Commencement Address: Five Lessons From The Road

One year ago I attended my daughter’s graduate school graduation. And this Sunday I’ll be attending my son’s college graduation. Two major rites of passage in the span of one year. It feels like a quantum life-leap.

These endings, and beginnings, have made me want to write my own Commencement Address, to synthesize and sculpt into some kind of word-permanence whatever wisdom I’ve accumulated in my five-plus decades on this planet. In some ways this feels like my last opportunity to convey something essential, important, life-bonding and life-liberating, to my kids.

So I’ve started to try to distil what I’ve learned in my adventures, and in looking back, I’ve realized that in many ways my education began when I graduated from college and moved to Paris for the summer and then to Athens for a year on a teaching fellowship.It was in making that uncharted leap, when most of my friends were taking the well-mapped paths to graduate school, business school, law school and banking, that I really started my own life journey. That was my true Commencement. And that was when so many lessons began to coalesce.

Here are five that stand out for me now.

1. Pursue your passion: If I have one mantra that I’ve followed throughout my life, it’s this one. It started with that impetuous decision to live abroad for a year, and it continued at the end of that year, when I had to decide whether to go to graduate school in creative writing or comparative literature. After a sleepless Athenian night, I chose the path of my passion: writing. And it is no overstatement to say that everything that has happened to me professionally since then – the fulfilling, fortuitous life I have made as a traveling scribe for the past three decades – is a result of that fateful choice.

So, my number one precept would be to pursue your passion, and to keep your mind open to the opportunities that pursuit provides.

2. Listen to your gut: Early in that Parisian summer, after a frazzling week trying to find an apartment, I was faced with two final choices. One was located in a fashionable tree-lined neighborhood and was sparkling clean and modern; in comparison, the other seemed dingy, threadbare and old-fashioned. But the latter building had towering wooden entrance-doors that opened off the rue de Rivoli, and a creaky filigreed elevator that rose ever-so-slowly to the third floor, and the apartment had airy French windows that opened right onto the Tuileries. Somehow it just felt right. I took it and the neighborhood quickly became my home away from home, where the local café-keeper automatically brought my café creme and the six-table sawdust bistro always soothed with perfect biftek-frites, and the soul-soaring Ile de la Cite was only a dusk-lit walk away. And when I came home each night, I felt like I was walking into the heart – threadbare, dingy, old-fashioned – of the city I loved.

That was the beginning of an indelible lesson: When in doubt, silence the world around you and listen to your heart. Since then, whenever I have been traveling and trying to decide if I should follow Path A or Path B, I have heeded the still voice inside me. It’s never wrong. And it’s the same with the big decisions about Life-Path A or B too. Deep inside, we know which way we should go. The challenge is to cut through the din of our fears and imposed preconceptions and the roar of others’ expectations to hear the deep core.

3. Open yourself to the universe: When I moved to Paris, the world presented me with infinite opportunities to make a fool of myself. To begin, there was my unshakeable American accent. Then there was my habit of unconsciously employing 19th-century poetic vocabulary in decidedly unpoetic contemporary situations. And of course, in terms of etiquette, I was a coarse New World refugee with no map of Old World niceties. But I waded bravely/foolishly into the social sea, and was unexpectedly rewarded. People were charmed by my ”genial” American accent, they admired that I wasn’t afraid to stretch my French in all kinds of settings, they delighted that Baudelaire and Verlaine would spring from my mouth in corner markets, and they even envied my oh-so-American ”liberation” from Parisian politesse.

The importance of this life-truth has grown exponentially for me through the years: Wherever I have wandered, I have always found that the more you open yourself to the world around you, the greater the world around opens up to you. When you approach people wholeheartedly, they respond to you the same way, and in some subtle equation of chemical interaction and energy flow, the universe responds the same way too. Yes, this means taking risks – putting yourself in situations where you don’t know the accepted way to behave, or where your fallibility may be spotlit for everyone. But perfection is a prison, while embracing your imperfection unlocks more treasures, in more unexpected ways, than you could ever have conceived.

To put this another way: If you think you know everything, you’ll never learn anything; so exhilarate in the accumulation of knowledge, and in the wisdom that this accumulation will seem less and less, the more you learn.

4. Trust in the kindness of strangers: I cannot count how many times I got lost that summer in Paris, how many times I had to ask in faltering French how to get from here to there, or where this restaurant or that museum was, or how to get home after the Metro had stopped for the night. Every time someone kindly took me in hand and told me what I had to do.

And so it has been all the years since. I have an uncanny knack for getting lost and this has graced my life with kindness all around the globe. I have been invited into Greek homes for ouzo and Viennese restaurants for Sachertorte; I have learned about carpets in Jordan and tatami mats in Japan. My experiences as a traveler have demonstrated over and over again that people around the world basically like one another and want to do well towards one another. And this is by no means restricted to me. A few years ago I decided to test this thesis by asking my well-traveled friends if they had experienced the same kindness on the road. The result was a mind-opening, heart-warming collection of travelers’ tales entitled – what else? – The Kindness of Strangers.

So – don’t hesitate to rely on your fellow humans when you are in need; you will be amazed by their generosity, and hopefully you will be inspired to help others in return, creating a kindness continuum without end.

5. Don’t be afraid to get lost: This is clearly a corollary to Precept #4, but I mean it in a larger metaphorical sense as well. It is natural to get lost – in the winding back alleys of Paris and in the back alleys of life. In Paris, getting lost led to some of my finest discoveries – the peaceful pocket-park no one seemed to visit, the secondhand bookstore with the lovingly tended tomes, the fountain where the children in shorts sailed little wooden boats.

It is natural that sometimes you will feel like you’ve lost the map and don’t know which way to turn. This is when you ask someone for directions – and if you’re in Kyoto or Calcutta, some kindly citizen will go a half hour out of her or his way to deliver you to the doorstep you’ve been seeking. And you may discover some gem you would never have found along the way.

You will get lost in life as well. But getting lost bestows the possibility of getting found. The key is to never give up: open yourself to the world’s possibilities, listen to your core and consult the compass of your passion. You are the roadmap you seek. And the journey winds always inward as well as outward.

The journey you embark on is long, and full of hills and twists and wonders. You will experience more than you can possibly imagine, and as the years go by, you will see that the journey reduces to fewer and fewer things, and that these are incalculably precious.

Embrace joy. Cherish friendship. And love.