[The following address was delivered at Naperville Central High School in Naperville, Illinois, on May 14, 2004.]
First of all, I sincerely thank the committee for the invitation to be here today. It doesn't seem that long ago that I was a senior at NCHS and Ken Ross and I were still vaulting into the pole vault pit. It has actually been 33 years. It occurs to me to say: even if we all live to be 93, time is limited. So don't put off forever doing some of the things you really want to do.
When I was in junior high school I was already thinking seriously about what I wanted to do in life. Wouldn't it be great to be an astronaut, a professional musician, an Olympic athlete? Unfortunately, the competition to become an astronaut was, and still is, extreme. Back then you needed to be a test pilot and/or a medical doctor, or at minimum have a Ph. D. I didn't have the talent to be a professional musician or athlete. But , it occurred to me that there are people in the world who get paid to do what they want to spend their time doing anyway. Maybe I could be one of those people. In a way the ultimate job is to get paid to do your hobby.
I must mention that it has never been a goal of mine to make a specific amount of money (a million dollars, ten million dollars) so that I'd never have to work again, or so that I could then start doing what I really wanted to do. (For an excellent book relating to this, try Po Bronson's What Should I Do with My Life? ) My hobby was astronomy, so it occurred to me that I'd like to become an astronomer. And the motivation, of course, was not just to be an astronomer, but to make original scientific discoveries, to find out something new about the universe.
Two key questions that I began asking myself in high school were: What are my limits? And what are my opportunities? Now, notice how I phrase the first of these questions. What are my limits? One of the things that my mother used to tell us was this: If you do your best, you can be proud of that. I'd say: it's a competitive world out there, but if you do your best, that's not bad, and sometimes it's certainly good enough.
Another set of questions one could ask is: "What assumptions am I making, and under what conditions are those assumptions true? If I don't take advantage of some opportunity the first time it comes up, will I have that opportunity again?"
When it comes to one's limits it's easiest to think of an athletic example. When I was 16 I couldn't run a 26 mile marathon, but when I was 17 I dragged myself to the finish line of one. By the time I was 29 I could run one non-stop in 3 hours and 18 minutes. That stands as a personal record I can be modestly proud of, but on that occasion I finished about an hour behind the winner.
Now, if you participate in some sport you might have already reached what you think is your limit. But many people have the potential to get better and better throughout their 20's, depending on the sport. So your limit in high school may be quite of bit short of your potential absolute limit.
One question I have for you is: are you eager to know your limits, or are you afraid to find out?
When it comes to Life 101, one practical idea is to specialize in some area which you can build on your whole adult life. That's certainly the case if you're a writer, an artist, a musician, a doctor. There are many examples. Nowadays I run 4 miles at the pace I used to do a whole marathon, but I'm a better writer than I used to be.
I wanted to be an astronomer and studied astronomy and physics at the University of Illinois. After two more years of university studies I was just tired of being a student and I decided to move to California and find a job. I was 23 at the time. The day before Christmas I saw an ad in the San Francisco Chronicle which read "Wanted: person to fly on NASA research aircraft. Must know FORTRAN. Must be willing to work some at night. A knowledge of astronomy would be helpful." What are my opportunities? Now there was an opportunity! So, I applied for that job. I was not the first person they offered it to. But that first guy turned them down because his wife never wanted him to be working at night. I was the second person offered the job. I spent 5 years flying around on a jet plane that had a 36-inch diameter telescope in it, the Kuiper Airborne Observatory. There was nothing like it, really, anywhere in the world.
Officially, I did computer work for this airborne observatory. Probably the most interesting program I ever wrote for it took real-time information such as the latitude and longitude and time, then, using the coordinates of some galaxy or planet in the sky, this program I wrote determined every 10 seconds what was the desired heading of the plane. (The telescope looked 90 degrees left of the direction we were heading.) If the heading of the plane was not quite right, the program would send a signal to the autopilot and slightly bank the plane left or right to keep the flight on track. So - in a way I got to be a NASA pilot after all. My job was a bit like being a low-altitude astronaut. I had the blue flight suit and flight jacket.
In the few minutes I have to address you today there isn't time to talk about my whole career in astronomy, but suffice it to say that there have been many, many occasions when I am setting my alarm at night before going to sleep and I have this thought: When that alarm rings tomorrow, I'm going to the office (or observatory) and I might find out the answer to ... whatever. That is to say, on many occasions it hasn't felt like work exactly. More like fun. If you're engaged in the task at hand, in the zone as Tiger Woods used to say, that's what makes you feel really alive. That applies both to work and play.
I wanted to talk about one important thing, and that is mentors. You seniors wouldn't have gotten where you are today without the encouragement (and insistence) of your parents and teachers. I'd like to tell you about two of my notable teachers here in Naperville. Each of these men taught roughly 4500 students, so they did more than I ever have for members of this community. They really deserve to be on the wall of fame, more than I do.
