Friday, June 14, 2013

RANSOM-EVERGLADES Commencement speech, May 31, 2013


It’s an honor to be with you today.
Admittedly, it’s a bit surreal for me too.
They say time starts passing faster as you get older.  This is the first thing you should remember Graduates, because it seems like just a few years ago, I was sitting right where you are now, looking up at the speakers, wondering what they had to say to me on this important day of my life.  I was restless, a little tuned out, anxious to get on with my life but sentimental too, for the very same things you are about to leave behind.  

As a teen, I always wanted time to pass faster. Is this you?
I couldn’t wait to get into high school. Get my driver’s license.
Get through AP English.  Survive AP Bio. Get past the SAT’s.
Finish those college applications. Couldn’t wait for senior year, then the FUN part of senior year. I was anxious to wrap up final exams.
I tell you now, in the blink of an eye, you will be wishing time would SLOW DOWN.

Savor this day because it’s an important one.
Up to this point, you have had your path laid out of you:
You know the drill: Study hard. Get into college. Don’t get into trouble. 
Win some sports games along the way.
But when you leave this room, you will be an adult. Next year you will be making your own decisions without parents peering over your shoulder. Deserve that responsibility. Earn your independence.

I learned how to sail here at Ransom, an activity I think every person should experience.  It teaches you that whatever you do HERE… somehow affects you over THERE.  And that includes inaction.
Once you set a course, you can’t just relax and go below deck. 
Keeping course takes work, and sometimes getting to the same point requires changing your original course because prevailing conditions change.  They always do.

Some people will tell you high school is the best time of your life. 
Others will say it’s the worst. 
No matter what you experienced, you have been given the best of the best, and you are beyond lucky to call this school your own.
When you go on to college - and life - you will see that Ransom-Everglades prepared you well.  There was a big price for this:
The money that your parents paid, and the time and energy your teachers spent on you. You have been spoiled, really, by the attention of fabulous, brilliant people who want nothing more than to see you succeed in life. They do this for modest pay and little thanks, so before you leave today, thank them.  And after you leave, thank them again. Apologize, if you were a pain in the butt. Keep in touch. Tell them how grateful you are for their inspiration, knowledge and caring.

Some of my former teachers are here today, including Ms. Lester, Ms. Onorati, Ms Borona, Mr. Stokes and Mr. Bowden.  Even now, I remember moments in their classrooms that sparked a change and impacted the way I felt about learning. These things will be revealed to you, and one day, if you are also invited back here to speak, you will know I was right.

You and I are privileged to have attended not just one of the best, but one of the most beautiful schools in the country. 
None of your new friends in college will tell you that their high school was set on a peninsula in a bay.  They didn’t jump into boats to retrieve footballs that went into the water with field goals.
(By the way, that story will get you serious cred and envy up north)

They say service is the rent we must pay for the privilege of living here on earth. Get working.  You are already in debt, because your life has started off so much better and far more beautiful than most. 
But don’t just take my word for it.  Go see for yourself.
If you are not going far away for college, find other reasons to go far away.
Seeing the world makes you appreciate your life and sets you straight when you stress over problems most of the world’s people WISH they had.

I went to graduate school in New York City, not an easy or pleasant place without an income. I always felt poor. Soon after, I set off to explore the world.
In Northern Pakistan, my friends and I stayed in a farmer’s guesthouse, a few hundred yards up a rocky hill from his home.  After dinner by the fire, he gave us a single lantern, holding a small amount of oil, to light our way back. There was no electricity in this sparsely populated area and the nights were pitch black.

I asked the innkeeper for more oil. He looked at me quizzically.
I said I wanted to do some reading back in the hut.
He shook his head no. Oil was too expensive for that kind of frivolous luxury.  He pointed to the sky and said: When the sun goes down, you go down. When the sun comes up, you get up and go to work. And they worked in this village, non-stop, until that sun went down again.  Farming is tough enough, but this was life without washers & dryers, cars, vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, irons, microwaves…. and running water.  People had to hike for water and branches to burn for warmth and cooking.

My boyfriend and I set out to day-trek one of the lower peaks around K-2. We hiked up a trail that traversed a rocky face way above the timberline. As we climbed higher, the mountain face got steeper, and the trail narrowed to the width of my hand. Soon, we were hugging the side of the cliff over a sheer drop of more than 500 feet to rocks below.  There was no turning back, as we needed to get over the peak to reach another trail.  It was just the two of us and some curious mountain goats.  When the crest was just a couple hundred feet above us, the trail completely broke off for about 30 feet.  We were left clinging, almost vertically, to the rocky face. I started crying. A few days earlier, in the village, I had seen the grave of a young American who had died from a fall two decades before. I kept thinking, this could be it for me, and my body wouldn’t even be flown home.  So there I was, clinging and crying. My boyfriend said he would climb down beneath me and hold on to the rocks below, so if I fell, we would fall together.  It felt like hours to move inches. Finally, with broken nails and scraped hands, we made it across and collapsed in a teary heap of relief and exhaustion.
Just then, a man and woman appeared over the crest, with huge branches strapped to their backs.

