Class of 2010
Singapore American School
By Eric Burnett
Good evening, Dr. Mutsch, Chairman Broadman, members of the Board, distinguished faculty, proud parents, honored guests and you, almost alumni.
A few years back I stood up here at the dawn of my 30s, pretty darn confident that I’d had this whole life thing figured out and I went on to recite one of those smell the roses, follow your dreams speeches. I thought it went OK, until a couple things happened. First, I walked out that lobby door and I was greeted by a fairly accomplished lass, a young lady I’ll just call Bing Fandenberg, came up to me and said, “What was all that garbage? You mean to tell me that everything I did in high school was for nothing? That I should have smiled more and tried less?” There was an awkward pause and I probably threw out some sort of sarcastic save, but at the time I merely discounted her challenge as the false bravado of a soon-to-be collegian, and then she went on to Harvard, and then I proceeded ironically to spend the next six years of my own life pretty much breaking every single piece of advice I had given that night.
So here I am again – same suit, same fluffy hair, but this time a bit more humble. And this time when I started looking at this class, I realized there was no one advice I could even give you. Is there any possible way I could say something that would equally apply to Akshay, to Max, to James, to Paige, to Lauren, to Heather, to Miracle? You’ve all danced to such different beats to get to this point, what makes me think I can formulate a one size fits all chat that will guide you through adulthood?
Plus, I know that advice is almost always ignored. Whether it’s from your teachers, your friends, your parents, you rarely ever listen. We live in this world of affluence where most of us spend our days trying to fine tune our already near-perfect lives. Many of us then, in our search for improvement, have fallen into the trap of seeking out one of those pop psychology “Don’t sweat the small stuff” books that we hope might lead us to a semi-cathartic moment while reading in the lieu. But still nothing changes. Because the moment you step outside the classroom, the moment you’re away from the advice, and enter the fast-paced, emotionally-charged world of reality, your logical brain shuts down and you inevitably revert back to your default manner of dealing with the world.
And that is why enlightened counsel, eloquent sermons, well-meaning advice never register more than a few moments when it goes against your wiring. So, tonight I can’t suggest how you should behave, but I can tell you that you must, you must figure out how you are wired.
So, here’s what I’m going to do. Since it seems like our school exists in a world of online anonymous surveys and common assessments, I’m going to throw out at you one final questionnaire, let’s call it your final test as a high school student. And you’re going to have to do a little work, you’re gonna have to get a bit introspective, and figure out what makes you tick. Ralph Waldo Emerson once called this, this “what makes you tick” your iron string, and he argued each of us must find the tune to this iron string if you ever want a chance to flourish at this thing called life.
So…let’s get started.
Question #1: How will you know if your life is actually on track? How will you know how you’re wired? Do you even know now? I’d argue, you do already know now. We’ve all been given this pretty flawless barometer – and it’s called - sleep. How do you sleep? Do you fall right to sleep or when you put your head to pillow, does your mind immediately fill with the whisperings of regret, fear, insecurity, embarrassment? And once asleep, do you sleep through the night? Or is your night filled with punishing dreams or fits of tossing and turning? Now, some of you might have found ways to trick this sleep test by each night taking yourself past exhaustion, or maybe choosing the path of self-medication, or maybe evening listening to your Taylor Swift playlist until your eyelids started to close. So for all of you sleep cheaters, you Barry Bondses of the nocturnal world, your results will be doctored. But if you ever really want to find out how you’re doing, lay in bed at 9:00 and see what happens. If you sleep, you’re good to go. If not, you might want to keep listening.
Question #2: Do you believe the goal in life is to obtain happiness or fulfillment? A few weeks back I got into an argument, I mean a discussion, about this topic with Mr. Hallam, Mr. Oms and Mr. Blacklaws. Turns out, I’m fulfilled, but rarely ever happy. Blacklaws is happy, but not fulfilled. Hallam believes the debate is a matter of semantics and that happiness and fulfillment are the same thing. And Oms has an unfair advantage because he’s Cuban which means he’s predisposed to be happy and fulfilled. But, even though those three are fairly intelligent human beings, they’re wrong. I’m right. You see, when fulfillment is your goal, you get to choose the criteria that will bring you inner peace – it can be the pursuit of respect, or love, or family, or service to others, or stability, or creativity. And if you want to choose happiness as your key to fulfillment, more power to you, but I for one don’t want to live in a world where everyone is pursuing happiness. You think the world cares if Barack Obama is happy? How about Jane Goodall? Steve Jobs?
