How long ‘til my soul gets it right? Can any human being ever reach that kind of insight? Indigo Girls
About forty years ago I stood in front of a room full of people and gave another commencement speech. It was both like and unlike this one: in person rather than virtual. High school graduates in a small country town rather than college graduates in a sophisticated city. But the same in that every commencement can be viewed as a crossroads, as a time when you are expected to begin something.
I chose to start my address that day by reciting this poem by Robert Frost: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood / And sorry I could not travel both / and be one traveler, long I stood / and looked down one as far as I could / To where it bent in the undergrowth…And both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black. / Oh, I kept the first for another day! / yet knowing how way leads on to way, / I doubted if I should ever come back.” (The Road Not Taken, Robert Frost)
Even I, born and raised in a small town in East Texas, recognized this poem for the old chestnut that it is. Still, I found it compelling. Chestnuts encapsulate truths. My life changed substantially after that night, and I’ve indeed never been back.
Something a little more modern, Thirteen Moons, a novel by Charles Frazier, goes a step farther: “The trail ahead forked at big poplar tree, offering simple choices. Left or right? … But I knew even then that you could not just set out in one direction and necessarily get somewhere.”
And to me this is the crux of the anxiety: not only might you not ever come back, you might in fact get nowhere at all. That fear of getting nowhere means we want to plan, to strategize. Well-meaning friends, family, all exhort us to think of our future.
Heraclitus said “into the same rivers we step and do not step…” Loosely interpreted, “You can’t step into the same river twice.” And although this particular ceremony marks a passage that we find important in our culture, every moment is equally unrepeatable. In effect, Heraclitus simply acknowledged our way of being in the world. With this change, from student to graduate, the feeling of moving on is likely especially acute. But every day, your choices will change you.
I see myself today as a time traveler, like I am stepping back into a river that’s both different and the same. I’m returning to this commencement from that earlier one, myself but from the past, now a changed person, or even a different person, than I was then.
And as all such stories go, I’m finding that it is my duty as a time traveler to deliver an important message.
Not too long ago, a stunning young person named Amanda Gorman delivered this message to all of us at the Presidential Inauguration: “The new dawn blooms as we free it. / For there is always light, / if only we’re brave enough to see it. / If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
That resonated: we went through a dark time, and I can’t deny that it looks like we are still in the dark. The pandemic appears to be waning on our continent, while still raging around the world. Racism has been named as the blight that it is in our society, but it too appears to rage on. It’s clear to anyone who reads that we have well and truly screwed up the climate — only desperate measures will make any kind of impact. And on top of that we have filled our oceans with plastic. And we show little signs of slowing down.
So yes: I want to be brave enough to be the light. The question I had forty years ago is the same one I’ll address today: how.
What if I make my choice and it leads nowhere?
What I’m going to offer you here today is going to seem mundane. And of course you don’t need to believe me. Even hearing me out is optional. This whole ceremony, by the way, is also optional. But if you have decided to be here, and you’ve decided to listen, then maybe take one more step.
But what sort of advice would I have listened to decades ago? I’m not sure — the only advice I seemed to get back then was about making a long term plan, deciding what I wanted to be (some day), and being sure I did something where I could support myself. This last was sort of good advice, especially in those days, when women I knew dropped out and had someone else pay the bills (and often regretted it later). But I couldn’t see long term, and I didn’t think I wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer, and I had no idea what else there was.
So maybe some of this has a similarity to your current situation, standing as you do at what looks like a crossroads. People are telling you to dream big. The idea is that you give up today in favor of tomorrow. I’m going to offer a different idea, maybe even the opposite of that.
Here’s an example. Three years ago I decided to start running. I wasn’t a runner. But I tried something new: running every day. Every single day, rain or shine.
I was terrible at running, and if I ran for more than about 10 minutes, I was out of breath and uncomfortable. So I started by running for 10 minutes every day. I didn’t push myself. I could run as slowly as I wanted. The only rule was: run first thing in the morning, every morning, before eating or anything. Run slow run fast, run long run short: just run.
So without any plan to become a runner, and with no big dreams to run marathons, I nevertheless run more today than almost anyone I know.
But still: how to be? How to be a light, or anything else?
A woman who thought herself wise once told me, when she heard I was going for a PhD in philosophy: that and a nickel will get you a cup of coffee.
Did I have a plan? In fact I did not. At that time I simply could not bring myself to make a plan about what I would do in a year, in five years, in ten.
So instead of envisioning myself as something that I would be someday, I took what might be described as a twist on the greedy strategy. That’s a strategy where, at each choice point, you take the best of the immediately available options.
A critical aspect of this strategy is how you evaluate what “best” means. For me what is best is what seems right, that is, what creates value for others and for myself, based on the outcome I can foresee. And this has worked out a lot better than it would have if I had tried to imagine the far future. For one thing, I could not have planned to become someone who would lead teams building artificially intelligent systems — that would have seemed like science fiction at the time.
So in fact, planning for the future would have probably ended up preventing me from ever being able to do what it turns out I love doing. What sorts of things could you do in 40 or 50 years that are inconceivable to you today, as anything other than science fiction? And how could you ever plan for them?
Each year in undergraduate, I signed up for classes that interested me and where the ratio of hard work to the reward of understanding wasn’t too high. For me those turned out to be mainly math and philosophy. Four years in I found myself close to getting both degrees so I did. And then I signed up for a graduate program that interested me. For me that turned out to be philosophy.
A few years farther in, wise folks voices turned into a sort of chorus of alarm: what would I do to earn money? And yet I persisted.
It did worry me. It seemed to me then that everyone else had a long term plan, one they were all too willing to brag about at parties. I stayed a bit quiet at those parties, and just kept working away on my near term goals. And during that time I also had to work on the side all along. And that’s how I started developing an iterative approach to work.