“Stop!!” we yelled! “Turn back!! It’s very, very dangerous down there! The trail has broken off and you could fall and die!!”
“Yes,” the man evenly replied: “My mother and I make this climb every 3 days to gather wood.”
I never felt more pathetic.
Graduates, we have no idea what it means to work hard.
When you think life is hard, is it? Really?

Despite the heavy labors required for daily life in rural Pakistan, it was the forced bedtime that was the biggest shock to my system, which had been artificially altered by electricity and the frenetic pace of New York City. But I was never more rested than I was there. One of the most peaceful moments in my life was sitting quietly on a hill, watching the farming and activity below. 
I knew then that the world did not revolve around me and my college choice, and my grades, and my first job, and where I would move, and what car I would drive, and… and… and…

So now, you are going to college.
You’ve probably been obsessing about this since 9th grade.  
Not IF you would go, of course, but where. That in itself, is a HUGE PRIVILEGE.
I first went to China in the late 70s, to meet my paternal grandmother. We were among the first visitors after the country started opening its doors. Even though I was just a little kid, I was already feeling pretty confident as a student and it never crossed my mind that I would NOT go to college someday. But college isn’t reality for most kids in China.
Back then, and even now, only 1 or 2% of the college-aged population – gets there. Starting from elementary school, yearly rigorous exams eliminate more and more students, until just a brilliant few remain in the system. Imagine the entire Ransom-Everglades middle school. And then imagine exams every year that knock out another 50 percent until you are left with maybe 4 or 5 students TOTAL who go on to college.
And even if they get in, students couldn’t choose what to study.
They don’t spend hours chit chatting about their majors and change their minds sophomore year. Those same exams determine their course of study and life’s work.

When I returned to China in the early 90s to visit Yale friends teaching there, I remember meeting a brilliant but terribly unhappy student.  He was forced to become a doctor.  He really wanted to be a physicist.

My incredible mother, who always brings us down to earth, told us:
If we had grown up in China, we probably would have been given the job of scooping up after the water buffalo.
No matter what you choose to do, remember you have a CHOICE.
Choice is the ultimate freedom.  And FREEDOM is a key to happiness.

So why do many people look back on their high school years with great longing and sentimentality?   It’s not what they actually experienced here, but how you are right now, with the world of possibilities before you. You can truly do anything. As you go on through life, your choices will affect you deeply and your choices may narrow.
You will regret some decisions but NEVER stop believing you can change your mind and change your life.
Preserve the potential you have today, that ANYTHING is possible.  Make the world your oyster, always.

I have spent the last month listening to a lot of graduation speeches and asking friends for their best advice to pass on to you.
First off:  everyone talks of failure.
Indeed, you will fail. Not a matter of IF, but WHEN.
If you are lucky, you will fail sooner rather than later.
There is no better skill than learning how to fail and move forward.
You’ve heard it before: use it as a learning experience.
I know you’re thinking, yeah yeah, that’s what every successful person, from Steve Jobs, to Katie Couric, and Denzel Washington, has said in their commencement speeches
Jobs was kicked out of his own company before coming back and getting us all addicted to IPhones.
Katie Couric was taken off the air. Her first boss said: she was so bad, he banned her from being in front of the camera. I wouldn’t want to be that guy today.
Denzel Washington talks about a humiliating audition for a Broadway musical.  They cut him off mid-song and did not even thank him for coming. Denzel also talks about Reggie Jackson’s RECORD 26-hundred plus strikeouts, while pointing out it’s his HOME RUNS that we all remember.  And Thomas Edison’s 1-THOUSAND failed experiments before that lightbulb finally switched on.
The law of averages guarantees you will fail at something,  probably many things. But if you keep trying, that same law of averages means you will also succeed.
My mom always told me: Aim high. Because when you fail and fall, you’ll still end up higher than if you were aiming low to being with.

My job involves a lot of observation.  And I’ve observed the same thing over and over again.  No matter what you choose to do in life, EVERYTHING in life comes down to people and your relationships.
I hope you find a career you really enjoy, but trust me, don’t expect to LOVE your job, at least not all the time.  Love is for people and animals.
Go for a job that is positive, stimulating and a good part of a healthy and full life. Yes, it is important to study hard and make good grades, but when it comes to your career, people, again, will be more important.