OK…let’s speed this up a bit.
Question #3: Do you need to be cool? I gave up on coolness back in October 1998. It just wouldn’t take, and I found embracing my inner dork was a heck of a lot less effort than trying to be cool, and if the producers of Glee have their way, they might just convince the whole nation to embrace the true art of being a tool. Uh…and…there’s a pretty easy test for coolness. Basically, you go home, look in the mirror and say, “It’s Friday”. If, by chance, you come off sounding like our Dutch PE teacher Dr. Criens, coolness might be in your future, but for the rest of us mortals, we’ll all have to come to terms with the fact that our lives will be filled with a string of cringeworthingly awkward moments and ultimate fails.
Question #4: Are you a whiner? Do you complain about stupid stuff? Here’s my own personal whining litmus test. I call it TTSWRTAP – the Total Time Spent Whining Ratio to Actual Problem Test – TTSWRTAP - or Tuhtisswratap for short. Yeah, I know, it has a catchy ring to it. I was thinking of maybe writing a book and going on the international school lecture circuit. Basically, here’s how Tuhtisswratap works. Do you spend more minutes whining about a problem than the minutes the problem actually impacts you? If so, could you stop? Please. Or at least alert us before the conversation, something like, “I don’t want to complain, but there’s this issue that only impacts about 2 minutes of my life, but I plan on wasting the next 15 minutes of your life. Is that OK?”
Question #5: Let’s head into your personal lives for a bit. When you think about your getting married in 9.65 to 9.83 years, how will you treat your marriage? Will you follow the 3 A’s where only adultery, addiction or abuse will end your relationship? Or will you be OK agreeing to fall in and out of love with the same person until both of you hit the grave, or will you choose option c, where you will treat your marriage as your own personal episode of Jersey Shore?
Now…hopefully you’ve noticed so far, I’m intentionally leaving out a lot of gray area in between my options, and it is between these extremes where you’ll find you’ll be making the majority of your decisions. Life exists in the grey area of decision making. And you also need to know that as your life situation changes, your answers to these questions will likewise change. In Self-Reliance, Emerson didn’t just speak of following your “iron string”, he also said, “Speak what you think now in hard words, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said to-day.” Which leads me to…
Question #6: When you know you’ve messed up? When you know you’ve erred? When you discover your original decision which was based on partial or inaccurate evidence has been proven wrong, what will you do? Will you admit your mistake, admit your humanity, and let logic be your guide, or will you hold fast to your error to avoid appearing fickle? Will you manipulate or cleverly interpret the evidence to justify your choice? I oftentimes worry less about those that conform to others, and more about those who conform to the ignorance of their past, all merely to maintain an appearance. How many relationships stall, how many corporations stagnate, how many people suffer because great men with great ideas remain enslaved to their prior selves? Are you OK realizing you are a work in progress and people will better trust you, better follow you, if you admit your mistakes and move forward?
Question #7: Do you think life is ruled by randomness or is there a reason for everything? In his book aptly titled “Fooled by Randomness”, Nicholas Taleb argued that “the outline of our lives is continuously coaxed in new directions by a variety of random events that, along with our responses to them, determine our fate.” Others however in this room totally disagree. They believe that every event happens for a reason. I remember back when Andrew Hallam first found out he was sick, none of us knew what to think. It didn’t make sense. Sure, it’s OK if fat people get sick. Smokers, heavy drinkers, sun worshippers. It makes sense when they get sick. There’s a clear correlation. But Hallam. That guy’s like uber dude. At that moment I realized, most of us, when we hear bad news, we need to immediately find an explanation, something that makes the world make sense. It somehow comforts us that maybe then our own actions can shield us from the randomness of life. And maybe they can. I don’t know. Why do you think bad things happen to good people?
Question #8…no wait a second, let me stop for a bit. Some of you right now are wondering how many of these questions does this guy have for us tonight. The truth is, a heck of a lot less than I had a month ago. You see, I’m an overthinking scribbler. Over the last six years, I’ve written down every possible life question I could think of on any piece of paper within reach – on the graduation programs from the last couple years, on June 8th of my father-in-laws Jewish calendar, on page 138, 139 and 140 of the Singapore Directory. I even filled up the Singapore Airlines blue air sickness bags, my daughter’s math homework, and even the margins of the June 2009 edition of Lady’s Home Journal (don’t ask). But when I finally started typing these up, I had 22 pages of ramblings, which would have kept us here for two-plus hours, at which time Mr. Norcott would be getting a bit antsy wondering how to politely remove me from the stage, and Harry would be considering what appropriate gift he could leave for me in a pair of shoes outside my classroom door. So, what you’re getting is the seriously abridged version, but you can do me a favor. On some random night in the future, either sitting in a dorm room chatting with your newbie friends, or on a date with Miss Thing, or maybe at one of the final meals you’ll share with your parents this summer, start asking for and throwing out some of your own personality defining questions. Do it for me. It’ll be fun. Trust me.
