Today, I’m posting the text of the commencement speech I gave yesterday at the December graduation of the UNC School of Information and Library Science. Lots of folks have asked me for it, so I thought I’d put it here. Enjoy – and see you in 2015.
From Manning Hall to the Ice Planet of Hoth: Lessons for SILS Grads from The Empire Strikes Back
There are many books that graduates often receive as gifts – Oh, The Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss, The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch, The Tao of Pooh. They all have some sort of deep and meaningful message for grads as you start out on the next stage of your life and career. But there’s another story that I think resonates just as much for you today. One that is also full of deep and meaningful messages as you start out on your careers. And it’s not a book. If I could, I would give you each a copy of The Empire Strikes Back.
Why this movie? I think it’s a treasure trove of wisdom – right up there with Dr. Seuss and Winnie the Pooh. And it’s got AT-AT Walkers and the Millennium Falcon and a Wampa, so it’s even better.
Why this movie? I myself have learned a lot from it. When I took my current position at Chapel Hill Public Library – my first director’s gig – I did what any librarian might do. I read up. I went and cleared the shelves around the 658s and checked out every leadership and management book I could find and slogged through them. At the same time, my kids were deep into their Star Wars phase. One Friday night just after I came back to Chapel Hill, as I donned my Princess Leia hair and grabbed my lightsaber and sat down to watch The Empire Strikes Back for the 4,000th time with my boys, I realized that this movie provided as much information and inspiration as any of those leadership books had. And it’s got Cloud City and carbon freezing and Lando Calrissian, so it’s even better.
I can’t afford to buy each of you a copy – although I can recommend a great public library right here in town where you can check it out at no cost. I encourage you to set down soon and watch it – for the first or 4,000th time – and see if you see what I do.
I’ll start with what I’ve learned from considering the director of the film. Irvin Kershner – not George Lucas – directed the movie. He had his own unique vision for what the next film in the Star Wars series should be – and it was quite different from what had come before. Throughout the movie, he stayed true to that vision. He had disagreements with Lucas about the script and faced the challenges of making an outer space action movie in a pre-CGI world, but he persevered because he knew what he wanted – he could envision something greater than had come before.
I bet that many of you sitting in this room today have a unique vision – a big idea. Whether your field is bioinformatics, children’s librarianship, metadata, or preservation & archives. You have ideas that might change the field you work in – or perhaps change the world. Don’t forget those ideas that are in your head today. Stay true to that vision in spite of all the challenges – fight for it. In the end, like Kershner, you just might produce something greater than what has come before.
Here’s the other thing about Kershner – he starts out strong. The movie starts right up with Luke and the Tauntaun, then the Wampa Cave, then the Battle of Hoth. It’s hard to think of it now, but at the time, this was all completely mind-blowing stuff – no kid sitting in the theater expected all of that – especially in the first 10 or 15 minutes of the movie. It was totally different from what had come before and we knew from the start that it was going to be amazing. Kershner staked his claim early in the film and showed the world what he was all about.
As you set out on whatever’s next for you – career, more school, maybe your own startup – I encourage you to start out strong like Kershner did. Whether your new job starts next week or next year, bring that vision, those new ideas, and whenever you can, stake your claim early and often. Show the world – and your boss or dean or Board – what you are all about. From the start, take every chance you can to blow their minds.
So be like Kershner. And don’t be like Vader. Do I have to say that? Don’t be Vader. It’s easy to say – and I hope obvious – that you don’t want to end up like him. But what does that really mean? What makes Vader Vader? Here are two important things to remember about him:
One of the things that defines Darth Vader is how he deals with failure. All of those leadership books I read talk about how important it is to embrace failure – not to fear it and to learn from it. How you deal with failure is an indicator of how you will manage success. What happens when you fail under Vader’s command? It’s simple. You get force choked. Admiral Ozzel comes out of light speed a second too early and he’s dead. Vader refuses to deal with failure in any meaningful way – his own failures or those of others.
Let me tell you all something that is certain. You will all fail. Big or small. Epic or mundane. Today or tomorrow. Or maybe today and tomorrow. Failure will be a part of what you will do – professionally and personally. Get used to it. Don’t force choke yourself or others. Instead, learn from it. Take meaning from it. Don’t be Vader.
Here’s the other thing about Vader. He is who he is because he has lost his humanity. Why? Where has it gone? He has lost it to the system he serves. Joseph Campbell, in his iconic interviews with Bill Moyers, talks about Darth Vader in the great scheme of heroes and villains and myths. He points out that Vader is a slave to the system he serves – he’s been eaten up by the Empire. Moyers asks if, therefore, we should fight to change the system. And Campbell says that we can’t always change the system, but we can “resist its impersonal claims” and choose to live as human beings within the system. And use the system to serve a human purpose. I love this answer.
Whether you are going to work for a public library, an academic library, the Library of Congress, Google or Microsoft or an emerging, edgy, innovative company, there will be a system, a bureaucracy, of some form. With 22 years of service at a variety of institutions, I can tell you that bureaucratic, hierarchical systems exist everywhere. You can’t avoid them. You can’t always change them – and trust me, I’ve tried – but you can choose to exist as a human within them. Choose to remember the human purpose of the work we share.
Bureaucracy is the enemy of humanity. You are a human, with a purpose of serving humans, not systems – no matter how complex the database you are developing or how important the policy you are writing or how lofty the committee you’ve been appointed to. You are a human being, and your purpose is to serve other humans. Remember that, because the systems are out there, and if you let them, they will change you. You will begin to believe that the system you serve is more important than the people you serve. Don’t be Vader.
