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A Graduation Speech

I have two major unfulfilled goals in life. First, I want to get an article published in the Reader’s Digest. Any article will do. Second, I want to give a speech at the graduation ceremony of my high school. I could probably have done this in 1959 — I was student body president and the best stand-up comic on campus — but I decided not to. I now want to make up for lost time and a lost opportunity.

So, on the outside possibility that some editor at Reader’s Digest will read this and then decide to publish it, which will then catch the attention of the principal of Mira Costa High School, I have decided to give my speech here. (Note: “mira costa” is not Spanish for “mired in costs.” The Spanish phrase for “mired in costs” is “graya davisa.”)

Before I begin my speech, I want to take a quick survey. I direct this question to the guests, not to the graduating seniors.

“How many of you recall clearly your high school graduation — I mean before the all-night party?”

Please raise your hand.

Leave your hands up, please. Now I have a second question.

“How many of you recall anything from the speech delivered by the distinguished orator who was brought in by your principal to inspire you on gradation day?”

If you don’t recall anything he said, put down your hand.

Now, for those of you who still have your hands raised, I have one more question:

“How many of you were so inspired by a remark made by the distinguished orator that it in some way shaped your life?”

If you cannot think of anything, please put down your hand.

Now take a look around the stands. How many hands do you see?

Thank you for helping me conduct this important survey of public opinion.

Now for my speech. . . .

THE ALARM CLOCK OF LIFE, AND WHY WE HATE IT

I want to thank Principal McCormack for inviting me to give this graduation speech, a speech which I feel certain will inspire today’s graduating seniors for the rest of their lives, as graduation speeches invariably do, as we have just seen.

Anthropologists can tell you what high school graduation is: an initiatory rite. It is a major point of transition which, for those of you who will not go on to college, will mark your transition officially to adulthood. For those of you who do go on to college, high school graduation marks a major point of transition for your parents: from borderline financial solvency to monthly panic. You, on the other hand, can postpone your transition to adulthood for another four years — or maybe even ten, if you follow my academic path and go to graduate school.

But maybe you don’t think of yourself as an adult yet. Maybe you’re wondering when the bell will go off that announces: “Adult here. The world is now free to kick the daylights out of me.”

I know when the bell went off for me. Maybe you have heard a similar bell. Maybe you didn’t recognize it for what it was. I’m here to tell you: “That was it. It’s too late to turn back.”

I was fortunate. I heard that bell very clearly. Of course, in high school, you hear a lot of bells, all day long. One of the marks of your transition to adulthood is that you won’t have to listen to these bells any more, unless you come back as a teacher. But I’m talking about an internal bell. You will hear this bell more and more as you grow older. I suggest that you pay attention to it early, preferably the first time you hear it.

I can remember it with amazing clarity. It was the clearest bell in my high school experience. I was sixteen years old, just about to turn seventeen. I was a senior. It was election day. I was running for student body president. It was lunch hour. I was in the same room where I had been waiting, one year earlier, for the results of another election. I had been running for president of the high school honor society, the California Scholarship Federation. I had won that election. One year later, I was wondering if I would win this election, too.

It seemed to me that I had been waiting for the results of that other election only a few weeks earlier. I my mind, the time had been dramatically compressed. The other election had taken place exactly one year earlier. I could date it easily, yet it seemed so recent.

At that moment, my internal bell went off. To mix metaphors, it hit me right between the eyes. Time was moving very fast. It wasn’t just moving fast; it was moving like a freight train, and I was caught on a trestle over the Grand Canyon. It was time to start running.

At that moment, I recognized how little time I had left. I knew how soon I would be an old man. And now I am an old man. Yet I can hear that bell in my memory so clearly.

I mark my transition to adulthood on that day. I won the election, but winning that election was not the most important event of that day. The most important event had taken place a few hours before, around noon, when the bell went off in my self-awareness.

I began hearing the clock ticking.

THE TICKING CLOCK

Over 250 years ago, Benjamin Franklin wrote a clever aphorism:

“A child believes that 20 dollars and 20 years can never be spent.”

Actually, he didn’t say 20 dollars. He said 20 pounds. Back then, 20 pounds were worth about $3,300 in today’s money.

What Franklin wrote then is still true. A child thinks of $3,300 as a lot of money. He thinks of 20 years as a lot of time. The child is wrong.

You may already have figured out that $3,300 is not very much money. But you may not have recognized emotionally that 20 years are not a lot of time. Your internal clock may not have rung its alarm bell. For most people, it goes off sometime between the ages of 17 and 23.

When your internal clock goes off in your head, pay attention to it. I regard the ringing of that alarm clock as marking the first major transition to adulthood. Some people hear it later than others. Others hear it, but then ignore it for years.

When you hear it and then act on it, you have become an adult. But if you roll over and whack the snooze button another time, then you haven’t become an adult. I don’t care if you are fifty years old, you have not yet made the transition to adulthood.

Those two high school elections were fixed time markers for me. I knew exactly how long it had been since the previous election: one year. We usually think in terms of one-year intervals. There was no doubt in my mind that a year had elapsed, yet it did not seem very long ago on that second election day.

The importance for me of those two elections was very high, or so I thought at the time. That’s why the ringing of the bell in my consciousness was so loud. I did not know at the time that the real importance of those two elections was the loudness they imparted to my lifetime alarm bell.

I knew that day that time was running out. I knew that I would hear the sound of the approaching freight train grow louder in my ears.

