For the 31st consecutive year, I was not asked to give any commencement speeches. I somewhat understand why the Class of ’83 didn’t ask me—most newborns are not gifted public speakers—but the other 30 years of graduating classes have no excuse. However, I like to be prepared, so here’s the commencement speech no one asked me to give.
Before I started writing this, I thought I knew what I was going to say. I was going to reveal the harsh truths of the world via razor sharp wit, blistering social commentary and memorably colorful metaphors. When I sat down to write, I found myself thinking “yeah, I’m going to nail this!” which is usually the thought I have right before I decide I have no fucking clue what I’m doing.
I believe more and more that harsh truths—unlike empirical truths such as “Once you pop you can’t stop” and “Ruffles have ridges” —are subjective, making it pointless to share mine with such a vast and unknown audience.
I do not know your circumstances and prediction is an ugly business, so I will not recount for you the ways in which we ruined everything before you got here. I will not tell you that we took all the jobs and someone’s been hoarding all the money, because there is a chance that you know the right people or there’s something about you the right people will try to exploit. So I will not tell all of you that you’re fucked. Some of you are, but you’ll find out soon enough. It’s a harsh truth.
I will say this: the most important thing I’ve learned is that there are some things you can only learn from experience. Unfortunately, this is a fact you can only learn from experience. I can tell you it all day, but you won’t believe it until you see it in action. I tell it to you now just in case I’m wrong.
“Learning from experience” is a nice way of saying “making mistakes.” It’s important to make mistakes, because we learn so much when things go wrong. It’s common to become more cautious as you get older, which is good in some cases—binge drinking, petty crime, BMX stunts—but detrimental in others, like failure. Don’t be afraid of failure. Don’t be afraid of mistakes. Why else would pencils have erasers, right?
I’ll tell you why. Pencils have erasers because all of the pencil manufacturers are in the pocket of Big Eraser.
But that is the least interesting aspect of the eraser story. Prior to the 18th century invention—or more accurately, discovery—of the rubber eraser, people used stale bread to erase their mistakes. This led hungry students to either make fewer mistakes or develop a taste for pencil lead.
In 1770, a mathematical supply store changed things by selling natural rubber for the purposes of removing pencil from paper. The story goes that the proprietor reached for his erasing bread, but accidentally picked up some natural rubber he had laying around. Finding it to be comparable to stale bread in erasing power—if not taste—he started stocking it in his store and charging exorbitant prices for his luxury erasers.
That man’s name was Edward Nairne.
But it wasn’t until the development of vulcanization that rubber erasers became a hot item. Vulcanization was developed concurrently by two gentlemen: one British, the other American. The American hit upon the idea first, but didn’t get his American patent until three weeks after the Brit got his British patent. Through the process of a fair trial, it was determined that no intellectual chicanery was afoot; both men just happened to have similar ideas at the same time.
The Brit’s name was Thomas Hancock. The American’s name was Charles Goodyear.
Edward Nairne, the man who started this rubber ball bouncing, did more than pick up the wrong thing while writing. He also invented the first Marine Barometer. But the sum of his accomplishments was not enough to get his name on a blimp.
Thomas Hancock eventually developed a process for using rubber to create synthetic leather. He also had the misfortune to share a surname with the man who signed the living shit out of the Declaration of Independence. He didn’t get a blimp.
Charles Goodyear went into massive debt creating rubber rooms for world’s fairs. His 1855 exhibit at the Exhibition Universelle in Paris earned him both a medal from Napolean III and a trip to debtor’s prison. His name is on a blimp.
It’s worth noting that he did not found the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. In fact, at the point that the Goodyear company became a thing, the Goodyear man had been dead for about 38 years.
Nairne, Hancock and Goodyear–three men were involved with an invention almost everyone since has used. One is completely forgotten, one is overshadowed by a man who made a great King George joke at the right time and one is now known for providing overhead shots of football games.
Never do anything under the pretense that you will be remembered for it. You won’t be. If the thing you do is extraordinary, it might be remembered, but you won’t be. If you’re lucky and your name is the snappy type that looks good on a blimp, some company may exploit it for their own means, years after you’ve died in debtor’s prison. Remembrance is not a goal. Do things because you can’t imagine not doing them. Do things because they will fund the things you’d rather be doing. Do things because everyone told you that you couldn’t. Do things because no one else is doing them right. Just don’t do them to be remembered.
Congratulations on your book learning.