and I spent several days in denial. But when I finally let go and allowed myself to feel like a child taking her first steps at age twenty-two, the insomnia vanished, and most of the depression I’d been living with since middle school evaporated as well. Little by little, to my astonishment, for the first time in my life I could actually describe myself as a happy person. The future was still blank, but it no longer seemed threatening. It was merely… wide open.
This was such a novel state of affairs that I decided to explore it—to continue paying attention to reality instead of worrying about external definitions of success. This was difficult and humbling because many people had certain expectations about what I would do after I had worked so hard and paid so much to educate myself. But I figured that if I went back to being unhappy with my life, that would be the real waste of my education. In any case, a year or two of happiness probably wouldn’t destroy my future, and after that I could reevaluate.
So I decided to think up a near-term goal that would feed this new sense of freedom and happiness as much as possible. The idea that excited me most right then was going back to Russia. I’d studied in Moscow for a semester during my junior year at Stanford, and I fell in love with the language and landscape, I was fascinated by the culture, and I was only just starting to get the hang of things when I’d had to leave. So I looked around for an excuse to go back and found a program that placed Americans in Russian summer camps. I loved kids, I loved the outdoors, I loved Russia—I was thrilled.
Now I just needed to pay for it. The job on campus wasn’t paying very well, so I decided to become a bartender. I’d never actually worked as a bartender, but I liked mixing drinks at friends’ house parties, and bartending had the best dollars-to-stress ratio of any job I could think of. I was lucky enough to find a pub in Palo Alto that had a couple of day shifts open that no one wanted. I took them, got myself trained, and was soon working full-time.
The next six months, from January of 2003 until I left for Russia, passed like a dream. I got to spend 40 hours a week hanging out at a great bar… and the rest of my time was free. During all that free time I studied two years worth of Russian, got a yellow belt in jujitsu, finally learned how to surf, went on my first spring break trip (because I could finally afford one), and continued getting to know myself and my friends better. I also dated a Lebanese guy who was in my jujitsu class, and when he would speak to his friends in Arabic and I couldn’t understand, it drove me crazy. So I started studying Arabic, too.
By the time I left for Russia, my Russian was about third-year level, my Arabic skills were decidedly non-zero, and I had enough money saved up that I could continue traveling for a few months after the summer camp was over. And just as I was wondering where to go, a friend from France emailed and said, “I have some vacation coming up at the end of the summer. Why don’t we meet up in Egypt?”
It never would have occurred to me in a million years to go to Egypt, of all places, after I left Russia. But it was one of life’s random offers, and by then I had learned to accept such things.
So I met him in Egypt in September after the summer camp, and we saw the Pyramids, climbed Mt. Sinai, scuba dived in the Red Sea, and had an amazing time. After three weeks, he went back to France and I pushed on to Jordan. Jordan, if you don’t know, is right in the middle between Israel/Palestine and Iraq. It’s kind of the cheese in the middle of a war zone sandwich.
I certainly had no plans to visit any war zones—just being a tourist in the calm areas of the Middle East was exotic enough for me. But I happened to stay at a hotel in Amman, the capital of Jordan, where journalists and foreign aid workers gathered every night to tell their stories. And their stories had absolutely nothing in common with what the news had been telling us back home. I didn’t know whom to trust—them or CNN.
I finally decided the only thing I could really trust was my own eyes. So I asked around and was offered a ride to Baghdad for $200. (This was in the fall of 2003, only six months after “Mission Accomplished,” when most Americans still thought things were going fairly well in Iraq.) And I would have taken it, but luckily I asked a couple of journalists if my trip sounded wise, and they made it vividly clear that the violence in Baghdad was far too random and gruesome for tourists.
Then I met two guys who were in Jordan on vacation from doing charity work in the West Bank of the Palestinian Territories. From their stories, it seemed like Palestine was in many ways just as crazy as Iraq but a lot less dangerous. After a few days of getting to know them, I asked if I could tag along when they went back to the West Bank. They were kind enough to agree.
I don’t know how to explain what happened next except to say that the moment I stepped foot in the West Bank, it was like a round peg falling into a round hole. Within a month I fell in love with the people and the land, and I felt like the place had a tremendous amount to teach me, more than any other place I could imagine at that time.
