Dr. Rebecca Hong, Lick Wilmerding High School Graduation Speech, 2013

A recent interesting post on MetaFilter let me to this great speech by Dr. Rebecca Hong.

Unfortunately, the original version posted online is in a terrible format - extremely difficult to read and with poor accessibility.

I'm posting the text here to make it easier for the community to read and discuss.

Here's the text of the speech:

To the class of 2013: yay! It’s Graduation! As you may have been able to tell just now, I am not a dancer. But that was Marvin Gaye, and it’s a song about how you should get off the sidelines of the dance-floor, get on in there, and get groovin’. It seemed like an appropriate way to start off a graduation speech. It’s also my way of sharing with you quickly and through my actions some themes that did not make the final cut as leading themes for this graduation speech: take risks, do stuff that you’re not all that great at, be a little silly sometimes.

All of those ideas are what Stephen King calls “little darlings.” They are my little darlings: ideas that delight me, that aid and guide me. They are ideas to which I’ve become very attached, and I could, if prompted, talk to you about any one of them for hours. But though I love them, it is also King’s advice “to kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart.” As ideas, they remain useful for me to decide where to put my energy, but they are not at the center of my message today. ...

If you know precisely how to finish the sentence, “My passion is...” then I am truly glad for you. (My stupid—and I love him—brother is one of those people. He’s a be-bop alto sax player in New York. Go figure—we grew up in Vermont as half-Asians having dirt fights and playing with frogs.)

And if you are lucky enough to be in the audience today and know what will always be fun for you or how to stay perfectly present all the time, you really need no advice. But for the rest of you, I would first like to release you from the idea that finding your passion, or finding nirvana are necessarily the only pathways to fulfillment.

So here’s what I am going to talk about. For all of you—even for those of you who have passions defined, I’d like you to consider the dangers of unintended consequences.

So instead of talking about passion, bliss, parachutes, or fun, I’m going to talk about the tough unglamorous stuff that comes along with learning to intend your consequences: pausing, reflecting, historicizing, and empathizing. Do you notice they’re all gerunds, -I-N-G- words? That’s because they are active verbs of process.

I started thinking about the dangers of unintended consequences after reading a recent New Yorker article about the passive politics of Silicon Valley. Today I would like to propose that if you spend some time and attention both anticipating and then considering after-the-fact the unintended consequences of your actions, that you will be more likely to live a rich full life. Let me begin with this analogy based on where we are. Silicon Valley. California. 2013.

Down in Palo Alto, the framed motto, “Move fast and break things” is hung on the walls all over the hallways of the Facebook headquarters. CEO Mark Zuckerberg explained this philosophy more fully when he took the company public: “If you’re not breaking things, you’re not moving fast enough.”

Let me say before I explain further that I like the motto—it sounds do-y and proactive and energetic and anti-establishmentarian. I like stuff like that, as many of you know. But if I stop to think about the unintended consequences that have come from all of us getting wired up and creating our communities online, I start to ask a whole series of questions:

Why do we want to move so fast? Where are we going, and what are we leaving? What, exactly, is it that has to happen so quickly? What happens to history when we move fast, does it become obsolete? What, or who, might we miss or pass by as we zoom along? What about social norms, structures of oppression, traditions, backs and hearts and minds—are we really okay with breaking all of those things?

Zuckerberg claims further that Facebook was, “not originally created to be a company. It was built to accomplish a social mission— to make the world more open and connected.” Like earlier technologies from the printing press to television, he notes, “technologies that revolutionize social life give more people a voice. They encourage progress. They change the way society is organized, and they bring us closer together.”

Now, it’s true. TV can be pretty awesome. Like my mom says, without TV, Hawaii Five-O couldn’t have made a comeback. Indeed, one of my favorite activities is to sit on the couch with mom, while she gets me up to speed on the latest in TV.

TV to e-mail, Facebook to YouTube... Calling these technologies progress that give people a voice...doesn’t that sound a little delusional?

Let me explain further. It seems the tech industry, along with many others, have a rosy view of what will happen if they just keep plowing forward, innovating for innovation’s sake. I think they want to make life easier, and they are thinking hard about how to do that earnestly and honestly. But ultimately, there are big consequences here that need more consideration.

So what I’m doing is asking us all to pause, all of us who use and consume technological media to build our communities, and you, the class of 2013, who may even pioneer new technologies. I want us to ask ourselves: What are the unintended consequences of technological, and other forms of, progress? What does happen when we fail to consider the collateral impact of our actions?