When I was a boy, there was a weekly radio show called “The March of Time.” The narrator’s voice still shouts in my memory, “Time marches on!” Well, I’m here to tell you that time doesn’t just march; it jogs over your back, knocks you to the ground, and steps on the back of your head when you’re lying face-down in the mud. It doesn’t even bother to say, “Oops. Sorry about that.” It just keeps moving forward.

RACING AGAINST THE CLOCK

Less than a year after I heard that bell, I decided what I wanted to do with my life. I became interested in economics. I also became interested in the Bible. I wondered what, if anything, the Bible had to say about economics. I decided that I would study for the rest of my life to get an answer. I was not sure what I would discover or how I would discover it, but I began what I thought would be my life’s work. Today, over four decades later, I have written thirteen volumes in my series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible. I have also written several books summarizing what I have discovered so far. My first book on this subject was published in 1973. It was not my first book. My first book, Marx’s Religion of Revolution, was an extension of a term paper that I wrote in my senior year in high school. It was published in 1968, nine years after the bell first went off in my head.

I knew at age 16 that I would have to get busy. Time was running out.

I have stayed busy. Time is still running out. But when you’re my age, time doesn’t jog. It speeds up. By now, I’m in something more like a sprint.

Why does time speed up? Because there are a lot of years behind me, and one more year isn’t a big percentage of my life. For a child of five, a year is 20% of his life, and half of what he can remember. For me, it’s one-sixty-first of my life. That’s not much. So, the older you get, the faster time runs.

As you slow down in life, time speeds up. So, I have decided to race with my old enemy. I’m going to make him beat me fair and square. I’m going to run faster. I plan to start a new business this year. I’ll start another next year, if not sooner. There is an old saying, “Never give a sucker an even break.” That’s what time says to me, louder and louder. I’m saying it right back.

ARE YOU WINNING?

Ultimately, no one beats the clock. No one gets out of life alive. But you can make time work for his victory over you. You can make him sweat.

At this point, I’m going to direct my remarks mainly to parents and especially grandparents in the audience. That’s because the clock is starting to make its move on you. Tonight’s graduates are only facing a jogger.

Are you winning the race so far? Here’s a good way to find out. Ask yourself these questions:

“Am I able to do anything important that I could not do a year ago? Am I able to do it better, faster, or cheaper?”

If you can honestly answer “yes,” then you’re still ahead of the clock. You’re still moving forward ahead of time.

The more things you have learned, the more skills you have acquired, the more effective you are, this year vs. last year, the tougher you’re making it for time to beat you. You’re forcing time to earn his victory.

To every grandparent in the audience, I ask this:

“If your grandchild were to come to you tomorrow and ask, ‘Can you tell me one area in which you’ve made progress since last year?’ what would you answer? Could you honestly point to some area of your life where you are clearly doing better?”

It’s a lot easier for young people to answer “yes” to this question. They are in school. They keep learning new things. Then they get new jobs. They keep on learning. Then they have children. At that point, their education begins in earnest.

But, at some point, people usually stop listening to their annual bell. They stop comparing their position today with what it was last year. They stop running. They start jogging. Meanwhile, time starts picking up the pace.

GRADUATION DAY AS A LIFE-MARKER

To the seniors, I say that high school graduation serves as a success marker for millions of people. They look back on their graduation day and mark their progress in life since that day. Maybe this day will serve as your personal life marker.

If you are wise enough to write down your life’s goals, and break your plans into five-year segments, you will be able to mark your progress. Set aside a blank page for your comments a year from today. A year from today, think back a year and write down what you regard as your improvements: a year well spent.

If you don’t already have your own goal-setting planner, make one. Buy some lined paper and a 3-hole binder. Do this before next Monday. There are few things more important or less expensive than a lifetime goal planner. Break each year’s goals into four-month segments, and then come back every four months to review your progress. Break your five-year goals into one-year segments. Come back each year to review your progress.

Every time you do this, you’re listening to your internal time clock. Don’t ignore it. Use its sound to increase your pace.

The main reason why most people never make a goal planner is that they worry that they’ll be embarrassed every year by how little progress they have made. But by sticking to a schedule, your productivity builds up over time.

I devote ten hours a week, 50 weeks a year, to working on my lifetime study of what the Bible teaches about economics. I have stuck to this schedule since 1977. Today, I have about 9,000 pages published. It adds up.

THE CLOCK SPEEDS UP

I have one other major time marker in my life. It took place on my 25th birthday. My grandmother told me, “You’ll be 30 before you know it.” I was 50 before I knew it. But at age 25, I knew she was right. I planned for turning 30, so turning 50 was no big deal. I was not surprised by 30 or 40 or 50 or 60. I saw them coming. I ran harder.

At some point, I’ll fade in the stretch, I intend to keep that stretch as far ahead of me as I can.

You have a long race ahead of you. It’s not a sprint for you yet. The pace hasn’t noticeably sped up. But I promise you: it will.

Listen to the ticking of the clock. If this is too much trouble, at least listen to the alarm bell. It’s going to ring one of these days. Pay attention to it when it does.

Ten years or fifty years from now, you won’t remember much of what I said this evening, but maybe you’ll remember that some old guy said you needed to write down your lifetime goals and then review your progress every year. My hope tonight is that you will think back and say, “I’m sure glad I followed his advice” instead of “Maybe I ought to get started on that project.”

To the grandparents in the audience, I say: “It’s never too late to get started. You’re running out of alarms.”

July 30, 2003

Gary North is the author of Mises on Money. Visit http://www.freebooks.com. For a free subscription to Gary North’s newsletter on gold, click here.

Copyright © 2003 LewRockwell.com