The following is adapted from a 2014 National Honor Society induction speech I was asked to give to the students of Plainwell High School. Read on ’til the end for a personal challenge.
There’s a saying in education: “There’s no such thing as a stupid question.” Have you heard this before? I think the intention is to encourage students to ask questions or something, but that saying is a lie. There IS such a thing as a stupid question. My spanish teacher can speak to this well.
Enter: Señora S. Señora had to put up with me for a full year of Spanish . . . well actually a full-ish year since I spent most of it in the office. Something you should know about Señora S. is that she wore a fanny-pack. Every day. And, it became my life’s mission as a punk kid to find out what was in that fanny-pack, no matter what she I was supposed to be learning. Every day, I would ask her, “Señora, is today the day we find out what’s in the pack?” It turns Señora and I didn’t see ojo al ojo on the quality of that question. And, it also turns out that the answer was most often, “Get out of my room. NOW!”
Want further proof that some questions are stupid? Ask my 8th grade girlfriend Chandra. I asked Chandra a stupid question once. Here’s the scene: It’s a romantic middle school date — which means we’re at a movie in a group of like 12 pubescing, pimply, smelly middle schoolers. Our parents are probably up in the rows above watching us. We boys are loudly shoving and jockeying to sit by our respective lady-friends. Tonight was the night I would become Rico Suave and make my move. As the lights dim and the cheesy 90’s romantic comedy hits its pace, I turn to Chandra and look her deeply in the eyes. My heart is pounding. My mind is racing. And in that moment, I ask her the question I think will be a relationship game changer. “So . . . do you want to make out or something?”
If you were wondering, the answer was, “No…” If you’re further wondering, that relationship didn’t last much longer.
My past has proven that some questions are stupid. But, thankfully, some questions are brilliant. And, the measure of your life — the true benchmark — is the quality of question you ask and how you answer each. Better yet, there are really just three critical questions worth asking.
Tonight is all about these three questions.
One of the most important questions to ask is, “Who do you live for?”
Before answering that, answer this: Why did you join National Honor Society? Really though . . . why? The resume line? The “boost” to get into college? Or, did you join to be with people of calibre, to ask more of yourself, to make a difference alongside the greatest scholars and leaders in our school?
The answer ultimately reduces down to two options: You are either living for yourself or living for others. Many people live for themselves — for their own wealth, their own achievement, their own needs. We ask people what they got on their test just so we can confidently boast what we got. We pick our majors based on what is easiest for us the rather than what will put our talents to work in bettering society. We can’t even take a picture of a beautiful sunset or skyline without inserting ourselves as the focal point. In short, too many in our society are developing a “selfie-syndrome,” an obsession with ourselves as the center of the universe.
So who do you live for? Answer that question by living for others. Live for others by always being available with a patient ear when they feel they have no one else. Live for them by donating your time, your income, your meal, your hope. Even just a sliver of these things to you is a wealth to many others.
Take it a step further and ask, “What do you live for?”
Do you live to get rewarded? Do you live for your grades, obsessing over every little percent just so you can get some letter to verify your self-worth? Do you live for the promise of money, basing college and life decisions on what will give you the most income?
Now, I know grades are important — clearly you can’t even apply to National Honor Society without a high-level of academic achievement. But, do you live for your grades, or do you live beyond your grades. What is ultimately more honorable: Having a 4.0? Or, being kind and helpful to others. Is honor cramming for tests last minute and seeking shortcuts to get A’s? Or, is it thirsting to understand the depth of everything because genuine knowledge can change humanity — learning not just to look good but because you never know when true knowledge can help someone in need.?
Here’s a good question: Ask any adult if they remember the g.p.a.s of their classmates from high school. Then, ask them if they remember who was a good person. Ask them who was passionate about their pursuits. Ask them who they could rely on when life kicked them to the ground. Listen to their answers.
To live for others, you must live for a passion that you can use to help others. Live to use every ounce of your talent not just for a career but for a calling, a personal mission to do great things for a greater future for others.
Now, we know you are born into a system that emphasizes grades and rewards. But, it is no excuse to blame the systems that encourage us to live for rewards and trophies and cookies. You are better than blame and justification. You are the solution. You are the future leaders and scholars who can put meaning first and let the grades and accolades track in your tailwinds. The system will be broken when men and women of high calibre stand against it and say they live for something beyond rewards and money and self-interest.
Lastly, ask “When do you live?”
Do you live with a constant obsession of what’s next? Do you live in a land of later? I’ll learn this later. I’ll help them later. I’ll overcome this later. But, what if there is no later? Or, a better question: What if today were your last day? Would you be happy with what you have given to others?
So often, we live under this optimistic impression that we have endless lives — as though we are a giant game of Candy Crush that just needs a little time or money to replenish when we expire. Life has no guarantee.
It is a sobering and honest reality to realize that any moment could be our last. And, in recognizing that fact, we can either turn mopey and dispirited, bemoaning how unfair and cruel life is. Or, we can catalyze our energy, treating each moment as though it has value and significance — pushing ourselves more deeply, more strongly, more passionately into the things that will not fix or accomplish themselves.
Live to help others, to pursue your passions now.
Three questions will decide the value of your life:
When do you live?
For what do you live?
For whom do you live?
All of these questions hinge upon what is, in my view, the most important pillar of National Honor Society: Service. There is no greater purpose to life than to be of service to a better humanity — whether that be one person in one moment, or the billions of people housed on our planet. I do not see service as a pillar — I see it as the roof — and every other pillar supports it. For, what good is scholarship if it is just to boost our own ego? What good is leadership if not to empower others for a greater good? What good is character if not to strengthen our resolve and optimism to make possible the impossible in fixing the worlds ills?
Service is the measure of your character and when you use it. It is the measure of your scholarship and how you use it. It is the measure of your leadership and for whom you use it.
There is a great woman named Mama T (or Mother Teresa as you may know her) who said this in even greater simplicity and elegance.
“At the end of life we will not be judged by how many diplomas we have received, how much money we have made, how many great things we have done.
We will be judged by ‘I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was naked and you clothed me. I was homeless, and you took me in.’”
Service need not be an elaborate plan involving months of dedication and fundraising. Service is standing up against the aggressor who is verbally abusing others in the hallways. It is seeking a friendship with the person labelled “weird.” It is complimenting a stranger without needing a response. Service is a daily habit of doing good for others every chance we can — and not doing it to make ourselves look good or with the expectation of reward.
There is no group in a greater position to be of service to humanity then you all right now. You are here because you have proven that you are capable of greatness. But potential without action is failure by inertia. So what will you do with your potential?
The quality of your life hinges on the quality of questions you ask and the answers you embody. Ask the right questions. Seek the right answers. And, no matter what you do, do NOT ask someone to make out with you because that is a stupid question with an embarrassing answer.
Live for someone or something beyond yourself.
Live for a passion that is a service to others.
And live your service now because tomorrow may never come.
A personal challenge for the reader: Re-read this with a focus on your circumstances.
How would you answer these if “live” were changed to “learn”?
– For whom do you learn?
– For what do you learn?
– When do you learn?
How would you answer these questions if “live” were changed to “teach”?
– For whom do you teach?
– For what do you teach?
–When do you teach?