Graduation Speech

Last week I graduated from Experience Institute, one of the weirdest and best things I’ve ever participated in. My classmates were kind enough to nominate me to speak at graduation, this is what I said:

A year with Ei is a year with many questions.
When am I in my element? What can I bring to the world that is worthwhile?
How can it possibly be time to write my newsletter…again?
For me, 2 questions kept coming up again and again.
The first led me to Ei. I was living in rural Vermont and found myself wondering:
‘What is a community?’  

My year has been about community exploration:
Investigating company culture in Chicago.
Building connections with Syrian refugees in Toronto.
Creating community spaces and events in Fargo

During my time in Fargo I met Jan Eliassen, a woman who was running a homeless shelter in a Fargo neighborhood.

Jan talked with me about the people who used the shelter, who they called guests. She told me about the things the guests and staff had lived through together; the relapses, the pregnancies, the cancer treatments. How hard it was for the guests to move on because this shelter was the only place they’d ever felt support or community connection.

She told me about a man who had been there so long, that when it came time to move to hospice care, the staff petitioned to have him stay with them, so that he could die surrounded by friends.  

At the end of our conversation Jan asked me if I had any more questions. Ignoring everything I know about unbiased interview techniques, I asked her “how do you get out of bed every morning? How do you not wake up and say to yourself, this work is too hard, someone else will do it?”

She read me a quote that she keeps on her wall:

“Remember who you wanted to be and surround yourself with people who remind you of it every day.”

What a fantastic way to look at community:

A group of people who inspire you to be your best self. People who’ll be there for you even when you stumble, when you’re not being the best version of you. People who’ll believe in you when you’re too down to believe in yourself and people who’ll support you as you get back up.

Jan’s quote also brings up that second question that kept buzzing around in my head this year. A deeply personal one – “who do I want to be?”

It’s a question I’ve asked myself before as I’ve moved through my life, trying on different answers.

I was student. I was a neuroscience researcher. I was a children’s book illustrator. I was a chocolate bacon dipper. I was a small-business owner. I was a graphic designer.

I thought I’d come to Ei, and get some closure on this question. Figure out exactly who I wanted to be.

And I thought it was a question of professional development. I’d come here, do some apprenticeships, learns some skills, build my resume, and emerge with a job title that really fit.

I wasn’t prepared for the amount of self examination that we do here. I’ve always just said, “I’m X,” – I’m a designer, a researcher, whatever – and people have believed me.

Here, people ask why.

And that got me asking why.

Which got me wondering, why am I defining myself as a job title?

Job titles change, interests change – they have to.

If we stayed the same throughout our lives we’d never be giving ourselves the opportunity to learn or be open or grow.

So who do I want to be? How do I want to define myself? I want to be the things about myself that are best, that are consistent no matter what I’m doing.

Now if you ask me who I am, I can answer, and the answer won’t change.

I’m generous. I am honest. I’m reliable. I’m a problem solver. I’m a good friend, and wife and daughter. I cherish my communities and build deep connections. I care deeply about the people in my life.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m probably not going to put that on my resume. But knowing my own, unchanging core is making finding my place in the world a whole lot easier.


So now let’s take another look at Jan’s quote and at this year of Ei.

“Remember who you wanted to be and surround yourself with people who remind you of it every day.”

Who do you want to be? Look at the people you’ve spent your time with. Who will go with you on your journey? Who will be there for you as you as you change and grow? And who will, as my cohort puts it, call you on your bullshit? Who’ll keep you on track and remind you of who you are?

Exp 4 – I hope you’ll look around your class, the Ei staff, the alumni and the folks you’ll meet this year, and see us for what we are; your very best opportunity to build a community who’ll support you as you ask the big scary questions. Who’ll be there cheering you on as you figure out who you are, and who’ll remind you of it every day.

Finally, I have another quote from someone I met in Fargo. One that might come in handy as we go through life.

“Bravery doesn’t feel like bravery at the time, because you’re too busy being scared shitless.”

Thank you