Chances are, you have at least one or two things in your home made by Whirlpool, a Fortune 500 company. Ranked 147th, actually.
One of the most powerful men at Whirlpool recently told a friend of mine, how he got his start. The guy was 22, just out of college, and had taken a job as a State Farm insurance rep. He was driving to work one morning when he saw a car pulled over to the side of the road.  The older driver had a flat tire and was waiting for Triple-A.
Seeing the man was in a suit, this friend stopped and offered to change the tire.  After, the gentleman pulled out a card and said: Call me, I have job for you.
That man was the CEO of Whirlpool. 
This young man said he had no interest in the appliance business and was unqualified anyway.
The CEO said he didn’t care.  Any person who would stop and change a tire for a stranger would succeed. And now, 35 years later, that man has risen to the #2 position at the massive company.

Relationships are vital to your career, but ultimately, they will mean everything to your LIFE because only they can make you truly happy.
You’ve heard this before too.  At the end of life, people don’t remember their work, or even their accolades.  They remember their relationships.  I never think about the grades I made here at Ransom.
I do remember laughing hysterically, leaning against the cannon.
I remember sitting with friends under the trees or hanging out in the breezeway.  I remember joking with the Yearbook staff during late nights of editing as we pilfered rice crispy treats we made for the bake sales.
And it wasn’t just the laughing.
I remember crying when Mr. Dan Bowden read Truman Capote’s
“A Christmas Memory” in the Pagoda. It was the first time, literature brought tears to my eyes. 

The world is a small place. This place will always be with you, maybe in a chance meeting with another alum far away from Coconut Grove.
You’ll hear the name of this school and feel sentimental.
For the past 6 weeks, I’ve been mostly reporting on the Boston Marathon bombings.  I paused and smiled when I came across some handwritten notes left by Ransom-Everglades students who had visited the memorial in Copley Square. I remembered this community and everything this school represents.

Treasure your friends. Work hard but when each job is done… have fun.
Never, ever take anything for granted.
This last week, a story has been going viral on Facebook and Twitter.  It’s a video about the final days of a young man named Zach Sobiech. 
Three years ago, he was diagnosed with a terminal form of cancer.
Instead of getting depressed, he went into hyper-drive, composing music, experiencing life and showing amazing love to family and friends.
He said something that has really stayed with me:
“There is no better feeling in the world than to see a smile on someone’s face, knowing you put it there.
He never got to where you are right now.  He died last week, shortly before his own high school graduation, but his life was complete because he learned what most people never do.  Life is truly about love and making others happy.

We are lucky that technology allows us all to keep better in touch. You don’t know life without email and Facebook, and frankly, I don’t remember it either.  But I do know, when my friends wanted to connect after high school, we had to write letters or spend over a dollar per minute on long distance phone calls.

Use technology to keep in touch - but remember technology is a double- edged sword.  It can be a time suck. And it can ruin your life. I know that Facebook has gotten some of you in trouble. 
We all make mistakes, and people eventually forget.
But forgetting is so much harder when embarrassing, stupid or mean things are on the Internet forever.

Be smart about what you put online. When in doubt, DON’T.
And be kind to others online. Looking at a screen, instead of someone’s face does not give you the right to be any less kind, gracious, sensitive or smart.  And speaking of faces… here’s some advice I need to constantly remind myself.
Put down your devices and have more conversations. 
Texting will never be as wonderful as looking into someone’s eyes.
And isn’t it nice to laugh TOGETHER… instead of AT your phone?

I was giving a talk at The Yale Club of Boston last year. At that time, the Arab Spring was exploding.  A young aspiring journalist came up to me and asked how I prepare for my job.  It’s pretty simple. It’s how the best people prepare for most jobs.  You read, and read, and read.
A few days later, she sent me a note saying she felt sheepish she did not know more about the Middle East uprisings.
She vowed to do more reading, and less what she called “FaceBook Creeping”.  You know what I’m talking about: That mindless scrolling through nothingness.

So back to the positives of Facebook. Although you are now leaving High School, you don’t have to leave the incredible circle you formed here. Don’t let your friends go.  Make a promise to drop emails and updates as often as you can.  You have no excuse!

Almost exactly one year ago, a young woman named Marina Keegan died in a car crash on Cape Cod. Just two days earlier, she had graduated from my alma mater, Yale. The crash happened at 2 in the afternoon. Speeding and alcohol were not involved. On a long stretch of road, her boyfriend drifted off to sleep and flipped their car.  Marina was a talented writer and was about to start her first job at the New Yorker.

