I Gave a High-School Commencement Address: Five Essential Paradoxes

Recently, I was thrilled to be asked to give the commencement address for my daughter Eleanor’s high-school graduation.

(I worried that Eleanor might not be enthusiastic about this development, and I was surprised and pleased that she was really happy about it.)

One note, so the conclusion makes sense: The school song begins “We go forth unafraid/Strong with love and strong with learning” and the song’s final line is “Here we have learned to go forth unafraid.”

In writing it, I wanted to explore transcendent themes, and I did. But I have a very practical side, and without quite meaning to do it, I wrote two commencement addresses: The Profound and The Practical.

Here’s the version I gave, about five essential paradoxes:


Thank you, I’m so honored to be here. Congratulations to the Head of School, teachers, proud families and friends, and, above all, to the class of 2023.

It’s deeply moving to me to be here as a parent, to see all of you up on stage, dressed in your caps and gowns. I remember taking a photo of Eleanor outside Little Dalton on the first day of kindergarten. I thought, “She’s already so big!” and comforted myself by thinking, “She’s only in kindergarten, senior year will never come.”

Yet here we are, at that impossible milestone. The days are long, but the years are short.

Now, graduates, whatever you’re doing next, you’re entering a new stage of life. Your friends, your schedule, your city, your relationship to your family, what you eat for breakfast, all may change.

That’s exciting, and also scary.

You may worry, “How do I make sense of what’s coming next, if all I know is high school?” If you’re anything like me, over and over in life, you’ll find yourself thinking, “Gosh, this is just like high school!” Life is high school; it’s just that high school is the first time we notice it.

Again and again, we have to start over—find our place, find our friends, find our way to be in the world.

I study happiness and human nature, and I’ve discovered something surprising: The opposite of a profound truth is also true. So the study of happiness is often the study of paradoxes.

We grapple with these paradoxes throughout our lives, and graduates, you’ve probably faced them many times already. Now you’re at a time of transition, when they become particularly urgent.

So I offer five essential paradoxes that may help you make sense of your experiences—what you’ve experienced in the past and what you’ll experience in the future. Because life is high school, and high school is life.

Paradox #1: Be selfish, if only for selfless reasons, and be selfless, if only for selfish reasons.

When it comes to happiness, many people ask, “In a world full of suffering and injustice, is it morally appropriate for individuals to seek to be happier?”

In fact, research shows—and experience confirms—that when we’re happier, we’re more likely to engage with the problems of the world, to give our time and money, to vote, and to be compassionate; and we’re more interested in making change. Happiness doesn’t make people stay out late and party; it helps them decide, “Let’s start a campus-wide rooftop solar program.”

Working on our own happiness strengthens us to tackle the challenges of society. That airline reminder has become a cliché because it’s true: We each need to secure our own oxygen mask first, if we’re going to help other people.

So, if it is selfish to try to be happier, we should be selfish, if only for selfless reasons.

At the same time, we should be selfless, if only for selfish reasons. One of the best ways to make ourselves happy is to make other people happy. Do good, feel good—it really works! I remember talking to a friend who, in her twenties, had gone through a very tough time: her boyfriend broke up with her, she got fired, and she was rejected from a graduate-school program. I asked her how she got through it, and she told me, “I was practically addicted to volunteering and doing good deeds. They were the only things that made me feel better.”

We should be selfish, if only for selfless reasons, and be selfless, if only for selfish reasons.

Paradox #2: You’re unique, exactly like everyone else.

You’re one of a kind, a singular combination of abilities and interests, and the same thing is true of the people around you.

We’re all unique, and we’re also very ordinary. For instance, one of the most universal emotions is the feeling that you don’t belong. So when you feel like you don’t fit in—say, on your first day of freshman year—you fit right in.

Even when you think, “No one feels the way I do,” probably they do. Drummer Ringo Starr told a funny story about the summer that the Beatles were recording the White Album, when he briefly left the group. He visits John Lennon and says, “I’m leaving the group because I’m not playing well and I feel unloved…and you three are really close.” John says, “I thought it was you three!” Then Ringo visits Paul McCartney and says, “I’m leaving the band. I feel you three guys are really close and I’m out of it.” Paul replies, “‘I thought it was you three!” Ringo doesn’t even bother to visit George Harrison.

Because we’re unique, exactly like everyone else, one great challenge of our lives is to know ourselves.

You might think, “I know myself, I hang out with myself all day long,” but it’s hard to know ourselves. We get distracted by the way we wish we were, or what other people want us to be, or we take our strengths for granted.