The first, Bob Schroeder, was my 7th grade social studies teacher at Lincoln Junior High. On the first day of class he started off by saying, "I am a very stupid person." We had never heard a teacher say something like this. He said that because so much of what he once knew he had forgotten, that made him pretty stupid. So he asked for our patience for those times during the year when he couldn't recall something. He also reminded us that we were pretty stupid people too, since we hadn't even learned some things to have forgotten them yet.
The most memorable story he told us that year was about a previous class that couldn't understand the idea of anarchy. So he said to them, "I'm going to the office, and won't be back for 20 minutes. In the meantime you can do anything you want." They said, "Anything?!" He said, "Yes, anything." So when he came back 20 minutes later the room was a shambles. There were 4 fist fights going on, and only a very small number of students hadn't participated in the mayhem. So the lesson clearly is: if there aren't any rules, what have you got? Anarchy. Chaos. The reality is that our parents make the rules and then our bosses make the rules. What if it were not so? For example, I have a friend. She and her husband had 4 kids. To a large extent there weren't any rules in that household that were enforced, so I saw first hand a situation that could best be described as the inmates running the asylum. So, like I say, there have to be some rules.
In Greek mythology there was a character named Procrustes who had a house by the side of a well-travelled road. He would invite a person in, feed him a nice dinner, and show him to his room. But if the guest didn't fit in the bed exactly right, he was in trouble. If he was too short of the bed, he would get put on a rack to be stretched. If he were too tall for the bed, his feet would be cut off. My parents had the wisdom to realize that the set of rules for me didn't have to be exactly the same set of rules that applied to my elder brother. I didn't have to sleep in a Procrustean bed. Hopefully, the rules that you have to live under will have a certain level of flexibility.
It's reality that parents make rules for children, and your boss has the upper hand on you. But what happens if you're in a romantic situation, such as: you're married. If you say out loud, "Honey, we have to talk about the rules," your spouse might react in a very defensive or hostile way. "Who appointed you as the rule maker here?" I puzzled over this one throughout my 20's. How does one have that discusion about the rules in a romantic situation so that at least it starts out in neutral gear? Here's what you say to your partner: What are our values?
Just file that one away. It might really help you some day, or soon. What are our values?
A second mentor I had was my high school chemistry teacher, a guy named Ed Schap. After high school he and I kept in touch until he died 10 years ago at the age of 90. When he was 83 a book I wrote on the history of astronomy was published, and I sent him a copy of it just so that he could have it. Why do I say that? Because by that age he couldn't see out of one eye and had to read with the other eye and a magnifying glass. Well, the next time I was in town I went to his house to say Hi, and he casually mentioned, "Oh, I enjoyed your book." "What exactly do you mean?" I said. He said, "Well, I read it." "Really? The whole thing?" He said Yes. Now there's a mentor! Think about it. One eye and a magnifying glass.
Seniors, your families and teachers are proud of you this spring, and rightly so. But, nowhere is it written that positive comments only go from the older generation to the younger generation. Before you blast off on the next major phase of your lives, I have an assignment for you. If there has been someone who took a particular interest in you, look that person in the eye and say, "Thank you for your encouragement and support." Say it out loud.
Since time is finite, even if we all live to be 93, I highly recommend that you have adventures: academic adventures, business adventures, travel adventures, romantic adventures. If you put yourself in a position to have adventures, I guarantee you will have some pretty good ones. Your adventures won't exactly match your expectations, but that's OK. Life without surprises is kind of .... boring. Know that the script of life is more unusual than you can conceive in your own broadest imagination.
Have some short term goals and have some long term goals too. My first book-length project that got published took 6 years from start to finish. The next one took 4 years. It took me 26 years from start to finish to earn a Ph. D. in astronomy. Just like in my running career, I can be modestly proud of those accomplishments, even though there are many others who got to the finish line considerably ahead of me.
I hope you have the tenacity to persevere and determine what your own individual limits are. And I hope you have the wisdom to realize that opportunities don't come along every day. As John Mies, my senior year English teacher said, "Having certain talents and opportunities gives you more responsibility to do something with your life, not less." Here in Naperville, an affluent community with an excellent school system, we are given an excellent foundation upon which to build our lives. So find a path and go down that path a long way. If it is the right path for you, great! If not, try a different path. Because no matter who you are or how old you are now, ultimately your individual happiness and well-being are your individual responsibility.
Why I've said some of the things I have today is what I call a "3 Beer Discussion," and I note that the majority of people in this room are not old enough to drink a beer legally. So let me just say thank you again for the invitation to be here today, thank you for your attention, and good luck in all your future endeavors.
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