West Nottingham Academy, established in 1744, is the longest-standing boarding and day school in the United States.
[Musical Inspiration: Burning Down the House, Talking Heads]
I want you to imagine that everything about high school - your friends, your sports, your routine, your favorite teachers, these familiar buildings, and your special place in this community - make up a beautiful forest that you know and love. Now I want you to imagine the forest suddenly on fire. That glowing, frightening, entrancing blaze will eventually turn to charred wood, leaving behind a scorched mountainside and a smoky scent in the air. This may feel like the end of something important. And it is. But it is simultaneously the start of something entirely new.
Take a moment to recognize this opportunity. Wildfires clear the land. Nutrients from plants are returned to the soil, and the fire’s heat germinates seeds, providing for new growth. What you’re going through is a similar natural process. This is not time to continue doing what you’ve always done, what your friends are doing, what your parents expect, or simply “whatever.” Maybe you don’t want to stand out, you’re scared of the unknown, or more likely you haven’t even considered all the possibilities, but at moments like this, the choices you make are important and will impact you far into the future. Even the decision not to make a decision is a decision.
Some of the biggest (and best) moves in my life—which often made others scratch their heads—came after my own forest fires, when my world felt open and new, and I was able to make choices that were true to me. I’ve been struck so many times by how even seemingly small actions or experiences have impacted my life for years, oftentimes shaping me, steering me in a new direction, or providing grounding in something to rediscover later. By getting involved in the startup ecosystem in Greece a few years ago, for example, I have expanded my network, exposed myself to new technologies, improved my Greek, and deepened my Greek friendships. I feel like it filled a hole in my life of which I wasn’t even aware.
Think about your high school persona; perhaps you’re an overachieving, loner Chemistry geek, or a tough-guy football player. Now imagine that the character you’ve played is up in flames as a result of this ceremony, freeing you to forge a new identity that is more true to who you are today. Shed those aspects that are no longer serving you. Maybe you want to be less of a follower and more of a leader. Perhaps you’d like to drop painting and take up guitar. Or expand your friend group to those who will challenge you, expose you to alternative perspectives, and support you. Think about how you spend your free time. Do you really want to watch TV sitcoms from the couch all weekend, or would you have more fun playing tennis? Hiking? Reading? Nothing interesting, joyful, or at all worthwhile will happen without some effort.
College was the happiest four years of my life up to that point. I found an amazing friend group and nurturing professors who pushed me in Math and Music, my two passions. At graduation I was bawling. I didn’t want it to be over. After college, my first job was at a bank, where I learned sales, negotiation, and the fundamentals of business analysis. I had fun stretching myself along these dimensions, living in the city, and meeting new people, but I didn’t feel my impact in the world. I realized I much prefer the act of creation where there’s a tangible sense of adding value. Banking was not an endpoint for me, but as an interim step it proved very valuable in my later career and helped me to articulate my personal values. The point is, where you are is not necessarily where you will be in the future, but every experience can be enriching in some way, and will become an integral part of you, which even the next wildfire can’t wipe away.
As you’re deciding what to do next, some pursuits may seem out of range. Maybe you’re interested in politics and would love to run for Congress. Or write the Great American novel. Take steps to advance toward that dream. Be creative. This is where leadership and entrepreneurship come to play. The more you do something, the better you get. Just do it.
When I got my Masters degree from MIT, I didn’t feel ready to create a startup because I needed management experience, but I couldn’t get that experience because nobody would hire me for that role. So instead I co-founded a startup which we grew to become an early leader in 3D printing. I wasn't ready, and I made mistakes every day, but we pushed on, and the experience shaped my life.
Under certain atmospheric conditions, a wildfire will appear seemingly out of nowhere and grow very intense. Sometimes people make sudden bold, surprise moves that leave tremendous destruction in their wake. This kind of out-of-control wildfire results from an internal buildup of pent-up dissatisfaction that’s not allowed to manifest until the heat of emotion finally ignites it. It might arise because a person is hanging on to all the causes of their misery, like a job, a spouse, or more often a belief system. They refuse to question the ideas in their head that are creating distress and despair, or reconsider their perspective, even while their emotions build to a state of explosion.
One way to avoid these harmful, out-of-control wildfires is to initiate smaller, controlled fires. Instead of allowing your discomfort or frustration to build to turmoil, check in with yourself from time to time to be sure that external pressures haven’t pushed you toward a life that is not aligned with who you are, which may be different than who you used to be. Allow yourself to let go of your assumptions and be open to a new way of thinking. Strong forces push us toward the status quo, so bravery is required to act out of line with expectations—even your own. Yet act you must.