Because I write about happiness, people sometimes say to me, “Give me the short answer. What’s the best, the most scientifically proven way to become happier?”

And I explain, “There’s no one right way. We each have to figure it out for ourselves.”

They say, “Sure, sure. Just give me the best way.”

For a long time, this question stumped me, but now when they ask, “What’s the best way to create a happy life?” I respond, “What’s the best way to cook an egg?” They say, “Well, it depends on how you like your eggs.” I answer, “Right! We each have the answer that’s right for us.”

There can’t be a one-size-fits-all answer to tell you how to achieve your aims. Other people can suggest possibilities, but they can’t figure it out for you—and you can’t figure it out for them.

You’re unique, exactly like everyone else.

Paradox #3: Not choosing is a choice.

During times of change, such as the one you graduates are entering, we need to figure what we want—and that’s daunting. Because that question is so hard, when we’re faced with choices, it’s easy to drift.

 “Drift” is the decision we make by not deciding.

We drift when we feel like other people or processes are moving events forward, and we’re just being carried along. We drift when we find ourselves doing or getting something because the people around us are doing it or want it. You go to medical school because both your parents are doctors. You take a job because someone offers you that job.

We drift because we want the respect of the people around us, or we want to avoid a fight or a bout of insecurity, or we want to end uncertainty, so we take the path of least resistance.

I drifted into law school. I didn’t know what else to do, and I told myself, “This will keep my options open,” “I can always change my mind later,” and “I can’t turn down this terrific opportunity.”

The word “drift” has overtones of laziness or ease. Not true! Drift is often disguised by a huge amount of effort. For me, law school was drift, and it was hard every step of the way, from studying for the LSAT to clerking for the Supreme Court.

Looking back, I’m glad I went to law school—and that’s another confusing thing about drift! Sometimes drift does make you happy; bad decision-making can lead to good outcome. But don’t count on it.

Drift is dangerous, because when we drift, we’re not mindfully choosing. As writer James Baldwin noted: “If you don’t live the only life you have, you won’t live some other life, you won’t live any life at all.”

In the end, we must choose. Because not choosing is a choice.   

Paradox #4: Accept yourself, and also expect more from yourself.

One great challenge is to be true to ourselves, yet also push ourselves. This is a very tricky paradox. And you, at the end of your high-school years, are probably very familiar with it.

Sometimes it can be hard to know when to accept, “Hey, that’s not me, that’s not my thing,” or when to push ourselves toward a goal that’s uncomfortable.

In one of my first jobs, a work friend told me that he’d gotten a great promotion, but as part of it, he had to give weekly presentations to a large group—and he hated public speaking. When he told his boss, his boss said, “It’s okay, if you don’t want to do it, I’ll assign that role to someone else.”

So my friend had to decide: Accept himself, or expect more from himself? He pushed himself to give the presentations.

As you consider a difficult aim, only you can decide whether it’s the right aim for you. Should you take Statistics, join the intramural basketball team, audition for the improv group, launch a start-up, run for office?

Accept yourself, and also expect more from yourself.

Just as we can use Paradox #4 to help us understand how we can consider ourselves, we can use Paradox #5 to help us understand how others consider us. 

Paradox #5: Love is unconditional, and love is demanding.

Graduates, I’m sure you’ve felt the weight of this paradox—probably, quite recently! Love accepts you just as you are, and love expects the best from you.

I heard a great example of this paradox from musician Rosanne Cash, about a conversation she had with her husband and musical collaborator, John Leventhal. 

The two were in Nashville, where Rosanne did a guest session on another band’s album; John came along to hang out during the recording. After the session, he didn’t say anything, so Rosanne asked, “How did you like it?” He answered, “I would have pushed you harder.”

Love says, “You’re the best,” and love says, “You can do better.”

Graduates, sometimes, the people around you—parents, teachers, bosses, coaches, friends—may get this wrong; because we see so much good, we don’t realize when we’re pushing too hard. But when you think about all the reminders, to-do lists, and lectures you’ve received, remember, our insistence that you live up to your potential is an expression of our boundless love.

Love is unconditional, and love is demanding.

So those are five paradoxes for this day, which celebrates both an ending and a commencing.

And here’s a bonus paradox: I’m sad to see the years at Dalton come to an end, and I’m happy, too. I’m sad to say farewell to an institution that my family loves, and happy to see all you graduates, ready to go out into the world, strong with love and strong with learning. Now it’s time to go forth unafraid.  

Thank you.



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