I Say Po-tae-to and You Say Po-tah-to
We’re just coming back from seeing my step-daughter Kate and her fiance Logan graduate from Case Western Reserve University. It was exhausting but fun, and both of them are happy and relieved.
The commencement speaker was a young man named Paul Buchheit. Pretty impressive resume: graduated from Case Western in ’98, became the “23rd employee at Google” where he created gmail. Then he retired at 30. But he un-retired to invent friendfeed, which he sold to Facebook in ’09. Now he’s a partner in a firm called Y Combinator that offers seed money and advice to high-tech start-ups. And the wealthiest-ever graduate of Case Western.
My husband Patrick and I both really liked his speech. He was simple, honest, and brief. He talked about the importance of being authentic, of being true to yourself and what’s important to you, even when others want you to do something else, and even when nobody else understands why you’re doing it. My favorite line: If you try to follow in someone else’s footsteps, you’ll just be a terrible copy of that person, rather than the remarkable original you’re meant to be. He talked about his own experience in trying to be true to himself, and said how much he enjoys the work he does now, supporting people who are passionate about bringing new things to the world. He let us know that it wasn’t a prepared speech, that he was speaking extemporaneously, based on what he most wanted to share with them from his own life. We found it spontaneous and heartfelt, and it seemed to me infinitely better than the canned and predictable ‘go forth, new graduates’ speeches that are the usual stock in trade of these kinds of events.
Now, here’s the interesting thing. Neither Kate nor Logan liked it at all. They were irritated that he hadn’t prepared, and they thought his ‘be true to yourself’ message was lame and hackneyed. They wanted him to knock their socks off, and he didn’t.
I was amazed. At first I thought: Well, maybe they’re too young to understand the importance (and difficulty) of staying true to your own path in life. And then I thought: Maybe we just liked it because it was unpretentious and sweet, and we expected someone with his background to be an arrogant schmuck.
And I ended up deciding it was probably a little of both. I do think it’s hard for young people just entering into their grown-up lives to understand how challenging it can be at times to know what’s most important to you and to stay true to it. And I also think that when you’ve been around the block as many times as Patrick and I, it’s refreshing and a surprise to see someone very young (by our standards) and very successful who has retained his or her humility and openness.
I’ll be interested to see what Kate and Logan think of Paul’s talk if we replay it for them in ten years or so…
But the most important thing is: our disagreement was completely immaterial to all of our love and respect for each other. And that’s a very good thing: As I watch the two of them, I’d say that having the capability to disagree – with each other and the other important people in their lives – about a whole variety of things without getting bent out of shape, may be one of the best and most useful skills they’re carrying into their ‘real’ lives.