On Wednesday morning, I had the honor of giving a key note talk at my alma mater, Chagrin Falls High School, outside of Cleveland, Ohio. The talk was for the Cum Laude Society inductions, where twenty-six high school seniors were acknowledged for supreme scholastic achievement.
The following is the transcript from my talk. Enjoy!
First, I’d like to congratulate you all this morning. It’s a fantastic accomplishment to be sitting in this room today. You’ve done something very special over the past several years to get here.
I’d also like to thank you for the opportunity to be here and celebrate with you. It’s an honor to be standing among such a group of bright people.
The Boxes Before You
In several short months, as most of you begin packing up your things and heading off to college, you can surely sense that you’re similarly packaging up a big box in your lives labeled “High School.” And just as sure, you can see the next box before you: “Acceptance into a Great University.” Most of you are probably close to checking off that box, if you haven’t already.
And if you look further into the horizon, you can see even more boxes still, neatly lined up with words scribbled onto them: “Graduate From That Great University (hopefully with honors),” Maybe you can even spot the boxes that say “Graduate school,” “Get an MBA,” or “Get a Ph.D.” If you squint really hard, you can spot the boxes far ahead that say “Land a Well-Paying Job,” “Earn a Lot of Money,” “Buy a House,” “Get Married,” “Raise a Family,” and even “Retire and Happily Live Out the Rest of Your Days.”
Today, I hope to offer up a tiny glimpse from the Real World, the place where those boxes were created. I’d like to offer up a perspective that’s not your parent’s, and not your teacher’s. A perspective that’s a little older, but not too old to be out of touch. One that’s young enough to understand what it’s like to be in your shoes, but not too young to forget that my cell phone used to looked like this. [This is where I held up the crappy Nokia phone I bought in London for 99p (or about $1.60)]
And I’d like to do so by ripping a page from my most recent travels.
Lessons from London: Mind The Gap
On Sunday night, I returned from two months in Europe, with one of those months spent in London. If you’ve ever been to London and taken The Tube, London’s underground transit system, you’ve likely heard this phrase:
“Mind the Gap.” As in “Mind the Gap between the train and platform.”
The voice cautions us to be mindful of the space between the train and the platform, so we don’t trip, fall, and hurt ourselves as we’re getting on and off of the train.
This morning, I’d like to steal this phrase, but revise it to reveal a similar reminder I’d like to pass along from the real world. My advice is this: Mind the Boxes.
What Do I Mean By Mind The Boxes?
The thing about those boxes you see before you, something that no one ever told me when I was in your shoes was this: That path of boxes ahead can be misleading. Those boxes are not a one-size fit all, and some of those boxes aren’t for everybody. Sometimes, you’ll find yourself too big and overflowing for boxes so square and constraining.
I don’t mean to say that these boxes are wrong or superficial. Rather, I just want you to be mindful of what they are — they’re boxes that were set before you by someone else. Possibly someone with different motivations, different gifts, and different dreams than yourself.
And when you find at some point along your journey, which you inevitably will, that some of those boxes don’t fit quite right, you Mind the Boxes, and remember that it’s okay, and even imperative, that you question them and choose them wisely.
It’s okay to discover that the boxes you choose are the same boxes as your peers, as your siblings, or as your parents. It’s okay if those boxes are brown, cardboard and traditional-looking boxes.
But I also want to encourage you and say that it’s ok if your boxes look nothing like the boxes of your parents’ and your peers’. It’s completely fine if instead of cardboard and brown, your boxes are pink, shiny, outlandish, and weird. It’s more than ok if your boxes don’t look like boxes at all.
It’s fine if your boxes sit right here in Chagrin Falls, in Cleveland, or down the road in Chicago. It’s also fine if your boxes are scattered about the hidden crevices of the world, inside the London Tube, along the Inca Trail to Macchu Pichu, or in the shadow of the great Icelandic glaciers.
There’s only one true rule to Minding The Boxes: Any box will do, so long as you discover those boxes from deep within yourself.
Your Values Are Your Compass
So how do you know which boxes are right for you? How do you remain steadfast in a world where the boxes are plentiful and ever-evolving? Fortunately that secret lies right here in this room. It lies within the very thing that brings us here together today. It’s found in the fabric of the Cum Laude society. The secret is found in Excellence, Justice, and Honor.
I don’t mean to say that the secret lies within these three specific words, although they will take you far. Instead, the secret is in what these three words represent, and how they relate to Minding The Boxes.
The thing you’ll notice about Excellence, Justice, and Honor is that they do not sit in one box. They elude being confined so tightly and squarely. And the reason they do, is because they are values. And while times may change the way the world looks and operates, values remain steadfast and help you navigate your world, regardless of its shape, size, and velocity, its fierceness and its never-ending wonder. Your values become your compass.
Sometimes Excellence, Justice, and Honor are not found along the road well-traveled. Sometimes your values are not found inside the boxes commonly checked off. Sometimes they’re found on the opposite side from the majority. Sometimes they’re found in weird places around the globe.
My Story, My Boxes
My story isn’t too dissimilar from yours at this point in your life. While I vaguely remember my induction to the National Honor Society in 2002 (the Cum Laude’s equivalent back then), I remember vividly the final months of my senior year.
