Three More Lessons

[In June 2015, I gave a commencement address to the graduating class of High Mowing School in New Hampshire. I wrote many drafts for the talk, all toward extemporizing the final thing. My experience with Linux and open-source hackers had an influence on it and gets credit as well. That's why I'm sharing the last of those drafts here. If you want to see and hear what I actually said, here's the video. —Doc]

Many years ago the comedian Tom Novello played a character on Saturday Night Live named Father Guido Sarducci, the Vatican's gossip columnist. He'd stand on stage in his black robes and flat-brimmed hat, smoking a cigarette and sharing crazy ideas that somehow made sense.

One of them was the Five Minute University. Students would be taught just the few things they'd remember long after they graduate. For example, if you take two years of Spanish and don't use it, after a while, all you'll remember are "Como estas?" and "Muy bien." If you take Economics, all you'll remember are Supply and Demand. So just teach those. So I taught you two courses right there, in 15 seconds—funny stuff. Look it up on YouTube.

Better yet, look up this talk. It's called Three More Lessons. Five minutes each, because all I've got is 15 minutes. If I succeed, I'll give you three things to remember and maybe you can use. By the way, I'm giving everybody an A. So make that the first thing you forget. You don't need it anyway.

First lesson: Humility.

Last month I attended my high school's 50th reunion. Yes, I'm that much older than you guys.

I wish my school had been like High Mowing. But it wasn't.

My high school was a Lutheran academic correctional institution—or at least it was for me. It was called Concordia Prep. The name Concordia is to Lutherans what Loyala is to Catholics: camouflage to mask the identity of many different institutions.

I was sent there because I was a bad student. I didn't pay attention, didn't do my homework, didn't follow rules...didn't do anything much, other than what I was interested in. It helped that my interests were mostly academic. I just wasn't tuned in to the subject of whatever class I hated being in at the time.

These days, they would have had a diagnosis for me and given me drugs. But in those days, there was no such luck. They had a single diagnosis for every failing student: you were bad. And, if you were bad and male, only two things could happen: 1) you'd get sent to a vocational-technical high school to learn a "trade" like auto mechanics or carpentry; or 2) you'd get sent away to a religious or military school. I got sent to a religious one.

One reason I was bad was really stupid: I actually thought I was smarter than everybody else.

There was no proof of that. But I believed it. I always thought I could learn anything just by reading up on it. In the story of the tortoise and the hare, I identified with the hare. But I actually wasn't a hare. I was just a world-class procrastinator. I think by high school I was still putting off stuff they failed to teach me in fifth grade, like English grammar and long division.

About half the students at Concordia Prep were misfits like me, or so I thought at the time. The rest were young seminarians: boys committed to the ministry. But here's something many of them had in common: they were a lot smarter than me.

Take my roommate Paul. As a student he was so good that he came off the bench and taught biology class, for months, after the teacher went down with an injury. I heard from students that Paul was actually better at the subject than the teacher he replaced. Which made sense. He was also funniest guy in the school, the best writer, and also the best musician. After college he switched to the Episcopal team, served as a parish minister, wrote many books, and held a chair as professor of homiletics (that's what I'm doing now, preaching) at the Yale Divinity School (where he also directed the Yale Institute of Sacred Music), and finished his career putting in a few decades as the Episcopal bishop of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Another good friend, also named Paul, was a year behind me—a Junior when I was a senior. This Paul was a great guy, and also very brainy and funny. I remember sitting next to him when I took the SAT test for the third or fourth time, hoping to bring my scores up to a level where some college, somewhere, might accept me. Paul was taking it for the first time, I think.

When the first test started, I was mulling choices on the third question when Paul was already on the next page, answering every question almost as fast as he read them. While all the answers were obvious to him, I sat there thinking, "Okay, I'm sure B is wrong, but A, C and D look like they might be right...."

I did finish on time, sort of. See, I had once space left at the end of the answer sheet, even though I had gone through all the questions on the test. Then I remembered that I had skipped a question on the test, but not on the answer sheet. Then the voice came down from the front of the room: "Stop. Put down your pencils...."

Afterward I hung around while Paul took the Chemistry test as well. He had been taking Chemistry only for two months, but he was sure he could ace it, because he read the book. I asked how he thought he did.

"There was one question that could have gone either way", he said. "So I went with what I thought the people who made the test would have thought was right." As I recall, he aced the test, along with the other SAT sections.

But here's the thing that mattered. He was humble about it. Humility, C. S. Lewis said, is the opposite of pride. In case you're wondering, the second Paul is now the pastor of a church in California.

I got another lesson in humility from the rest of my classmates, who voted a large percentage of themselves to one distinction or another: Most Popular, Most Likely to Succeed, Wittiest, Best Dressed, Best Athlete, Best Looking, Best All Around and so on. I was none of those and didn't deserve to be. If the other guys could have voted for Least Likely to Succeed, I might have won.

