Chase Your Dreams, but Chase Them for the Right Reasons (A Commencement Address)

Keynote speech delivered on April 26, 2017, at the Dixon High School 65th Annual Scholastic Honors Banquet coordinated by the Kiwanis Club of Dixon…

graduation speech

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Students, twenty-two years ago this spring, I too was on the brink of graduating from Dixon High School, and I too was invited to attend this honors banquet. And do you know what I remember most about the speaker that night? Nothing. I can’t remember a single thing about the speech. I have only two memories of the night: trying to appear confident amongst a bunch of strange adults, and trying not to spill food on my dad’s tie. So, if you’re a little nervous or feeling a little clumsy, you’re doing just fine. That’s how you’re supposed to feel on a night like this. If you’re not feeling a little nervous and awkward, come talk to me afterward. I want to check your pulse.

So, twenty-two years ago, I was in your position, feeling nervous and awkward, with graduation coming into view. My future was uncertain, but there was one thing about which I was totally certain. I wanted to get out of this town. I wanted to do something that mattered, and deep down, I wanted to be someone that mattered.

And, though you come from a relatively small town, you have good reason to believe great things are possible. After all, our little town has produced some larger than life figures, such as Charles Walgreen, DHS Class of 1889, who started the wildly successful Walgreens company. And of course, Ronald Reagan, DHS Class of 1928, who became a film star and went on to become the 40th President of the United States. If you’re looking for reason to believe that your wildest dreams might actually come true after you depart Dixon for college and destinations beyond, look no further than the Gipper. Not to mention the countless men and women who have graduated from DHS and gone on to shape our world in ways that are much less visible, much more ordinary, but just as important and valuable.

Speaking of which, here’s a slightly lesser known story about another DHS graduate. He graduated, oh, approximately twenty-two years ago, and legend has it that, despite his best efforts, he returned home after his senior Kiwanis banquet with dark splotch on his father’s tie that smelled suspiciously of salad dressing. Approximately four months after he sat nervous and awkward, not really listening to the speaker up front, he departed Dixon for the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. Pulling out of the driveway, his car packed with clothes and towels and a thirteen-inch TV/VCR combo that had cost him most of his graduation money—and his stomach packed with a nauseous feeling—he thought to himself, “Why did I decide to go to college? This is terrifying. If I wasn’t doing this, I could still be in bed right now.” High school graduation, it turns out, had not perfected his confidence. It won’t perfect yours, either. I’m sorry to be the bearer of this bad news.

I’m assuming you’ve figured out who I’m talking about, so I’ll switch back to speaking in the first person now.

Growing up here in Dixon, I thought something magical would happen when I left. I thought when my Friday nights included something more than pining for the same girls that had been rejecting me since the fourth grade, and cruising up and down Galena Avenue listening to Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg and trying to feel tough, that something would change inside of me. I left for the University of Illinois thinking I’d find that magical thing there.

And I did find many, many good things at the U of I. I made a number of good, lifelong friends. I was mentored by smart and caring professors. I figured out that I wanted to be a psychologist. And, once again, I graduated with honors.

But, as they say, wherever you go, there you are.

On the day of my college graduation, I still wondered if I was good enough. I was still haunted by loneliness and a desire to be truly seen. And I still felt like I needed to do something great in order to matter in the grand scheme of things. So, I did what we all do: I kept searching for the next potential solution to these nagging problems. More specifically, I figured if the bachelor’s degree didn’t fix all my self-doubt, maybe a doctoral degree would do it! And I figured I wasn’t far enough from Dixon, so I chose to go to graduate school in Pennsylvania, at Penn State University.

Perhaps youve heard this popular definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. It turns out, in this way, were all a little crazy. Over and over again, we look for outside solutions to the problems inside of us.

You see, I hoped high school graduation would be a solution to my self-doubt and insecurity. Then I hoped college graduation would solve the problem. Then I hoped becoming a doctor would solve the problem. Somewhere in the middle of grad school, it became clear that wasn’t doing the trick either, so I quickly married the woman I was in love with, thinking that perhaps marriage would be the solution.

Nope.

I love her to death, and she is the best thing that has ever happened to me, but no woman or man has the power to remove our self-doubt. I wondered if becoming a dad would do the trick. Again, my kids are the best gifts I have ever received, but becoming a parent can’t fix our self-doubt and insecurity, either. It just creates more questions and more decisions to be uncertain about.

Then, seventeen years after I graduated from DHS, while I was working as a psychologist in the Chicago suburbs, I decided to start a blog. It began as a way to market my services to potential therapy clients, but then something interesting started to happen: I realized I loved writing. In fact, I realized I’d always been passionate about writing, but I’d never actually done any real writing, because, really, who can make a living as a writer? Within two years, though, two of my blog posts had gone viral and, on an ordinary Thursday afternoon, my office phone rang. I picked it up, and on the other end of the line was a producer from NBC. She told me she wanted my daughter and I to come on the TODAY Show.

Finally, the solution I had been searching for presented itself.

The ultimate affirmation of my writing and therefore my worth. A national television audience and all of the attention that comes with that. And some absolute certainty that I was doing something that mattered. After all my searching, I had finally found the solution to my self-doubt and insecurity. Now, I would love myself, feel loved, and make a difference in the world by doing what I love.

The end. Just kidding.

That’s not the end, is it? Because appearing on the TODAY Show wasn’t the outer solution to my inner problems, either. Sure, I basked in the glow of it for a couple of weeks afterward, and it did eventually lead to the publication of my first book, Loveable, one month ago. But gradually, in the weeks after the show, my self-doubt and insecurity came creeping back in. During those weeks, I finally had to face a truth I’d been telling others for years but avoiding myself. I’m here to share that truth with you tonight. Here it is:

The solutions you are searching for do not exist.