I had recently chosen to attend Georgia Tech in Atlanta for the upcoming Fall semester. I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew I was good at math and felt a certain satisfaction in being able to solve seemingly insolvable problems. So I was nudged in the engineering direction by family, friends, and close confidents.
After five rigorous years at Georgia Tech, I graduated with honors in Industrial & Systems Engineering. Six months before graduation, I secured a well-paying job with IBM as a business consultant.
And for the next four years out of college, I worked on high profile and challenging projects for some of the largest corporations in the world — Johnson & Johnson, Shell, Estee Lauder, among others. I labored beside ridiculously bright and driven individuals. I could feel a successful career brewing.
Yet slowly and surely, I began to feel a disconnect between the work I was doing, and the work I thought I had the capability to do; between the life I was living, and the life that I imagined for myself.
I looked around and saw myself inside a box that was perhaps not the right box for me. Maybe it was the right box up until that moment. But I had since grown larger than the box, and felt a desperate need to escape it.
I decided to break away from the box for a while. And so I did what any sensible person would do: I booked a oneway ticket to Iceland, negotiated a sabbatical from my job, and resolved to do something I had long dreamt of doing — go on a long-term, unstructured and unplanned slow traveling adventure. I planned to just live; live in a way that I never had before, that was completely free, and where I was able to fully be me. Whatever that meant.
I ended up wandering around Northern and Eastern Europe for the next seven months. With no set agenda and no plan, I set aside all of the to-do’s and should-do’s in my life, and only did the things I wanted to do. I read many books. I met many people. I learned how to build a website and created a blog. I started writing about my travels. I explored artistic pet projects in photography and videography.
I started to gain a small following of people who were interested in my journey, but more so, were interested in my story. It wasn’t very common for a 28 year old to leave his stable job and do something so outlandish. That was something college students did. That was something only rich, retired people did. It eluded common boxes.
Yet there was something enviable and bold in my decision to rip apart the box I’d found myself in, and begin building a new box from scratch. I became inspiration for others who had found themselves in boxes they didn’t deliberately choose and who wanted to escape, but had trouble finding the courage to do so. My story reminded others to Mind The Boxes.
Regrets of the Dying & Millionaire Football Players
Why must we mind the boxes? I’d like to share two more stories to help answer that question.
The first is an article written a couple years ago. This article described a hospice nurse who surveyed her dying patients, asking them about their regrets in life. What was the number one regret of the dying?
“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
This is what we must avoid. This is why we Mind The Boxes, why we question the boxes. You may come up with the same answers as others and may choose the same boxes as many. But make sure it’s your answer; make sure they’re your boxes. If they’re not, you may get to the end of your days and realize it far too late.
The second story is one of the hot topics this week in sports, and in general, involving star Arizona Cardinals NFL running back Rashard Mendenhall. On Sunday, he announced he was retiring from the NFL. Yet the odd thing is this: he’s 26 years old, has been to two Superbowls, has made millions of dollars, and is in the prime of his NFL career.
And he’s retiring. For what? In his own words: “I want to travel the world and write!”
He goes on.
“The box deemed for professional athletes is a very small box. My wings spread a lot further than the acceptable athletic stereotypes and conformity was never a strong point of mine. My focus has always been on becoming a better me, not a second-rate somebody else.”
Mendenhall reminds us that no matter what box we find ourselves in, even if it’s a box worth millions, located seemingly at the pinnacle of human achievement, athletic or otherwise, we still may find ourselves easily overflowing it and eager to shed it for something new.
And like Mendenhall, what you want now will be different than what you want in 5, 10, and 20 years from now. And that’s ok. As you learn more and your motivations evolve, so too will your boxes. Which is all part of Minding the Boxes.
I hope these stories stay with you as you encounter the inevitable forks in the road and a multitude of different boxes set before you on your journey. And give you courage to Mind the Boxes.
If you ever find that you’ve outgrown your box, or that your wings spread much further than the box you find yourself inside; if you ever realize that you’re in a box by default and not by deliberate choice; I want you to give yourself permission to discard your box and to go find one that fits you better.
Your parents, your teachers, and this community has built you up and given you the best tools possible to traverse this path before you. They’ve given you confidence, opportunity, and unconditional love. You’re fitted with the armor to do anything you like. Be thankful for this. But now realize that the next steps are yours.
So as you approach the next boxes in life, listen to the wisdom of your parents, of your teachers. Pay attention to what your friends and peers are doing. But through it all, you must check your own gut and make sure your decisions sit well with you. And you must pay attention to your values, your compass.
Because the sooner you learn to live a life that’s defined by values, instead of a life that’s defined by well-traveled paths and handed-down boxes, the sooner you’ll free yourself to confidently define and fill your own boxes.
The sooner you accept this notion that there is no right path, you put yourself at ease and give yourself permission to proceed down your own path. Sometimes that path involves building your own boxes.
There are many great challenges you’ll face as you open the doors into the world, go forth valiantly and with a youthful fury. But perhaps the greatest of them all is finding the courage within yourself to live a life that’s best fit for you. And when you see the boxes set forth neatly before you, you remember to Mind the Boxes, and act accordingly.
Like anything worth achieving, this takes practice and dedication. Finding courage to be yourself in a world that constantly wants you to be someone else is a battle that’s fought anew every day. And part of finding that courage is remembering to Mind the Boxes.
Thank you again for having me. Congratulations, and good luck on your journey.