Here’s another thing to remember. That piece of paper you are getting today signifies that your time at SILS is ending, but I will tell you that your education is just beginning. I got my MLS here at SILS but I got my real education at Cameron Village Public Library in Raleigh, where I took my first post SILS, “professional” job. I worked alongside “paraprofessionals” who knew more than I know to this day. Grey-haired volunteers who came in to shelve books schooled me on what it means to serve the public.
What does this have to do with The Empire Strikes Back? I think of the scene when Han and Leia and Chewie and 3PO are fleeing Hoth after the big battle. They can’t get the Falcon into hyperdrive to escape and they are in full-on crisis mode. Han takes control, barking orders, flipping switches, trying everything he can think of – and ignoring C3PO. The droid who actually knows what the problem is – the hyperdrive motivator! But Han is in charge here and he can’t/won’t/doesn’t listen – in fact, he threatens to power him down.
As you set out into the world as a “master” or a “doctor,” don’t forget to listen to others, especially those C3POs out there. A part-time library assistant or departmental receptionist might just know how to jump into hyperspace when you don’t. Remember, your real education is just getting started and there are teachers for you everywhere. Seek them out and listen to what they tell you.
After talking about a droid, I need to briefly touch on the Muppet in the movie – Yoda. In the middle of the film, there is a slow and meditative section where Luke Skywalker is in the Dagobah swamp with Yoda. Luke is down, depressed, doubting everything – himself, the Force, the Rebel mission. Yoda continually counsels him that the Dark Side is precisely what is causing those feelings. The Dark Side. It is the easier path. It is seductive. It feels good. And Yoda tells Luke that he must actively resist it.
As engaged and energized and enthused as you are today, you will face the Dark Side soon enough. You will doubt yourself, your work, and why the heck you spent all of this time and money getting that piece of paper. Or maybe you will start your first job and encounter colleagues who have gone over to the Dark Side themselves. Those that have lost their humanity to the system they serve. They are jaded and negative and petty and gossipy. You think, I’ll never be like that, but in a few weeks or months or years, you start making snarky comments about library patrons or bitching about a colleague – you feel that negativity, The Dark Side, creeping in.
Don’t let it. Resist the Dark Side. Remember how proud you feel today. Remember how purposeful you feel today. That is The Force that will carry you through your first job or your fifth. The Dark Side is out there, and as Yoda would say, resist it you must.
After that serious talk about the Dark Side, I’m going to give a very important directive – Laugh It Up, Fuzzballs! This is my favorite line in the movie – and believe it or not, one of the most important for you as you head down your career or academic path. I can’t overstate the importance of humor and lightheartedness in the workplace. It can get you through a tense meeting or a tough project. It can help you resist the Dark Side and help you exist as a human within that bureaucratic system.
I think work should be FUN. But fun doesn’t mean goofing off or playing pranks on coworkers. For me, fun at work comes from shared mission, purposeful work, and remembering that we are all humans, serving humans. So don’t forget to laugh it up, Fuzzballs.
To end this speech today, I’d like to return to the beginning of the movie. In the opening scenes, Luke Skywalker rides out onto the frozen plains of Hoth, all alone. He ends up getting into a pinch with the Wampa and his comrades back at Rebel HQ are going to close the gates, as protocol dictates, and leave him out there for the night. Han Solo chooses to ride out and find him, risking everything to help his colleague. Han finds Luke nearly frozen to death and what does he do? He slits open his TaunTaun, stuffs Luke into it, and stands guard overnight, saving his friend’s life.
Just as I can guarantee that you will fail, I can also guarantee that sometime in your life or your career, you will need help. You will ride out on your own – with some crazy idea or on some new adventure – and things will go wrong. You will need someone to save you. Someone to slit open a Tauntaun and stuff your butt in it. You will need a Han Solo.
Look around – your Han Solo might be in this room right now. As you move forward with your new jobs and big ideas, remember to rely on the people right here. Your fellow SILSers, your professors, your advisors, and of course, your family and friends. They will be the ones to stuff you into a TaunTaun if need be and ride out a cold, dark night alongside you.
And don’t forget to be a Han for someone else. Be kind. Be generous. When everybody else wants to shut the gates on your colleague or friend, ride out, find them, support them.
Now it’s time for True Confessions, Librarian Style. Truth be told, I’ve never read Oh, The Places You’ll Go. Or The Last Lecture. Or The Tao of Pooh. But I have watched The Empire Strikes Back 4,264 times. And I am continually inspired by it.
- Inspired to be like Kershner and stay true to my vision.
- Inspired to not be Vader. Inspired to embrace my failures and remember the human purpose of work.
- Inspired to listen to the C3POs out there. Who generally know more than me.
- Inspired to resist the Dark Side. And reminded that it is easier and ever present.
- Inspired by the Han Solos I’ve had in my life. And inspired to be a Han for someone else.
And there’s more! But in the interest of time, I won’t be able to cover Cloud City, or the significance of Boba Fett, or deconstruct the epic light saber battle between Vader and Skywalker. There’s more inspiration to glean from this movie – I encourage you to go and find it.
And inspiration is important. Important to the product you create and the perspective you bring. Some days, inspiration is necessary just to get up out of bed and head to the office for another day. That inspiration is all around you – in Dr. Seuss, Winnie the Pooh, or Star Wars. I hope I’ve provided a little for you today.
Congratulations, graduates. And may the force be with you. Always.