On her last day of college, she wrote a final essay that went viral after her death. I urge you to Google and read it. It’s called “The Opposite of Loneliness.” She describes her sadness and fear of leaving her circle of college friends, similar to what you have here at Ransom-Everglades.

She wrote:
“ We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life. What I’m grateful and thankful to have found at Yale, and what I’m scared of losing when we wake up tomorrow and leave this place.
It’s not quite love - and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. Who are on your team.
More than finding the right job or city or spouse – I’m scared of losing this web we’re in. This elusive, indefinable, opposite of loneliness. This feeling I feel right now

So, Graduates, KEEP this feeling you have RIGHT NOW.
Keep the team you have found here.
Never take your life, and your great luck, for granted.
Go out and do great things, and don’t forget to stop and help others.
Have fun… and LOVE a lot along the way.
Because ultimately, THAT will be your greatest joy and achievement.

All of us are so excited to see what you will do.

Good Luck.
And Thank You.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Musings on Myanmar

My recent trip to Myanmar was preceded by a strange, almost surreal moment.
Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s long incarcerated democracy leader, was in Connecticut last month, speaking at Yale.  I was watching her live online while packing to depart for her country.  We were switching global positions, something unimaginable even just a few months before.  Despite decades of worldwide support, endless appeals, countless editorials, the Nobel Peace Prize, and even a song from U2, there were serious doubts Suu Kyi would ever taste freedom again, and I just couldn’t bring myself to visit Myanmar unless she did.

And there she was, chatting openly with law students and professors about ducking repeated police pursuits and unexplained detainments.  I was on my way, and now, so is President Obama.  His visit must be a surreal milestone for Myanmar, which sees America as both a promised land but also the global superpower that has choked it off for decades.  The doors to Myanmar are not just cracking open. They are swinging wide almost overnight.  Rapid changes are outdating guidebooks updated within the last year. Even the president may be surprised at what he finds there. 

Despite being one of the most oppressive and closed countries, people have been visiting Myanmar, just not many of them, and almost no one from the US.  During my visit three weeks ago, I did not encounter a single American.  The travelers mostly hailed from Spain, Turkey and Japan, but already the numbers are surprising.  Many pro-democracy advocates have mixed feelings about the influx of visitors, believing it’s too soon, considering the lack of infrastructure and the dollars tourists send into the coffers of the authorities. These are issues each traveler needs to carefully consider, but if you love seeing countries before they change, you need to go now.

Our initial travel briefing, and even the new Lonely Planet Guide, warned that our cell phones might be confiscated upon arrival.  No one touched our phones, but it would be a useless gesture. There are no networks for my U.S. IPhone or the Blackberries and various other smart phones belonging to my traveling companions from Hong Kong.  I took out my phone just for the camera and calculator.  Surprisingly, no one gave us any trouble for taking pictures at places potentially deemed off limits, including Aung San Suu Kyi’s house and the offices of the National Democracy League. The closest my phone got to being confiscated was when I was grabbed by some aggressive monkeys on a pilgrimage to Mt. Popa. (I am not making this up) The animals have learned to steal from visitors in return for food.  This isn’t to say there are no cell phones in Myanmar. The country has already joined the rest of the world in making the cell phone the almighty status symbol, but the scale there is exaggerated. In relative terms, it’s like owning a Bentley. While the per capita income remains under $500 a year, the cost of buying a cell phone and black market SIM card is around 3 thousand US dollars. (Again, I am not making this up) “So who has one?” I asked. “Generals and their relatives,” was the answer.
Given the widespread censorship in Myanmar, we were stunned to find a few wi-fi hotspots.  Perhaps Myanmar is acknowledging that this is one tide of progress that just can’t be held back. Granted, I never actually saw a local with a laptop, and the wi-fi was limited to the two high-end hotels in the capital exclusive to international visitors.  Keep in mind, the internet is very much like the country’s electricity: unpredictable, unreliable, and frequently down.

As expected, geo-political and economic isolation have turned Myanmar into a time-capsule. Like Cuba, the cars are dated, but there is an added twist.  After the British departed, driving was switched back to the right hand side of the road.  However, the majority of old and used cars still have their steering wheels on the right side as well.  Right side driving with right-sided drivers makes for gripping passenger seat travel. If you think London traffic is disorienting for Americans, up the anxiety ten-fold. Rule number one for visitors: Don’t drive. There is no getting used to it.  Second rule: watch where you walk. The crumbled sidewalks barely cover the crude network of sewers, and it is quite possible to fall in.

