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Graduation Speech by Francesca, Class of 2012, ISB

June, 2012
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Class of 2012, faculty, parents, family, and friends: allow me to preface this speech with a few disclaimers. Today, I won’t tell you to “bloom where you’re planted.” I won’t urge you to “reach up for the stars.” I won’t emphasize the importance of “seize the day.” Why? Because you’ve heard those things countless times. Today, I’ll do something that may shock my English teachers—something that I was never good at, in all my years as English student: I’ll cut to the chase, because the message is simple.

I have attended ISB for thirteen years. There is seamless transition from elementary school to middle school, and from middle school to high school. The courses in our high school curriculum increasingly mimic those offered in college, both in terms of diversity of selection and academic rigor. This, of course, comes with a cost. A year of ISB high school education now rivals that of many colleges and universities. These four years of high school have given us opportunities to engage ourselves academically, extracurricularly, and personally.

You all know of the Occupy Wall Street movement that started in the U.S. last year and spread across the world? When measured by the caliber of education we receive, we are the 1% they speak of. That privileged 1%. 

My question is this: what did we do to deserve this privilege?

The response is straightforward, if a little cold: we did nothing.

Does that make you uncomfortable? Because it seems to defy the timeworn values—hard work and sweat—that we’ve been preached as long as we can remember. The truth is, it shouldn’t. You shouldn’t be embarrassed at all. We were born in the right place at the right time, thanks to numerous conditions, most of them beyond our control—including well-educated and highly motivated parents, who seized opportunities to work in the world’s fastest growing and dynamic economy, and place the highest value on a good education for us.

We’ve internalized that idea, haven’t we? It’s the kind of message our parents drill into us time and again. The kind of message that goes in one ear, and comes out the other, simply because we’ve heard it so much. We’ve put on a pair of blinders. We’ve become selective with what we want to digest. We can choose to filter out the nagging.

Now, let me just ask you: are you okay with that? Because if you are, you’re not alone. We’re all afflicted by it—a sense of entitlement.

Today, I’m going to suggest you do something that your parents and teachers might raise their eyebrows at: don’t be so quick to adhere to the advice of “following your passion.”

If you’ve heard some of the most famous commencement speeches in history, many of them hammer home this single idea: follow your passion, pave your own way, live your dream, discover yourself.

We’re on the brink of adulthood, about to be college freshmen, and in a few years we’ll be in the painfully competitive job market. Of course we have thought and talked about our limitless potential to explore whatever our heartstrings tug us toward. 

Do we pause to consider that this advice might be false?

New York Times columnist David Brooks believes in something else: placing our passions and our individualism at the center of the universe is a recipe for disappointment.

We are fortunate to have been mentored, tutored, coached, and—to some extent—coddled our entire lives with structure and routines. But in a few short years, we’ll be entering a world yet to be defined. 

We’re instructed to find ourselves, to chase our dreams. But is it really possible to make that inward quest and expect to emerge with all the answers?

We’re told to practice individuality, to let our inner selves shine. But might fulfilling your duty sometimes mean that you should contain yourself?

Ultimately, when we talk about what it means to be an adult—which I think is synonymous with assuming responsibility regardless of age—the concept of “passion” is secondary to something else: excellence. As Brooks says, and I agree, it’s excellence that we admire the most. 

In his 2008 book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell proposes that one is unlikely to master a cognitively complex task unless one has practiced for 10,000 hours. But sheer quantity, although extremely important, is not the only thing. Those 10,000 hours must be invested in doing the right things. This is where our understanding gets messy. Don’t be afraid of ambiguity. Don’t be afraid to toy around with your work, but don’t overdo the tinkering either. What is most important is that you extend yourself beyond what you think you’re capable of doing. Follow a specific plan to measure your progress. Laser your focus. Working right is more important than finding the right work. The road to excellence is ambiguous, messy, doubtful, and draining. That’s why so few people reach the finish line. As the Chinese saying puts it well, 有志者成千上万,成事者寥寥无几。

One of my favorite economists, Thomas Friedman, put it beautifully:

The “Age of Average” is over.

So what’s required of us now?

The mindset of a craftsman. The attitudes of an artist. The quest for excellence. That’s where we fall behind. We’re overwhelmed by the endless possibilities afforded to us simply because we attend a school as top-notch as ISB. Yet, our 21st century college environment and job market doesn’t owe us anything.

Our job is to practice our craft. Be our own harshest critics. Focus on developing skills that are highly valuable. Worry more about what we can offer the world…and expect less of what it can offer us. 

Unlike most of your fellow students at university, you will be among a minority of students who have traveled the world, lived in an emerging economic powerhouse, and have witnessed China’s overwhelming transformation over the past decades.

Privilege alone is like an undiscovered diamond in the rough. Don’t allow it to be tainted by entitlement. Act on your responsibility. But be strategic about which desires to act upon. Don’t be misled into believing that the self is at the center of the universe. What overrides it is a positive, dynamic, worldly spirit that sets you apart and elevates you from your competitors, and most importantly, what you can offer that no one else can.

For most of who know me, I’m not big about social networking. The only time I temporarily had a Facebook account was when a good friend of mine created one for me without my consent. I don’t think that Facebook is necessarily a bad thing, but today I urge you to leave with just one borrowed phrase: Get off your Facebook, and get into someone’s face. You don’t owe that to the world as much as you owe it to yourself. Thank you. 


- Graduation Speech by Francesca Bottorff

International School of Beijing Class of 2012

June 2, 2012









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