If I could talk to a 13-year-old me…

This is the speech I gave to a group of 8th graders at their promotion ceremony. Whether or not any of them actually listened to a single thing that I uttered with my hands, I haven’t the slightest idea. But there was one student that came up to me after the ceremony ended to say that he enjoyed it. A small act of reaching out sometimes makes all the difference in the world. This post is for you, kid. I hope that you’ll have a kicking time in High School.

“Thank you. I’m truly honored to be here today talking to you, the soon-to-be High School students of CSDF, along with your parents, families, teachers, principal, staff, and everyone else that helped get you here today. Everyone here is so proud of you right now, and I hope that you’re proud of each other and of yourself, too. 

Failure is temporary; success is forever. Just do it. That’s a great promotion theme. We could sit around and overanalyze our decisions and all the what-if’s in the world, but in the end, all that matters is what you actually do. Failures will always happen anyway. They’re part of life. Without failure, how would we appreciate success? You know, I wonder what success means to you. Getting a great job? Going to college? Making money? Being happy? Promoting like you all are today? 

I wondered what success meant to me, too. I even wondered if I was qualified to be giving this speech. In the 10 years that have passed since I was in one of your current seats in this very theater at my own Middle School promotion, I had gone to college and graduated one semester late, lived in San Diego, worked a job that I hated, got another job that I sort of liked, moved to Berkeley, got a job that I actually enjoy and care about, backpacked in Southeast Asia, and then moved to Austin. Was that success? Am I a successful person? I wasn’t sure, to tell you the truth.

Last week, Maya Angelou passed away. She was an amazing woman and a wonderful poet. She was a black woman who was born poor, experienced abuse in her childhood, didn’t speak for 6 years, had a hard life, and went on to become one of the most influential writers of our time. She wasn’t just a writer; she was also an activist, a lecturer, a dancer, an actress, a director, and more. She is someone that many would call a successful person. I was reading many tributes about her when I came across something that she said about success. She said, “Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.”

I like that definition. There’s no one-size-for-all definition of success; it varies with each person. Maya never went to college. A highly-paid lawyer who works 80 hours a week and never sees his family may not consider a comedian who laughs all day and earns very little money to be a “successful person”. And vice versa. So how do you know what success means to you?

Ask yourselves: do you like who you are, what you do, and how you do it? It’s okay if you don’t know the answer to these questions yet. I’m still getting there myself. But these are questions you should never stop asking yourselves. 

You’re about to become High School freshmen. What is High School? It is a 4-year buffer in between your whole lives thus far and the day that you step into what so many like to call “The Real World”. Let me tell you a secret: you’re already living in the real world. It’s right here and right now. None of this is fake. Your lives are authentic and real, and they have been since the moment you were born. But, there are many new things and big changes that you will experience after High School, and that’s why all these people here today will be constantly feeding you with knowledge, nourishing you with skills, and instilling you with lessons so that you may be released from this school as good citizens and responsible adults. All this is done out of love. 

They want you to be good people, but what kind of people you should be is another story. And that is something that can only be decided by you. It’s not something that you can decide overnight. It’s a process. Maybe one that will last for the rest of your lives. This process is also an act of love, by you for yourself.

Start now. I’m sure you have some exciting plans this summer, but one plan that all of you should make is to take some time to think about who you are. This is a big deal. You’ve gotta get to know yourself. Understand yourself by trying new things. If you’ve thought about it and decided that you do indeed like yourself, what you do, and how you do it, then I congratulate you. But I also promise you that there will be times when your answer changes. When it does, it’s okay. It’s even alright if you ever realize that your answer to each of these three questions is “no”. But it won’t be okay if you don’t do anything to change that. 

Think about how you want to enter High School and how you want to spend your time there. You will have choices to make. Do you want to be a part of an organization? Do you want to try out for a sport? Which elective courses will you want to take? How do you want to use your free time? What kind of friends do you want to make? Do you want to do your homework? Actually, that one you have to do no matter how you feel about it. But, you can choose how you want to do your homework. Each and every of these choices will influence who you are, which leads to how you feel about your life… which is the true definition of success. 

If I had to give you only one advice today, it would be to try. Anything you feel in your gut that you want, try it. Remember, failure is temporary; success is forever. Just do it!”


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