President Obama and his entourage may be the only men in pants.  Except for military uniforms, pants have not arrived here. The country is also devoid of the pop cultural references and fads that have pervaded and homogenized pretty much the rest of the world. Given the oppressively hot weather that descends on Myanmar much of the year, the long, elegantly wrapped skirts called longyi make sense.   Women also wear long skirts, but theirs are straight and not wrapped.  The only other country I’ve seen with such uniform adherence to a native dress is Bhutan, but it’s just a matter of time before all this changes.

There is a big irony the America traveler encounters immediately.  The U.S. has long shunned Myanmar with tough economic sanctions. There is no official trade and no sight of a western bank, but Myanmar’s economy runs on the U.S. dollar.  It is quite possible to visit without ever changing a single dollar to the local Kyat currency.  Think about it. No Americans in sight, but all transactions are being done in American dollars, save for the smallest purchases from remote street peddlers.
But there is a catch.  Those dollars must be crisp, clean, unmarked and without a single crease.  The recent redesigns have complicated matters. For a while, the locals refused to accept the newer bills with enlarged presidential images believing them to be counterfeit.  Now, even the best hotels and shops refuse to accept bills printed before 2008, with the smaller images.   Since credit cards, ATMs and banks are non-existent, you are forced to bring a lot of cash. I raised a few eyebrows at my local bank, first for the amount I was withdrawing, and then for my repeated returns to the teller windows to exchange bills for not being crisp enough.  I scrawled a reminder in my notes that it’s impossible to bring too many wet naps or one-dollar bills.  The first order of business for Myanmar needs to be a banking system.

There is a custom all visitors, including President Obama, must anticipate and absolutely follow. One is required to go barefoot within the confines of any sacred Buddhist site. This is not limited to the interiors of the temples.  When circling the many acres of Yangon’s magnificant Shwedagon Paya, or climbing the 777 steps of Mt. Popa, you must do so barefoot.  This was of particular discomfort for my traveling companions, perhaps more emotional than physical.  At Mt. Popa, it means stepping in or around monkey poop. For the temples of Bagan, it requires scaling rocky surfaces with no protection, leaving one’s feet filthy and sore. See note above about never having too many wetnaps.  If you wear socks or skirts above the knee you will be stopped by the authorities cum temple guards.

Sadly, there is no way to avoid having your dollars enrich the oppressive government. Despite reforms and vows to crack down on corruption, we were told that the ruling military has its hands in pretty much everything, and every transaction results in a kickback.  The airlines, hotels, “official” shops and restaurants all have ties to the so-called cronies. Experts advise visitors to buy as little as possible from as many places as possible, thereby creating the best odds of actually helping the local people.  I ventured to the dirtiest street markets to buy slippers next to the fish heads. My sensitive companions took this a step further.  We hired a private guide and requested a visit to his local village school where we distributed notebooks and pens.  We concentrated on dispensing gifts in remote areas to offset the government kickbacks we knew we could not control.  This is no solution to poverty and even poses the risk of creating unhealthy expectations in the future, but we felt compelled to carry out our own micro “wealth redistribution” on this trip.

There are many warnings about inadvertently putting locals at risk by asking too many personal questions.  I took this one seriously and acted at all times as if I were being followed.  It’s hard not to recognize the disparity created by the government.  Ostentatious mansions border dirt-poor areas. It’s widely known who lives in those grand houses and why.  It’s vitally important to remember the things visitors, including President Obama, will never see, including hundreds of prisoners of conscience, forced labor facilities and the ethnic violence raging in the farther reaches of the country.  All this is widely documented. Even this week, there was yet another attack in the Kachin region that resulted in more lives lost, but things appear to be changing for the better.  News that more than 400 political prisoners are being released in advance of President Obama’s visit is a start. 

The President will only be in Myanmar for about six hours, not even spending the night there.  I feel sorry for him.  It is a long way to travel to miss out on such beauty. 
The golden monuments and temples shimmer with incredible beauty and the handiwork of devotees who have patiently pressed gold leaf on all the figures. We were most impressed with the people. They were lovely, generous and patient with us. We saw no begging and what we offered the children was immediately shared with their siblings and friends.  This is why my companions have such optimism for the country’s development and future. There is a dignity and patience in the populace, which I attribute to their surviving decades of fear, hopelessness and isolation.  This visit by President Obama, the first by any U.S. President, is a strong sign that the world is ready to welcome back a country it has long shunned. It is also a sign that Myanmar is ready to stop isolating itself.  It will be fascinating to see where the country goes from here.