OK…back to Question #8: How will you treat your body – as a temple or as a garbage dump? In about 3 ½ years, you will all peak. Your body will never look better and will never work as well. From there, you will get uglier and parts will start to erode or fall off. Except for Ms. Pong who is a freaky anomaly my mind just can’t figure out, all those people out there, man, they were all far cuter once upon a time. So you have proof right there in front of you. It will happen. But will you take advantage of your youth these next few years and possibly think more about what you can get out of your body than the cornucopia of college junk you’re right now planning on putting in it?
Question #9: Do you need recognition? Do you need people to know your successes for you to be successful? Every year I’ve been to these celebrations, someone will stand up and talk about how we’ve all been to IASAS, we’ve been to Cultural Convention, we’ve excelled on the stage, in the classroom and on the sportsfields. You know what. You really haven’t. I looked at the yearbook, looked at each of you, and there were only 107 of you that actually represented your school in a way that you received some sort of public recognition. That means 161 of you never did. Are you not also the senior class?
A few minutes ago, when you passed Ms. Molchin and Mr. Molly in their NASA approved head gear, and started walking down the aisle trying not to trip, do you think a single person in this room cared about your high school resume? No way. As each of you passed, all we could do is start flipping through the photo albums of memories stored in our noggins of the times each of you impacted our lives. You don’t have to be wearing colored ropes around your neck to have meant something to us.
And for some of you, the public accolades just haven’t come yet. For some of you they have already come, but they might not come again for a long time, but for the majority of you, you will never, ever win a public award. Sometimes there can only be one captain of industry, one Congressman, one leader, one Lady Ga Gahh…but life will call on you, and you will be needed. You might be called on to sit at the bedside of an ailing spouse. You might be called on to make a batch of brownies for one of your school’s 2,642 bake sales. Or you might need to be the assistant coach for your kid’s soccer team where your sole job will be to ensure that little Johnny extracts his phalange from his nasal canal. As much as humanity needs the movers and shakers to forge a path, humanity also will need each of you to one day be the rock that offers support. And there’s a good chance you will never receive any recognition for your deed. Are you OK with that?
Question #10: Do you realize how lucky you are? I don’t mean fortunate, I mean truly lucky. In the words of Andrew Hallam (a guy I seem to be mentioning a lot tonight), do you realize you’ve all pretty much won the ovarian lottery? Have you ever been driving down the CTE and seen one of those trucks full of day laborers sitting on plastic chairs, surviving a rain storm, only to bring home probably a few bucks a day? Did you ever ask yourself why they’re there and you’re here? My own kids have likewise inherited this world of opportunity, and I can only hope they continue to take advantage of it? Have you? Will you?
Question #11: What kind of parent will you be? Will self esteem for your kid be earned or given? I believe, there’s only one way to truly feel good about yourself – basically, you stink at something, you practice, you still stink (but a little less this time), you practice some more, and then some day, in the far off future, you finally get it and feel good about yourself. That’s it. That’s how you get self-esteem. Be wary of those who have removed and who will continue to remove obstacles, because undoubtedly, artificial self-esteem is always merely temporary self-esteem.
Question #12: How do you look at obstacles? In his book The Last Lecture, Professor Randy Pausch argued that “The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out; the brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. The brick walls are there to stop the people who don't want it badly enough. They are there to stop the other people!” So, when you can’t do something, when you fail the first time, will you merely give up and go in a new direction, or will you follow the advice of the famed philosopher poet Chumbawumba who proclaimed, “I get knocked down, then I get up again, no you’re never gonna keep me down. I get knocked down, then I get up again, no you’re never gonna keep me down.”
Now, here’s a little story I wasn’t entirely sure I was going to share tonight. But after that whole Formspring experience, it seems like it’s become the season for sharing. Plus, I remembered my M.O. as a teacher. Anyone who’s sat through a class of mine knows that if I can find some sort of teachable moment through one of my failures or foibles, I won’t hesitate to go to the land of the overshare. So consider this your last Burnett random tangent.
And then later that afternoon I played the SAS boys in a softball game, and at the end of the first game, I was pretty annoyed at myself for my pathetic hitting performance, and Will Norris turned to me and said, “Is that why you’re here? Seriously, is that why you come out?” I must not have been listening, because fate jumped up and kicked me in the buttocks. After playing a few more innings, I was jogging out to the field and my back seized up and I fell to the ground. Long story short, it turned out I had a herniated disc.
Well, in what turned out to be, what several doctors would later call an “incidental finding”, it turned out I also luckily have a spinal tumor which currently sits about 2 mm away from embedding itself in my spinal cord. Lovely. Before I let your mind wander in an odd direction, let me assure you I’m fine. I’ve done all the tests, I don’t have the Big C, and I found out this week I’ll be able to have spinal surgery this summer to remove this little pea-sized annoyance. And compared to the truly scary life stuff my colleagues and the SAS community have faced this year, this is merely a tiny little roadblock, but I learned something through this process that takes me to question #13.
Question #13: When obstacles hit, will you let them be all-consuming or will you practice selective denial? When I was in high school, my default reaction was hyperfixation on the negative to the point where I could not function. Whether it was my parents’ divorce or the fact that the puberty gods had yet shared their wondrous gifts, I paralyzed myself by fixating on the negative. I basically wasted by high school years.
But then at a faculty meeting one day, I looked around and one by one, I realized that probably every single one of my colleagues has something they’re dealing with – it might be physical, emotional, or some demon from their past – but everyone has their own, yes this will sound quite cheesy, everyone has their own metaphoric tumors that could, and sometimes do, prevent them from moving forward. And…you younguns, my young paduans, you’ll all get yours at some point. No…you’re not all gonna get a tumor. Pay attention to the metaphor. But you might have even right now something that’s paralyzed your progress - an ex-boyfriend you can’t get over, or a family situation you can’t control, or some freak accident which threatens to take you off course. But I challenge you to truly consider the effectiveness of the all-consuming method of dealing with the problem versus the path of selective denial where you don’t forget about the issue, but you are able to move forward.
I finally again chose selective denial and chose to unclick the pause button I’d put on my life. I mean, seriously, was I really going to alter my iron string, the way I’m wired, because of this potential inconvenience? I couldn’t. And then one day, I believe you might have been there, it was a day involving some suspect dance moves and a Vanilla Ice song, on that day, I got a bit of my jomo back, and then started putting my life back on track. And yes, sure, obviously today, when I’m out running around doing my wannabe weekend warrior routine, I look at things differently, and if Norris asked me again, “Is that why you come out and play” I’d have a different answer. And yes, I’m more concerned now with my kids being the ones that hit the home runs, not their aging dad. But, my wiring…that hasn’t changed…but I lost that month, and I can never get it back. So…selective denial I highly recommend.
And this brings me to my final question – number 14. This is it. What are you going to do in a few minutes when you walk out that door? Will you find your friends or will you find your parents?
One of the greatest honors bestowed on a parent is what I saw last year – Wyatt Guggisberg introduced his father on this same stage, and Mark got to hear something so few of us parents will ever hear from our children. None of you will have this venue to publicly declare your appreciation for the ones who helped put you here tonight. But you owe it to your parents to find some way in the coming months to recognize them. Recognize them for all those early years where your fevers, your sniffles and your broken appendages scared the ca caw out of them. Recognize them for those lovely adolescent years where you felt the need to showcase your blossoming argumentative skills as you vacillated between a dozen different hormone induced mood swings. Recognize them for greeting you at the airport after a week-long interim trip in which they went to bed each night worried for your safety. And recognize them for the fact that while you get to head off to a dorm filled with activity and newness, they’ll remain behind in the painful silence that will now fill their hallways. Oh…don’t get me wrong, many of your parents can’t wait to get you out the door, but even these who’ve earned a break, even these few who’ve counted the days till you leave, even they will have moments where their heart feels a bit empty….so recognize them.
And lastly, for you graduates, I challenge you one last time to find and trust your iron string, for it will be these people, these ones who have figured out their wiring, it is they who will survive and flourish when the realities of life inevitably pop up and once again get in the way of the best-made plans.
So thank you again for this incredible honor, and I wish all of you a lifetime of long, uninterrupted, sleep-filled nights. Thank you.
Chris Chmelik—Student Speaker 2004
Sean McCabe-Student Speaker 2007
Priscilla Chan—National Anthem 2009
Priscilla Chan—Student Speaker 2009
Danielle Courtenay-Student Speaker 2010