This year, in response to my letter to my Ryerson students that went viral, Ryerson invited me to give the Last Lecture to its graduating student body. The Last Lecture is a tradition that started with Randy Pausch, a professor who discovered that he had terminal cancer and chose to give one final talk, a culmination of all the wisdom and advice he thought most important. Since then, universities and colleges all over the world have instituted their own Last Lecture series for graduating students.
Here's what I said to Ryerson's graduating class of 2017.
Over and over again in my life, every so often, I’ve gone back to an article by Oliver Burkeman, published in the Guardian, called “Everyone is just totally winging it, all the time.”
I’ve also gone back, over and over, to a quote from one of my favourite films, The Princess Bride: "Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something."
At first glance, these might seem like odd things to talk about during this sort of speech. “No one knows what they’re doing… oh, and also, life sucks.” Inspired yet?
But the thing is: it’s so important to leave room in our lives for doubt, for pain, for fear… because that’s the only way we can get to growth, change, understanding, knowledge, and accomplishment.
We have to wing it before we can fly. And we have to understand that life is pain, before we can appreciate that life is also joy.
Let’s talk about Burkeman’s article for a few minutes… about “winging it”.
Why does Burkeman think we need to know this?
I think it’s because we seem to be afflicted with a society-wide case of impostor syndrome.
When we look around us, it feels like everyone else has it all together. It seems as though the people around us have their lives all figured out, their goals all set and attainable… and they’re having a much better hair day than we are.
This is sometimes made worse by social media. We check in on our friends on Instagram or Snapchat or Facebook… we see their vacation photos and new shoes and swanky office views.
But it’s not just about social media. We all present to the world the side of us we want others to see. And so we always see everyone else’s highlight reel… which feels especially lonely when we ourselves are struggling through parts of our lives that we wish could end up on the cutting room floor. (…to be all Creative Industries about it.)
We all do it. But that doesn’t make it feel any less personal.
The thing about “everyone is winging it” theory, of course, is that it’s not quite true. It’s not quite the case that no one knows what they’re doing.
It’s just that no one starts out knowing what they’re doing.
One of the things I said to Tanya Chen from Buzzfeed (to cite myself; even in a speech, I want to ensure I’m abiding by Ryerson’s academic standards!)… is that no one is born knowing how to be.
There isn’t some “How To Human” manual that they happened to run out of on the day you were born. You didn’t forget to register in first year for Person Class. (And if you did, it’s not your registrar’s fault.).
No… we all start out clueless, together. And the antidote to that cluelessness isn’t knowledge, really. It’s not wisdom, either and it’s not diligence… though these three things are certainly helpful.
The antidote is to give yourself the space to grow. To understand that it’s not just okay to have a lot to learn, but it’s necessary.
We must be kind and patient with ourselves, because even for those of us who learn quickly, true expertise takes many years to build. And we must be kind and patient with others, because they, like us, need encouragement, not derision.
It’s not enough, though, just to give yourself space to grow. You also need to learn how to grow. And luckily, my dear students, that is exactly the thing you’ve just successfully spent the last four years doing. Thinking critically. Solving problems. Learning how to learn.
Everyone is totally winging it. No one knows what they’re doing. But many people – like yourselves – are learning how to do what they’re doing.
You might be winging it, but you’ll be able to wing it better. And what is winging it, if not learning to fly?
And now that we’re talking about flying, let’s also talk about falling.
I want to talk about the times when we are not patient, when we are not kind. I want to talk about the times when others are neither patient nor kind with us. And about the times when we give ourselves plenty of room to grow, we develop expertise, we work hard and get good marks, we network and build relationships, we do everything right… and we still don’t succeed.
There are lots of those times in your future. Because life is often unfair and unequal, and we live in a society that contains both structural barriers and individual injustices. There will be situations in your life that are so hard that you wonder how you could possibly live through them. There will be pain; because life is pain, and anyone who tells you differently is selling something.
And when these things happen to you, as they will, I want you to remember one simple thing:
Every one of you in this room matters.
That is a fundamental truth of your existence that could never and will never change, whatever else happens.
Knowing that you matter gives you community. You are a necessary, indispensable, inextricable part of a world where your presence brings goodness to those close to you.
That knowledge is the soil in which joy can grow… and I promise, it will.
After my letter to my students was published online, I heard from a lot of people. Many of those people were other professors. And almost all of them said the same thing: “I feel the same way about my students.”
Despite how it might feel sometimes – especially during exam week – we care about how you’re doing. We want to see you succeed and we want to help. You matter to us.
One great thing about graduating from Ryerson is that your built-in community doesn’t end when you graduate. As a Ryerson alum, you have a huge community of people who have your back. Your professors, your classmates, your fellow alumni: we are a web of influence of which you are a necessary part. And one day, it will be your turn to help a newly hatched graduate into the big wide world.
We’re almost at the end. But I want to say one more thing.
For this speech, I was asked to respond to the prompt: ““If this were your last time to address a group of students, what would you say to them?”
But instead of thinking of this as an ending, I’d like to think of it as a beginning. Because this is about you, dear students. This is one of the last times you are going to be a student; and soon, it’s going to be the first time you enter the world as a university graduate… and a young professional.
It’s time to wing it.
We’re kicking you out of the nest.
But we know you’re ready. You’re fully fledged.
It’s time to fly.