Now, 50 years later, I had a lot of successes to talk about at the reunion. You know...if it came up. I was prepared to be humble about those successes, but I also made sure I had plenty of my old Harvard business cards to hand out. Just a little bit of pride there—that's right: one of the seven deadly sins.

Guess how many of the guys from my class showed up for the reunion?

One. Uno. Me.

Also present, sort of, were five dead guys whose yearbook pictures they posted on something called the Memorial Wall. That was their distinction, finally: being dead.

And here I was, being humbled, involuntarily.

But they are still alive: in me. So were a lot of other friends at the school. Here's how.

My friend Bob helped me get up the courage to ask a girl for a date for the first time—and how to dress for it. My friend Steve taught me how to wrestle. I sucked at it, but I learned from it. My friend Bill and I together created our own version of what today we call Ultimate Frisbee, using the football field. My friend AJ taught me all kinds of stuff about music. My roommate Paul taught me how to write and how to be funny. The other Paul taught me to kick ass at chess—every ass but his, that is. I beat him once. He didn't see my rook. It was huge.

But the biggest gift came one day when we were sitting around talking about what we would do in life. What it was that each of us brought to the world's table. My roommate Paul said, "What David has...(That's my real name, by the way. David.)...is insight."

I hadn't known that. Really. That was new to me. But I also knew it was true. And that set me on my path.

Sound familiar? The High Mowing tagline is "Find your own path." It's the one way my school and High Mowing turned out to be the same.

I assume you are sitting here among the best friends you've ever had. I expect you all to continue supporting each other in the coming years. In fact, I want to see you here at your 50th reunion, in the year 2065. Promise me that.

If you keep that promise, you'll illustrate....

Lesson Two: Relationships are priceless.

One evening in the year 2000, I was standing at a gate in Los Angeles, ready to board a flight to New York. As often happens, there was a problem. The airline needed to change planes and gates. They told us to hurry over to a far gate and just get on board and take any seat we could. I was at the front of the original line, but at the back of the line at the other gate—and then the last one on the plane. The only seat left was one in the back row.

What followed were five of the most remarkable hours of my life. My seatmate's name was Sayo Ajoboye, and he was a pastor from Nigeria who had just finished translating the Bible to his native language of Yoruba. He also spoke many other languages, including English, which he knew better than I did.

At the time I was flying to New York, on a speaking tour for a book I had co-written that was already a business bestseller. He asked to see it, and I showed him a chapter called "Markets are Conversations". He told me that one-liner wasn't bad, coming as it did from privileged guys living the first world. When I asked him what he meant by that, he gave me a Socratic lesson. "Imagine you're in a public market in a third-world country like mine", he said. "And you see something you like in one of the stalls. Let's say it's a colorful coat. What's the first thing you would say to the seller?"

I said, "What does it cost?"

He said, "Yes, you would say that, because where you come from price is everything. But where I come from it's not. There is much more going on. So let's say you two talk for a while. You tell him about your life and what you're doing there. And he tells you about his life, and the coat you like: who made it, the dyes used, the weave and so on. After 20 minutes of that, what happens to the price?"

I said, "Maybe he wants to charge less and I want to pay more."

"Exactly", Sayo said. "Why?"

I didn't have an answer.

He replied, "A relationship", and he went on to explain that relationship is one of three things that happen in a marketplace. One is transaction. Another is conversation. And the third is relationship. Then he added one more thing: "Relationships are priceless."

He meant that literally. Relationships, he said, are based on the morality of love, which is about giving, rather than exchange. This, he said, is the deepest moral system in the world. In it you can only give.

He also said the morality of love was more important than the moral system we call justice. Because justice is mostly about accounting, and accounting requires prices. The moral books need to be squared up. Made even. That's why we owe favors, and pay for crimes. It's how revenge works. Getting revenge is about getting justice. We even illustrate justice with the blind lady holding the scales. Love doesn't do that. Relationships aren't about that. With love, all you can do is give.

Now, lest you think this was the kind of wisdom that can only come from a preacher, about three weeks after my encounter with Sayo I found myself in a conversation with Eric S. Raymond, the hacker who is almost single-handedly responsible for getting the world talking about open source. As we were talking about markets being conversations, Eric added, "Markets are about three things: transaction, conversation and relationship." Eric is an atheist.

Here is an interesting thing I learned by hanging with Eric and others who contribute to Linux and other open-source code bases: most of them are self-taught or taught by each other. When I speak to groups of these guys (and they are mostly guys, alas...we need to change that), I sometimes ask if they program in languages they were taught in school. The vast majority say no. The paths they follow are ones others blazed, and they blaze as well, by sharing both code and know-how. While all this has what Eric calls "use value", it too is an act of generosity without expectation of return—of creating and appreciating what is priceless in the world.

