Newspaper article International New York Times

Finding Your Place

Newspaper article International New York Times

Finding Your Place

Article excerpt

A few guidelines for creative people: First, stay in the room. And don't fill those moments with cat videos.

Like practically everyone else, I gave a commencement speech last week. Mine was for the Paris College of Art, an American art and design school in France whose roughly 200 students hail from 48 countries.

In deciding what to say, I couldn't rely on my own experience with commencement speeches. When I graduated from college, a United States senator delivered his stump speech on Poland, then wished us luck.

So I listened to lots of commencement speeches online. I quickly realized that the good ones are under 15 minutes; that it helps if you can do impressions; and that just because you starred in a hit sitcom doesn't mean you possess great wisdom.

I also realized that commencement speeches are mostly an American phenomenon. In Britain there are graduation ceremonies, but no outside motivational speakers. "Every year, thousands of young British people collect their degrees and head into the world in a dangerously uninspired state -- not knowing, for example, whether or not they should say 'yes' to life, or follow their hearts, or dare to be different," wrote the journalist Oliver Burkeman.

The French typically don't even hold a ceremony; your diploma just arrives in the mail. An instructor at Sciences Po, one of France's top universities, told me she showed her students Steve Jobs's 2005 commencement speech at Stanford, in which he describes how he dropped out of college and studied calligraphy. Calligraphy seemed fascinating but pointless at the time, but years later it became the basis for the fonts in Apple computers. Jobs offered this as proof that, when you follow your passion, all your strange choices eventually make sense, and the great narrative of your life emerges.

The Sciences Po instructor said that her French students were unmoved by this speech, calling it "completely disconnected from reality" and "so Californian."

All this put me in a tricky spot. The whole point of a commencement speech is to say something encouraging. The ones I watched typically boiled down to: Yes, you can. Here's how.

But I was in Paris, speaking to a graduating class that was only a quarter American. If I said anything too uplifting, I'd seem deluded. A French commencement speech would probably boil down to: No, you can't. It's not possible. Don't even try.

So I based my talk on a common French expression that's optimistic, but not grandiose: Vous allez trouver votre place. You will find your place. I've always liked this idea that, somewhere in the world, there's a gap shaped just like you. Once you find it, you'll slide right in.

That still left a critical question: How do you find this place? This is especially relevant for creative types, who often won't have a clear career sequence to follow. They're not trying to become vice president of something. They're the something. They'll probably spend lots of time alone in rooms, struggling to make things.

As someone who's spent years in such rooms, I offered this advice. It applies to many nonartistic jobs, too:

Stay in the room. It needn't be an actual room. You can be alone in a busy cafe. I've gotten some of my best ideas while walking, or riding the Paris Metro (I recommend Line 8). I've never gotten a good idea while checking Twitter or shopping.

You need to be blank, and even a little bit bored, for your brain to feed you ideas. The poet Wendell Berry wrote that in solitude, "one's inner voices become audible. …

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