MHA Convocation Address, June 2015

Back in June I had the great privilege of speaking at the Mountain Heights Academy Convocation Ceremony. This is largely the talk I to gave, except a few paragraphs at the end I skipped over as I ran out of time. I’ve been speaking about this theme more and more recently, starting with my 2013 AECTx talk You Have Superpowers. I can’t talk about it often enough.


MHA Convocation Address
Abravanel Hall
June 3, 2015

I’m extraordinarily humbled and grateful both to be affiliated with Mountain Heights Academy and to have the opportunity to speak with you today on the occasion of your graduation from high school. Today represents the culmination of over a decade of effort on your part, and it’s quite a momentous event. Thank you for allowing me to be part of it.

I want to begin with a question. What do the following movies have in common?

  • Harry Potter movies
  • The Matrix movies
  • Star Wars movies
  • The Lord of the Rings movies
  • The Lego Movie

Take a moment to discuss with your neighbor. (pause)

These movies have many things in common. For example, they each have amazing special effects. They each have great music. They each enjoyed incredible financial success at the box office. But none of that is what I want to talk about today.

Each of these stories – and in many cases these are arguably the stories that shaped an entire generation of people – centers around a character who is a bit of a loser when we first meet them. Neither Harry, Neo, Luke, Emmett, nor Frodo are what we would call successful or popular at the beginning of their stories. They’re not even normal. Each of them is a misfit.

Until they’re not. Early in each of these stories the main character learns two life-changing pieces of information. First, they have superpowers they didn’t know about. Harry’s a wizard. Luke has the force. Frodo is inexplicably immune to the corruption of the Ring. And second, the world or universe as we know it is in imminent danger, and armed with their newfound superpowers each of these characters is in a unique position to save humanity (and other races). Neo is The One. Emmett is The Special. Each of these characters is called from their humdrum life to pursue a higher purpose, and each is armed with higher powers that will enable them – just barely – to accomplish those purposes.

There are thousands of stories that follow this pattern. Why is that? What is it about these stories that draws us each to them? Take a moment and discuss with your neighbor. (pause)

I believe we’re drawn to these stories because each and every one of us desperately wants our own Hagrid Day. The day when some one kicks down the door and says to you, “Yer a wizard, Harry, and a thumpin’ good one I’d wager, once yer trained up a bit, o’ course.” Only later does Harry learn that he’s not just a wizard; he’s the wizard. The wizard that will be responsible for ridding the world of its greatest source of evil. As Uncle Ben told another one-time slacker named Peter Parker, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

The reason we’re each drawn to the stories where the bumbling underdog is endowed with great power and called to save the world is that, deep down, we all know that this is the true storyline of our life. We can run away from that potential – from that opportunity – from that responsibility. But that doesn’t make it any less real. If you try hard enough you actually can outrun your destiny to help save the world, like Tom Bombadil in the Lord of the Rings books. Or you can avoid the responsibility for a time, but realize your mistake and take up the sword that was broken, as Aragorn did.

You may be thinking, “David this whole talk is completely pointless because I don’t have a wand, a lightsaber, or the Piece of Resistance.” I can’t stop bullets in mid-air by raising my hand, or fly. And I’ll admit that’s true. But blockbuster movie superpowers aren’t the only superpowers.

Another example of superpowers you may not be familiar with are in the Alcatraz books by Brandon Sanderson. Alcatraz Smedry has an unlikely superpower – he breaks things. His “Smedry talent,” as it’s called, sounds like a curse, but it’s not. Alcatraz can break locks, for example. He can break weapons and other machines that threaten him and his friends. Grandpa Smedry’s superpower is arriving late to things. His power has saved his life many times, allowing him to arrive late to bullets, which always miss him. And his blood can arrive late to wounds so that he doesn’t bleed to death. In his own words,”I’ve been arriving late to my own death for years now.” Alcatraz’s cousin Sing’s talent is the ability to trip and fall to the ground. Quentin, another cousin, has the talent to speak gibberish.

Now we’re finally getting somewhere. Migrating into the real world, look at the examples of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. What was their superpower? Nonviolence. Their gift was the ability to not hit things. The ability to not shoot things. The ability to no blow things up. It almost sounds like a Smedry talent, doesn’t it? And yet look at what they did – how profoundly they changed the world.