There are over fifty billionaires and tens of thousands of millionaires in Silicon Valley. There are also record numbers of poor people, and, in the past two years as the cost of housing continues to rise, those records continue to be broken. After the last three decades in which the country has become less and less equal, the area in which we all live—and in which you all grew up—is one of the most unequal places in America.

As Silicon Valley has grown, private-school attendance has surged, while public schools in poor communities—such as East Palo Alto, just across 101 from Facebook’s headquarters—have fallen further and further into dis-repair, despite the efforts of numbers of committed teachers and bright kids in those schools. I’m glad there are people out there making cool gadgets and new tools for communicating.

But here’s the thing: New tools do not necessarily mean new power dynamics. We need our innovative minds of the next generation working and focusing on justice, as we always have, while collaborating with the technical innovators of tomorrow.

Let me give you another example. When the Model T. was first developed in 1908, it promised to put America “on wheels” and create mass mobility. By 1922 the vehicle was being sold at $250 a piece, a price within range for many middle class workers. But what were the unintended consequences of mass production and automobile technology?

As some of you know, because I’ve read your research essays on these subjects, with car culture came the rise of the suburbs, the isolation of American families, the death of public transportation, and global pollution. Now I’m not saying that Henry Ford was responsible for global warming. But what I am saying is that when we tell young people to take risks and seize the moment and follow passions and blisses, they are all good messages but all of these leave a key element out. They leave out your impact on other people; they leave out the consequences. These messages all have something in common. They all ask you to focus on yourself, and require no necessary thinking beyond your immediate interests.

Asking you, on the other hand, to consider the consequences of your actions as you act in the world is fundamentally about asking you to focus on your impact on other people. Make your consequences, both large-scale and small, to the best of your ability, intentional and good.

And I’m talking about the consequences of your actions as an individual, as part of friend-groups, as members of a college club, and eventually, as a participant and perhaps leader in your chosen profession and/or industry.

So let me propose another motto—and this is the real message I want to pass along today: Move slowly, and mend things.

I don’t just mean remembering to smell the flowers, nor am I dissing productive and ambitious lives. I am, rather, proposing that you make sure to live a reflective life of historical awareness.

Sounds pretty sexy, doesn’t it? A reflective life of historical awareness with consideration of your impact. So this leads me to another question: how do we mend things that we didn’t make, and maybe didn’t even break?

An answer, at least a partial one, lies in de-centering the ego. There is a Buddhist parable that I love which talks about the importance of de-centering the ego, and relating to the world, and the broken things in it.

In the parable, the Buddhist priest meets a stranger, who immediately upon seeing the priest punches him squarely in the face for no apparent reason. The priest doesn’t know the stranger, and he didn’t cause him to be angry, so he is, at first, quite reasonably confused. Instead of acting impulsively, however, the priest pauses and thinks for a bit. He then steps forward and hugs the man, recognizing what pain he must be in to lash out so furiously without provocation.

I imagine the concerns you may be having...you will never be able to anticipate all the consequences, nor hug all the people who punch you in the face for no reason. But by living a life in which: you value moving slowly; your actions are considered before taken; you assess situations based on all that might have happened prior to your arrival; you are big enough to pick up the slack and care for others; you may have a better chance of living compassionately and well and contributing to the world in good ways.

You can refuse to perpetuate what’s wrong about the world, and act in ways that are intentional and right. Move slowly, and mend things. Not to induce paralysis or stimulate fear, but rather to make it habit that you consider your impact on other people. The hard truth is, the consequences of so many who came before you, intended or not, already make up your reality, and those consequences, ultimately, are part of your responsibility to address.

Move slowly and mend things, because there is much in the world that is worth noticing, and worth keeping, and worth fixing. Four years spent with you as a class, I have watched you experience the joys of discovering the world as it is, while you see how much it needs to change. I have watched you within our community step up to the challenges set before you. I trust you will continue to do so, and I have no doubt that, if you so choose, you all have the power to mend.

So in conclusion Class of 2013...I wish you difficulty. I wish you the difficulty of worthwhile pursuits, and the difficulty that comes with taking the path full of resistance. I wish you the difficulty of slowing down and of caring deeply, the difficulty of commitment, the difficulty that requires of you that you build friendships, because you’ll need people who will help you out.

And I wish you the pleasures of the difficult: the sense of purpose, the sense of connectedness, the sense of rightness that comes with doing hard work. It is the difficult things in life that require you to move slowly and more deliberately, and to trust others because you must. It is the difficult that keeps you from sleepwalking through your life.

Congratulations; and have fun today.