Brain Pickings

Why the Best Roadmap to an Interesting Life is the One You Make Up as You Go Along: Daniel Pink’s Commencement Address

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“Sometimes, the only way to discover who you are or what life you should lead is to do less PLANNING and more LIVING — to burst the double bubble of comfort and convention and just DO stuff.”

On the heels of Shonda Rhimes’s spectacular 2014 Dartmouth commencement address comes another wonderful addition to the greatest commencement addresses of all time. Author Daniel Pink — whose books explore such endlessly fascinating subjects as the art of persuasion, the science of what actually motivates us, and the benefits of being an “ambivert” — addressed the 2014 graduating class at Northwestern University’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, from which Pink himself graduated in 1986 with a degree in linguistics before getting his J.D. from the Yale Law School.

The gist of Pink’s message echoes Rilke’s wisdom on living the questions and Picasso’s beliefs about drawing, reminding us with equal parts humor and urgency about the perils of making plans in the most existential sense possible. Transcribed highlights below.

Sometimes you have to write to figure it out…

This advice wasn’t just savvy guidance for how to write — it might be the wisest advice I know for how to live… The way to be okay, we all believe, is to have a specific plan — except may it’s not…

The smartest, most interesting, most dynamic, most impactful people … lived to figure it out. At some point in their lives, they realized that carefully crafted plans … often don’t hold up… Sometimes, the only way to discover who you are or what life you should lead is to do less planning and more living — to burst the double bubble of comfort and convention and just do stuff, even if you don’t know precisely where it’s going to lead, because you don’t know precisely where it’s going to lead.

This might sound risky — and you know what? It is. It’s really risky. But the greater risk is to choose false certainty over genuine ambiguity. The greater risk is to fear failure more than mediocrity. The greater risk is to pursue a path only because it’s the first path you decided to pursue.

Or, as a wise woman put it: “imagine immensities, don’t compromise, and don’t waste time. Start now. Not 20 years from now, not two weeks from now. Now.”

For more wisdom from this singular genre of modern sermons, see Kurt Vonnegut on kindness and the power of great teachers, Anna Quindlen on the essentials of a happy life, George Saunders on the power of kindness, David Foster Wallace on the meaning of life, Neil Gaiman on the resilience of the creative spirit, Patti Smith on life and making a name for yourself, and Joseph Brodsky on winning the game of life.

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