Third lesson: Saving the world.

In the fall of 2003 I was driving somewhere when I came up with a great idea I wanted to share with my mother. We usually talked about everyday stuff, but Mom was a schoolteacher and liked to go deep. She'd say, "Small minds talk about people, average minds talk about things, and great minds talk about ideas."

But then I remembered, she was dead, which was a new thing for me. She passed in August of that year at age 90. But I still heard her speak, right there, in the car. Not as a ghostly presence, but in a clear voice, the embodiment of her soul in mine. Mothers do that for us. Their voices never leave us. Maybe you've noticed that.

Here is what she said. "Give your idea to somebody else. That's why I'm gone. Your ideas are only useful for the living. Love is for the living too. I gave love to you so you could give it to others." She was talking about what Sayo taught me three years earlier.

And here was my idea: Save the world with our personal differences, and the network that bridges them.

There are three parts to that, so let me unpack them for you.

First, the world that needs saving.

From the perspective of the planet, our species is a pestilence. A parasite. Maybe worse. Ever since industry won the industrial revolution, we have been mining, drilling and fracking with wanton abandon: not just for oil and coal, but for helium, tungsten, uranium and other substances made by stars and living things that have been extinct for most of history. This is stuff that cannot be replaced in the short term—or, in some cases, ever.

Our influence is so plain and widespread that geologists are seriously weighing a decision to rename our current geologic epoch the Anthropocene. We need to reverse this, before the planet reverses it for us, the hard way.

Second, our personal differences.

Most people in the world are very different from how we are. Throughout history, and long before, our differences have driven us apart. The human diaspora was surely caused—at least in part (though we'll never know) by our differences. One tribe running away from another, or being driven away—to the far corners of the globe—all by differences in appearance, language, religion, custom and other stuff humans have always fought over.

Yet nothing makes us more human than the fact that we are all different—not only from each other, but from how we were ten minutes ago. That is because we all have our own souls, and we learn constantly as a matter of course. We are learning animals.

How we learn best is from each other. There's that relationship thing again.

To explain how important this is, consider two common words: information and authority.

Information is derived from the verb inform, which is derived from the verb to form. Think about that. We are formed by what we learn from other people.

We are what we know. When you tell me something I didn't know, I am, literally, formed by that. I am made larger. This is an amazing and wonderful grace we all take for granted, but it's really freaking huge.

Here is another way to look at it: we are all authors of each other. What we call authority is the right we grant others to form who we are by enlarging and changing what we know.

Over the next few years you will be growing your own authority: the right you earn to change other people, and form them with your ideas, your work, your art.

Third, our network.

One reason I'm standing here is that I've been studying the Internet since before it was born in its current form, in April 1995—a year or two before you guys all showed up. I watched the Internet coming the way an astronomer watches an incoming asteroid. And I've been following its impact ever since, and participating in it as well.

Everything I am known for is stuff I have done since the Internet arrived. So, in that one small way, we are all just as young. The difference is that I remember what life was like before the Internet. So let me tell you about that.

It was like civilization before fire. Or stone tools. Or weaving. Or printing. It's that big a deal.

Here's a personal example.

In 1978, I was living in the North Carolina woods, and I was broke. I had been a journalist and a radio personality, but where I lived, all those jobs were filled. So I took whatever jobs I could get, which included working in my landlord's sawmill, because I had a hard time making the rent.

My dream back then was getting a job writing comedy for Saturday Night Live. So I sent Lorne Michaels, the show's producer, a heap of my material, some of which was actually good, at least as I recall.

Lorne sent the whole thing back with a note saying they don't accept unsolicited material, but they do accept unsolicited nude photographs. I was going to send him one, with a special message written on it, but in those days getting a nude photo processed in a conservative southern state was to invite a jail sentence.

I did eventually find a good job, co-founding a successful advertising agency. It was a good job that I loved and worked hard at, but it wasn't writing for Saturday Night Live.

The point of that story is that I had to settle. This is what human beings have always done when choices are few and contained by geography and a limited number of contacts.

Those limits are not there on the Net—or at least are severely reduced. The reason is that the Net puts everything on it at functional distance apart of zero—and at zero cost—or close enough. This is huge. It might even be huge enough to save the world.

Because now you can share ideas and create relationships, at any distance, at little cost—with pretty much anybody, anywhere in the world, including countless people who are nothing like you. Together you can use your differences to overcome the ones we've been fighting over for the duration, and work in common cause for the whole planet and not just our one species, or any of our many tribes.

Yes, you can do bad things too, but as my friend the NYU professor Clay Shirky says, a sure sign of a good technology is that it's easy to think of bad ways to use it.

So two things give me hope that we can save the world and make it better. One is the Internet, and the other is you. Thanks for the privilege of speaking to you today, and congratulations on graduating from the best high school in the world.

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Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal