“Imagine your life as a narrative. It is a play that you are performing, even right now.
I’m an actor and so I’ve often thought of what my life would be like if someone much more talented than I wrote my script. If Shakespeare wrote my story it might be confusing and gruesomely violent. If Sondheim then you’d be listening to show tunes right now.
Sadly, nobody handed me a script today. And the idea that a career in the theater prepares one for public speaking engagements? A myth.
Even worse, this is also one of those things that you can’t Google. I tried. Cum Laude speeches? Google wasn’t a help at all.
What Google did tell me is that I should give you some advice but one of the frustrating aspects of theatrical training is that people don’t give you advice, even when you ask for it.
“How did I do?” They respond, “How did you feel you did?”
So no advice. Instead, I am going to speak of my own experiences with learning and with limits imposed by others.
I was in all Honors classes at my high school, including Honors math. This was an Epic Tragedy that I would defy Shakespeare to write better. One day in class, the teacher announced that there was a new seating chart. We were arranged by our midterm test scores. I was placed in the last row, in the last seat of the class, and I sat there for the rest of the year. Needless to say, this did not instill in me a passion for math.
If Shakespeare were writing this, I would be challenging Mr. MacDonald to a dual right now — and I’d win.
Whether I failed math or math failed me is hard to say. But maybe this experience explains why, despite the fact that I was in the National Honors Society and I graduated Cum Laude from my high school and college, when I looked around my classes, I never considered myself to be smart.
But I did consider myself to be passionate.
Some spend their whole lives searching for their passion. I was lucky. I knew since I was three that I wanted to pursue a life in theater. To my parent’s credit, they never tried to dissuade me of this. I think it’s because they realized that, for me, it was an unshakable constant, like gravity. You may already feel that you know what that is, you may feel like you have found your passion. But passion is only half the equation.
We will call the other half grit.
We will define grit as working hard at something you don’t like, often times when you’d much rather be doing something else. Grit is often times a deciding factor in success. At the elite U.S. Military academy, West Point, grit is actually a higher predictor of success than leadership, intelligence, or physical fitness. At the National Spelling Bee, the grittiest contestants were the most likely to advance to the finals. In this case, their grit score was a better predictor of success than their verbal IQ scores.
Controversial statement: Theater people are among the grittiest people I know. I myself have danced while I had broken bones in my foot and performed in a press night for a play while in the throes of food poisoning — believe you me that was not pretty. What other profession calls the week before the final deadline “hell week”? This particular type of crazy, I’ll call it grit, is not because we’re drama queens who want all the limelight — a common misconception about theater artists. It’s because, ultimately, we understand that our success and our failure lies in our collective grit and passion, and no one wants to be the weak link. So we tell our stories of grit like badges of honor.
As for our Cum Laude inductees today, you wouldn’t be here if you lacked grit — you’ve got it in spades. To you, doing the work well and on deadline got you in this mess to begin with. I am not telling you anything you don’t know. I am applauding you for all the work that got you here.
So, you have passion and you have grit — plot points we’ve already established. So what are we missing?
This is the hard part. Being Cum Laude, achieving things like this, sets the expectation with the people around you. There will be people who are going to push back on your following your passion. They might say, as they did to me, “You are in Honors classes, you are Cum Laude, you have strong test scores. Can’t you just be a doctor?”
It’s gotten a little better recently. There have been some great Ted Talks, and all of a sudden being “creative” is all the rage. But being creative and taking risks in a class project and taking risks with your life’s work are very different things. You are going to want to follow your dreams: save a rainforest, design a new art form, or delve into the deepest, darkest, least profitable depths of the mathematics world. That may confuse some people in your life. They may get confused and think that they are the directors of your play instead of actors. This happens in theater all the time.
Just remember that you have your own plot to write and stay true to your vision.
What makes Cum Laude such an honor is that it is not just an award to be put on a shelf — it’s a hard to describe quality that you possess that will serve you more than any other facts that you’ve learned to this point. Let’s face it, Google has trivialized the finding out of facts. The modern age calls to question the worth of rote memorization. The most important, salient, and pivotal skills for your future lie in your ability to tap into your passions and persevere through obstacles. Cum Laude is now part of your identity. It describes how you approach knowledge, learning, people, and how you express your ideas to others. It is both a public acknowledgement and a private secret that you will always carry.
I have realized that writing my own script, whether it be for this speech or the narrative of my life, is not a big scary thing but a privilege. And it’s a privilege that you have as well. You set the mood, you welcome the characters into your life who will make it interesting, carry you through, teach you, love you. You decide which plot twists to add (although fate may play a hand as well). And no Google search, no matter how many quotes or symbols you add to it, will be able to give you those answers.
You get to create your own script and your own character — and you have all the tools to do so.
It is my honor, on behalf of the entire Beaver Community to offer my sincere congratulation to our new member of the Cum Laude Society.