I ran out of money and had to go home after a few weeks, but when I got back to California, all I could think about was Israel and Palestine. I spent six months researching the conflicts while making money so I could go back and volunteer. It took up every bit of my energy and creativity just getting up to speed on the conflicts; it got so bad that once my little sister came out to visit me, and in the course of her three-day visit, I dragged her to two lectures about Middle Eastern politics, two Middle East Issues dialogue groups, and lunch with a Jewish woman I had met at an Israeli film festival.
Six months later I moved to Ramallah, a Palestinian town north of Jerusalem, with a plan to volunteer for a few months. But after two months, I was offered a full-time job as a local journalist for a small English-language publication. Two months after that, Yasser Arafat died and my boss at the paper, Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi, decided to run for President of Palestine. I was the only native English speaker in the office who was sticking around during the Christmas holidays, so I volunteered to be the foreign press coordinator for his Presidential campaign.
Now… I was a physics major ex-bartender from Stigler, Oklahoma, and here I was speaking to the world’s media on behalf of a Palestinian presidential candidate. To say that the cognitive dissonance was overwhelming wouldn’t begin to do it justice. But it went on and on like this; I kept Forrest Gumping my way into one crazy or historic situation after another. (Incidentally, knowing Russian was a great help as well—a lot of Palestinians had studied in Russia because of their Cold War alliance with the USSR, and a lot of Israelis were Russian immigrants.)
All in all, I was in Palestine for almost two years. Of course there were some very sad times, and more than once I found myself on the wrong end of an Israeli gun. But surprisingly, by the end, what I remembered most were the good times smoking hookahs, watching the sunset, and talking and joking with some of the most interesting, amazing, and thoughtful people I ever hope to meet in some of the most beautiful places I ever hope to see.
Instead of feeling more sad and cynical about life, as I had expected, I felt more empowered, with more peace and happiness in my heart, and with more faith in humanity than I had even during my most idealistic days as an undergraduate. It wasn’t a simple or straightforward process by any means, and I wish I could explain it in a twenty-minute speech. I’m writing a book right now that tries to explain it.
And then I moved to Washington, DC. One of the main things I learned was that if I had gotten a Master’s degree in Middle Eastern studies instead of doing what I did, I wouldn’t have learned one-quarter of what I learned. And probably the most upsetting thing about Washington was that many people, even so-called experts, only knew what they had read, yet many were so attached to the stories they thought they knew that they were unwilling to listen to countermanding evidence from someone who had actually been there.
After more than a year of working with the Defense Department and trying to relate what I had learned to everyone from State Department officials to Congressional staffers, I finally decided that I could do more good by writing a book about my experiences and sharing it with the American public. One of the major themes of the book is exactly this: that one of the main obstacles to peace all over the world is the people on all sides who become so identified with the stories they have in their heads that they become unwilling or unable to deal with reality as it actually occurs.
So that catches us up to the present moment. I’m 28 years old, and I’ve been living with my parents for the past few months trying to get my book off the ground. So far I have about a quarter of the book finished, and if all goes well my agent will start shopping it to publishers next month. And it might be a critical and financial success or it might not. That’s not up to me. All I can do is write the best book I can.
But a friend of mine once said, “When you’re following your destiny, the whole world conspires to help you.” I don’t claim to know anything about how this works; I can only say that when I finally dropped my guard and started working with the world as it was instead of trying to fit reality into my own preconceived notions, the world went from feeling like a hostile prison to feeling like a playground, and outrageous luck seemed to fall my way from every direction.
Of course, I have no way of knowing if another path may have been even better. Who knows what would have happened if I had landed in Colombia or East Timor, in the physics department of Cornell or on the south side of Chicago. That’s the problem with life: It’s not a controlled experiment. It’s just one long chaotic iteration with infinite potential, utterly unique in all of creation. That’s an awesome thing to have hold of, and no one can tell you how you manage it. I certainly don’t expect you to take any of my words on faith; no doubt you’ll go out and learn whether they’re true or not the hard way, same as I did.
But if I can say one thing to you that I feel fairly certain of, it’s to remember that no matter how overwhelmed or under-whelmed you may feel sometimes, the fact remains that life is not a stale Continental breakfast at Comfort Inn. It’s a grand buffet on golden tables stretched out as far as the eye can see that refreshes itself and renews itself every single moment. There’s more than enough for everyone, and it’s high-quality stuff. So go forth and enjoy.