I’m not dismissing my privileged position at all — I had parents who paid for most of my tuition. But I had many jobs outside of school. Secretary, office temp, bartender, even a bit of house cleaning and an ill-fated attempt to sell vacuum cleaners door to door. Along with tutoring undergraduates who seemed to have endless supplies of cash accompanied by difficulties understanding philosophy (or really, any text at all in some cases). I had almost a year in a major investment bank. I worked in an antiques auction house. And more.
These early experiences were not just about making money, they were ways to understand how to offer value in the world, and do it in a way where you keep value for yourself as well — your integrity, your balance. They were a way to move past that simple, and probably false, idea that you should or could make money by pursuing your passion. I think that’s true for some small percentage of us. For me at 17, at 20, even at 30, I didn’t even know what counted as a passion, much less what my passion was or would be.
“Follow your passion” might be the worst advice you’ll ever get. And yet: I did manage to find a job I love, and as it turns out, I am passionate about my work. But I didn’t follow any inborn passion.
The main thing all these jobs started to teach me, was that there isn’t one big choice where you can screw up — despite what it looks like sometimes, especially at commencements — instead, there are lots of choices, and lots of opportunities not to screw up.
After all these jobs and so much school, I finally managed to wrest my doctorate from a bunch of surly old white men (who seemed to give it up out of exhaustion and a fear that I would never leave them alone but would continue to write hundreds of dense pages for them to read. Granting the degree was the only way to make me stop.)
It turned out the chorus was at least partly right — I didn’t see a bunch of “philosophers wanted” ads in the paper. Nevertheless, I found a job opening advertised in Austin, a place looking for PhDs with talent in logic. I applied. I heard nothing. So a couple of weeks later I called and mentioned I’d be in the neighborhood of their office the next week. They said, in that case come in for an interview. So I bought plane tickets, rented a car, and traveled across country for it.
I got the job as a logician working on an early AI system for DARPA. A year later I was recruited to an AI based, top-tier funded startup in the valley and was a senior director of engineering and AI there a few years later.
Looking back I’m glad I didn’t end up in academia. For me it wouldn’t have been a good fit. But I didn’t feel boxed in even though a lot of people said the only position open to me would be teaching, and that would have been a huge stretch.
So going back now to fictional forks in allegorical roads, Lewis Carroll wrote:
“One day Alice came to a fork in the road and saw a Cheshire cat in a tree. ‘Which road do I take?’ she asked. ‘Where do you want to go?’ was his response. ‘I don’t know,’ Alice answered. ‘Then,’ said the cat, ‘it doesn’t matter.”
Some of us here today feel confident we know where we want to go. But if you today are like I was 40 or 30 or even 20 years ago, you’re a bit more like Alice. And this turns out not to be as big a problem as you might imagine.
One thing I learned in technology is that you don’t design some perfect “big idea” of a product, spend a year building, and then release it to acclaim. Instead, we do discovery and iterative development. This is what we call the agile approach. And it turns out it works pretty well in life too. That’s because chance intervenes, and even if it didn’t, as humans we aren’t great at predicting what we or anyone else will like and find valuable decades later.
As a woman with ambiguous ethnicity working in the tech world, I found that a certain agility in jumping from stone to stone kept the river at bay. Back then, if you couldn’t find a way to pass for a straight white man under the age of about thirty, it could be tricky to get a promotion. And lots of places that people thought were great places to work, turned out to be great for a standard sort of tech bro, and not so great for anyone else. Things are a little better now. A little.
You might be asking, what does a philosopher do at work? When I started out, logic was a skill sought after in certain circles (mostly AI research — and it still is). From there what this philosopher did was use that plus the uniquely philosophical ability to understand and describe complex systems. This is a skill that’s also still in hot demand. I could help small and later big and now really big teams figure out what needs to be built, how to get organized to build it, and how to fix it when it breaks. And teaching comes in handy too, now that a substantial amount of my time is invested in bringing up the latest generation of builders, the best of whom are, in my opinion, philosophers at least in practice.
You could still be convinced that long term planning would have yielded a better career, and might still yield a better life. Couldn’t a greedy strategy get you nothing more than a life of day drinking, social media surfing, and eating chips out of a bag?
It could, and so let me go back to and emphasize the twist on this strategy, that I mentioned before. Let’s take running as an example. I go running every morning because I enjoy it, and I enjoy it because I do it every day. At many points along the way there was a choice — in fact there’s a new choice each morning. So, each day I do the amount and type of running that is most enjoyable each day. I choose to do that because I believe it will make that day better. Not because I think that in a year I’ll be in better shape.
And I chose to study philosophy not because I believed one day I’d get a fantastic job in tech. Rather, I knew that studying, while difficult, is enjoyable each day, that day, if you are studying something you love. And during that very day, it’s a better day than I’d have if I were looking at Facebook.
So greedy yes. But greedy for feeling good, not for being easy.
I’ll start my conclusion with a few words from Dylan Thomas: “In my craft or sullen art / Exercised in the still night / When only the moon rages / And the lovers lie a bed / With all their griefs in their arms, / I labor by the singing light / Not for ambition or bread / Or the strut and trade of charms / On the ivory stages / But for the common wages / Of their most secret heart.”
So as you all stand here in front of diverging roads, where the simple choices appear to be anything but simple, I recommend you recognize the connection, the thread or river that binds today to tomorrow to some day 40 years from now. You’ll want to choose wisely, but don’t be fearful if you can’t see ahead. None of us can.
I’d suggest you live today so it is the best day it can be. Celebrate, love your friends, love your family, love the uncertainty itself. It will be the same tomorrow, and yet, in fact, it will never be the same again.