As we built our 3D printing startup, things were going great. We grew fast and became one of the leaders in the market, finally hitting our stride. But my husband and I have four children who were also growing fast, and I was totally burned out. I insisted to the board that we sell, against their wishes to keep pushing ahead. We knew we’d do better if we waited to sell, but I have no regrets because those years with the kids were precious and I wouldn’t trade them for anything.
When facing an unknown future that feels like a burnt landscape covered with fallen trees and singed leaves, think of it as an empty plot waiting for you to plant new growth. Where others see destruction, look for opportunity. Exercise your own agency over how you view what’s in front of you: whether you see the ruins of the past or the buds of the future. Don’t allow the negative perspectives of all the doomsayers to sour your sense of possibility.
The world is changing all the time, and so you too need to be changing all the time. You will never “arrive.” Not only will your forest never be done growing; it will likely go up in flames many times throughout your life. When you’re in the fire, desperately looking for a way out, rest assured that you will find your way. This is just part of the process. Everything’s going to be okay.
Creating a beautiful new forest from ashes requires you to learn, think and plan. But you also need to be open to outside inspiration and surprise. Get out of your comfort zone. Don’t be scared to try something new. That’s where a lot of life’s gems lie. Recognizing your own resistance can help you overcome your fear and push you toward something novel.
Getting out of your comfort zone will expose you to the risk of failure, and that’s okay. Failure that results from effort is information which you can use to learn, grow, and move in a new direction. When you fail in such a circumstance—which we all do—you need to reject your instinctual conclusion that it is the wrong path. No. The struggle is the path. A toddler taking their first steps will fall many times. Concluding that they’ll never learn to walk—or shouldn’t even bother trying—is obviously false. Fight that response. Remind yourself that falling is part of learning how to walk. Embracing failure can lead to wonderful adventures.
When I was seven, I declared I was going to be a writer when I grew up. I wrote plays which my friends acted out in school. After college, I stopped writing for about fifteen years, while my career and children took over my life. But when we sold our startup, as much as I had been the one to drive the sale, I lost my bearings: my people, my place, my activity, my identity, and my sense of purpose. My life was a wildfire, so I started writing again—purely for my own mental health. Later, I submitted my writing to literary journals which led to hundreds and hundreds of rejections, but I loved writing, so I kept working at the craft and taking classes. Eventually, my writing was published, and it’s been thrilling to hear from people who have been moved by it. Writing was a bud that emerged from the ashes of the wildfire, creating for me an entirely new life.
Failure from effort advances you. This is different than flunking out because you’re partying every night. Failure from laziness, sloppiness, or lack of discipline does not advance you; it sets you back. Without your parents and teachers hounding you to do your homework, you may have to learn self-discipline, because what you would like by the end of your educational journey is to find a career path that you enjoy and that pays enough to support you. Your job will dominate your days for many years, so your goal is to find a profession that aligns your heart—what you enjoy doing and believe in—with your mind—what is practical with respect to geography, pay, lifestyle and other such issues.
Wildfires most often occur from human action, either intentional or by accident. Your earning a diploma today is a result of your action: doing your homework, studying for exams, etc. But wildfires can also come about from lightning, something outside human control. Although I am always planning, in fact some of the biggest and best pivots in my life came about from embracing factors outside my own control.
When I was twelve, my parents made me switch to a school a half-hour away, where I knew nobody. My life was upended. In my old school, it was cool to break the rules, and I was starting to get into a little bit of trouble. In my new school, it was cool to be smart and do well. As I made new friends, my value system was turned on its head, which ultimately drove me toward challenging classes where I discovered a passion for Math that I had not previously recognized.
You may be thinking of this ceremony as an ending of your high school experience, but the word “commencement” means beginning, not ending. Today, the crackling of burning is done, and the woods are cleared. The soil is rich with nutrients, ready for ferns and moss to grow. Soon insects will propagate, drawing in woodpeckers, while a diverse variety of plants will blossom under the open space. Animals will come feed on the vegetation and find new habitats in the fallen trees.
Until now, your parents have been making most big decisions for you, yet going forward you will in large part be dictating your own path. Today is the start of your adult life. Of course, this isn’t your last new beginning. At various moments in your life, you will see your world go up in smoke as a result of your own action, inaction, or external factors outside your control. This is your first chance to practice how to begin: by accepting what’s been lost with a sense of gratitude, never forgetting that it will always be a part of you, and adding to that a sense of excitement and possibility about creating something new, starting with yourself. This is where it all begins.