Monday, June 1, 2015

How to Find Your Place in the World After Graduation

Like practically everyone else, I gave a commencement speech last week. Mine was for the Paris College of Art, an American art and design school in France whose roughly 200 students hail from 48 countries.

In deciding what to say, I couldn’t rely on my own experience with commencement speeches. When I graduated from college, a United States senator delivered his stump speech on Poland, then wished us luck.

So I listened to lots of commencement speeches online. I quickly realized that the good ones are under 15 minutes; that it helps if you can do impressions; and that just because you starred in a hit sitcom doesn’t mean you possess great wisdom.

I also realized that commencement speeches are mostly an American phenomenon. In Britain there are graduation ceremonies, but no outside motivational speakers. “Every year, thousands of young British people collect their degrees and head into the world in a dangerously uninspired state — not knowing, for example, whether or not they should say ‘yes’ to life, or follow their hearts, or dare to be different,” wrote the journalist Oliver Burkeman.

The French typically don’t even hold a ceremony; your diploma just arrives in the mail. An instructor at Sciences Po, one of France’s top universities, told me she showed her students Steve Jobs’s 2005 commencement speech at Stanford, in which he describes how he dropped out of college and studied calligraphy. Calligraphy seemed fascinating but pointless at the time, but years later it became the basis for the fonts in Apple computers. Jobs offered this as proof that, when you follow your passion, all your strange choices eventually make sense, and the great narrative of your life emerges.

The Sciences Po instructor said that her French students were unmoved by this speech, calling it “completely disconnected from reality” and “so Californian.”

All this put me in a tricky spot. The whole point of a commencement speech is to say something encouraging. The ones I watched typically boiled down to: Yes, you can. Here’s how.

But I was in Paris, speaking to a graduating class that was only a quarter American. If I said anything too uplifting, I’d seem deluded. A French commencement speech would probably boil down to: No, you can’t. It’s not possible. Don’t even try.

So I based my talk on a common French expression that’s optimistic, but not grandiose: Vous allez trouver votre place. You will find your place. I’ve always liked this idea that, somewhere in the world, there’s a gap shaped just like you. Once you find it, you’ll slide right in.

That still left a critical question: How do you find this place? This is especially relevant for creative types, who often won’t have a clear career sequence to follow. They’re not trying to become vice president of something. They’re the something. They’ll probably spend lots of time alone in rooms, struggling to make things.

As someone who’s spent years in such rooms, I offered this advice. It applies to many nonartistic jobs, too:

Stay in the room. It needn’t be an actual room. You can be alone in a busy cafe. I’ve gotten some of my best ideas while walking, or riding the Paris Metro (I recommend Line 8). I’ve never gotten a good idea while checking Twitter or shopping.

You need to be blank, and even a little bit bored, for your brain to feed you ideas. The poet Wendell Berry wrote that in solitude, “one’s inner voices become audible.” Figure out your clearest, most productive time of day to work, and guard this time carefully.

Always carry a pen, a paper notebook and something good to read. A lot of life consists of the dead time in between events. Don’t fill these interstitial moments with pornography and cat videos. Fill them with things that feed your work and your soul.

Your first attempt will be terrible. A large part of the creative process is tolerating the gap between the glorious image you had in your mind, and the sad thing you’ve just made. Remember that everything great you see started out as someone else’s bad first draft. Version No. 20 of your work may still not be brilliant. But version No. 1 almost definitely won’t be. And if you think it is, look again. Whenever someone sends me a manuscript and says, “It just flowed out of me,” I usually think: Let it flow back into you for a while.

Everything that happens is potential inspiration. Or as Nora Ephron reminded us, “Everything is copy.” When someone tells you a story, you notice a recurring theme in conversations, or you turn a corner and see something that moves you — use it. In fact, when you’re deep into a project, information about it will pour into your life. Write your thoughts down immediately. One of the great joys of a creative life is that your observations and loose moments aren’t lost forever; they live in your work.

Pay attention to what you’re doing on the side. I started my writing career as a financial journalist. On the side, I took samba-dancing lessons, and eventually wrote a first-person article about this experience. It was the first piece I’d written that lit me up inside. Though it took years before I got to write that way for a living, I had found my place, the tiny hole in the universe shaped like me.

It’s O.K. to be an obsessive. Three or four days before any deadline, I descend into a frenzy. I barely see my children. I stay up late panicking, eating cookies and vowing to change professions. My husband once asked: “Does it always have to be a herculean extravaganza? Can’t writing be a normal job, where you wake up, calmly do it and then go home?”

Unfortunately, the answer is no. Creative work isn’t a regular job. Sure, eventually your skills improve and you get better at structure. You learn to compress the process. But it’s still a herculean extravaganza. A journalist I know calls this being “deadliney.” I now accept that I’ll gain a kilogram per column.

I’ve also forgiven myself for being an obsessive. The comedian Louis C.K. said, “Anything you do should be better than anything you did before.” Your bosses and clients will always expect you to deliver good work. You’re the only one who will care enough to make it great work.

This herculean extravaganza is totally worth it. For most people, getting married or having a baby are the peak moments in their lives. But when some mysterious place in you churns up a book, or a dress, or a scent, or a graphic design, and other people respond to it, that’s a peak moment, too. As a creative person, you get to commune with the universe for a living.

I ended the speech with some advice from my husband. It’s the only crucial take-away: When you get out of a taxi or a bus, look back to make sure you haven’t forgotten anything. Because if you lose your portfolio, you won’t get the job.

Congratulations to the world’s graduates. And may you all find your place.

Written by: Pamela Druckerman

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