Today is your Hagrid Day. I’m here to tell you that you do have superpowers. What is your superpower? What is your Smedry talent? Take a silent moment and think about this question. (pause)

I bet you know what your superpower is, but you’re not willing to admit it to yourself. As Marianne Williams wrote, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”

Now why would you be afraid of that? Perhaps because of Uncle Ben’s Rule, “With great power comes great responsibility.” As long as you pretend you don’t have superpowers, you can pretend you have no responsibility to save the world. Well, if that’s the case I’ve got bad news for you – you do have superpowers, and it is your responsibility to save the world.

You will be correct to observe that neither Lord Voldemort, nor the Matrix, nor Darth Vader, nor the Ring, nor even the Kragle are actual threats to the real world. What is it, then, that the world needs saving from? A brief list includes poverty, ignorance, hunger, disease, and violence.

These issues sound huge and unsolvable. When we’re feeling optimistic we sometimes call them “Grand Challenges.” When we’ve recently lost a battle we sometimes call them “Wicked Problems.” You can Google either of those terms and find that lots has been written about them.

But I have two important pieces of good news for you, too. The first is that you don’t have to solve all the world’s problems. And this is critically important to understand. You only have to save the world from the problem that matches your superpower. This matching of your superpower with a critical need in the world is what Jeff Thompson and Stuart Bunderson refer to as a “Calling.” In their book by that same title, they write:

Let’s imagine that a young girl says to herself, “I’m an animal person. I’ve been given these special abilities to interact with animals and to love them in ways that other people don’t. I’m hardwired for this kind of work.” As a child, she was perhaps satisfied to play with her pets just to have fun.

But as she began to pursue her passion, to read more about animals or perhaps to associate with others who share her devotion, she made another key realization. “There are animals in need! There are species that are dying out because their habitats are threatened. Some endangered species can only survive in human captivity. That’s got to be very hard on the animals. What can we humans do to help them survive and thrive?”

So now this young girl has discovered that there is some crying need in the world that is related to her particular gifts. The moment that she actually discovers her calling as a zookeeper might sound like this: “Wait a minute, if I’m hardwired to help animals, and there are animals in need, then it is up to me to be the one to help them! Who else but someone like me is going to be able to meet this need? Caring for animals isn’t just about having fun anymore. I have an obligation to help these captive animals because of who I am!” And thus, a calling as a zookeeper is born.

So the first piece of good news is that you don’t have to do it all – you are only called to do the part that you are uniquely capable of doing.

The second piece of good news is that you don’t have to do it alone – in fact, you can’t do it alone. Harry finds Ron and Hermione and others. Neo finds Morpheus and Trinity and others. Luke finds Han Solo and Princess Leia and others. Emmett finds Wyldstyle and Vitruvius and others. Frodo finds an entire Fellowship. In every case, each character brings his and her unique superpowers into a team that works together to save the world. You will have the same experience, and let me tell you – it’s awesome.

Mountain Heights Academy follows this very pattern. MHA is a huge Fellowship with a wide range of people with incredible gifts in caring, in supporting, in sharing, in loving, in administering effectively, in balancing budgets, and in believing that every student can succeed. These and other Smedry talents combine in our school family to save the world, in very concrete ways, every year.

Your superpowers will be only barely enough to help you accomplish the great work that lies before you (the movie of your life wouldn’t be exciting otherwise!). But take a few inspiring thoughts into account as you consider the work ahead of you. The first is attributed to Gandhi:

First, they ignore you.
Then, they laugh at you.
Then, they fight you.
Then, you win.

Changing the world is slow going. For a long time it feels like you’re getting nowhere. Then, when someone does notice, it’s often to ridicule you and tell you how hopeless your cause is. Then, others notice and begin actively working against the change you’re trying to create in the world. Without the proper perspective, it can feel like you’re just trading one obstacle for another. But you aren’t you’re progressing steadily toward the path to winning. As you pass these signposts you’ll know you’re almost there. As Winston Churchill said, “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”

And next a word from Willy Wonka. In the original (and best) version of the film, Gene Wilder sings:

If you want to view paradise,
simply look around and view it.
Anything you want to – do it.
Want to change the world?
There’s nothing to it.

Wonka is perhaps our greatest literary example of the childlike belief that you can change the world. Never lose that hope – never give up on that faith. No matter what life throws at you, no matter how difficult it is to walk the path that Gandhi described, never give up.

Graduates, family and friends, Mountain Heights Academy faculty and staff, you absolutely do have superpowers. And you absolutely do have a solemn responsibility to save the world. There will be no revolutionary breakthroughs in renewable energy if you don’t get out there and create them. There will be no end of corruption in Congress if you don’t go out there and end it. There will be children and others struggling with poverty, ignorance, hunger, disease, and violence until you personally go out there and end them. We need you. Desperately.