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The 3 Things I Was Afraid to Write About This Week (Or, How to Truly Live)

purpose

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This week, I experienced writer’s block for the first time.

I sat down—multiple times—to write my weekly blog post, and I couldn’t bring myself to start typing. I panicked—multiple times—but then I decided to follow my own advice and take a breath or two.

A few breaths in, I realized, I did have words inside of me. Plenty of them. But the words inside of me were simply refusing to exit through my fingertips, as they usually do. There wasn’t an absence of words; there was an abundance of stubborn words.

No, not stubborn words, scared words.

For instance, I wanted to write a blog post about the month of March in our family, in which my son acted in his first community theater play and my wife ran for the school board and I published my first book. I wanted to write about how success is unrelated to ticket sales or book sales or vote counts. Success is about making our true self our lived self, regardless of who shows up to applaud.

But the truth is, my son’s show was sold out, my wife won her election, and my book debuted as a #1 New Release on Amazon, and I feared people would think me arrogant to speak so publicly of my family’s good fortune.

I wanted to write another post about grief and how our anticipation of death—and loss in general—usually takes the form of anxiety. I wanted to write about how we defend against that anxiety by becoming angry and becoming certain we know how to solve the mess of life (please see Facebook). We need to quit resisting our inevitable losses and, instead, grieve our losses ahead of time, so we can get on with truly living.

But I feared no one would want to read something so morbid over their Wednesday morning coffee.

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This is the Difference Between Growing Old and Growing Up

childhood

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We’re scrambling out the door for school.

It’s the first day back after the winter break and my third-grade son Quinn is lamenting what awaits him. “Ms. Palmer says we’re going to have to write everything in cursive this semester. I don’t want to do that!”

I look at him and say, “Well, buddy, you love art, and writing in cursive is like turning your handwriting into art. So just try to make your writing beautiful.” He looks at me as if I’m crazy and says, “Your handwriting isn’t beautiful.”

Which is when my seventh-grade son Aidan breezes through the room and nonchalantly offers this on his way past: “That’s because he’s an adult, Quinn; he traded beauty for functionality a long time ago.”

Ouch.

For most of the world, the age of majority—the age at which adulthood legal begins and childhood legally ends—is eighteen. But oftentimes childhood ends way earlier than that. Because the dividing line between childhood and adulthood isn’t a legal distinction.

The dividing line between childhood and adulthood is an unfortunate trade.

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Dear Daughter, You Don’t Need to Act Like a Man to Become a Strong Woman

Dear Little One,

Last week, we arrived at the theater early and, before a movie about beauty and beasts, we saw a preview for a movie about men and machines. We came for a story about love and we got a preview about war. I’m okay with that—it’s the world we live in and I’m used to it.

What I’m not okay with is the young girl we saw in the preview.

feminism

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She looked directly into the camera, covered in sweat and dirt, and she said, “Some kids used to tease me…they’d say, ‘You run like a girl, you throw like a girl, you fight like a girl.’ Fight like a girl? Yeah, I fight like a girl. Don’t you?” Then, for the rest of the preview, she exuberantly participated in the blowing up and destruction of everything.

I felt like that little girl had punched me in the gut, too.

Because I looked over at you—seven-years-old, eyes wide behind 3-D glasses, already wondering what it means to be a girl—watching the not-so-subtle message that to be a strong girl, you have to fight like the most violent of men.

Little One, as your father, I want you to know, this was not a message about how to become a strong woman; it was a message about how to become an extinct woman. This was the message of a war-riddled and violence-obsessed hyper-masculine culture, hell-bent on victory, knowing that the only way to have victory over your womanhood is to erase it.

After all, what is the most effective way to eliminate the other? It’s to make them exactly like you.

Don’t fall for it.  

We have enough ego-driven, angry, aggressive, and violent men on this planet. We don’t need you to become one too, just so you can prove to those very same men that you are a “strong girl.”

No, Little One, the way to become a strong girl is to resist your assimilation into the worst elements of masculinity. The way to be a strong girl is to grow into the best and strongest parts of your femininity.

To be a strong woman, you don’t have to push others down; you simply refuse to be pushed around yourself.

To be a strong woman, you don’t have to relish aggression; you simply resist it.

To be a strong woman, you don’t have to use violence; you just need to use your voice, steadfastly, resolutely, and unceasingly.

But most importantly, you don’t become a strong woman by acting like a man; you become a strong woman by acting like yourself. 

At the center of you is your soul, your heart, your truest self. It is the least tangible part of you, yet the most indestructible part of you. It is the least violent part of you, yet the part of you from which you will fight most resiliently.

You don’t have to be like a man, you only have to be like you.

You won’t become your truest, strongest you by struggling violently against others. You will become your truest, strongest you by struggling to love the world in the very specific, very unique, perhaps ordinary, but always beautiful way that only you can love it.

Little One, if we all loved the world with that kind of beauty, the beasts wouldn’t stand a chance.

Peace to you,

Daddy

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Loveable is available in paperback, digital, and audio and can be purchased wherever books are sold, so you can also purchase it at your favorite bookseller.

The Reason We Avoid the Space Between

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I’m thirty-eight minutes into a forty-minute workout on the stationary bike, when the program switches to “cool down” mode and the resistance in the pedals fades away. Immediately, without thought or premeditation, I swing my leg over the bike to get off.

But I stop mid-dismount, suddenly aware of what I’m doing.

As I regain my balance, barely avoiding humankind’s first ever face-plant from a stationary bike, I wonder to myself, how long have I been skipping the cool down phase of my workouts?

More importantly, how long have I been skipping the cool down phases in my life?

It’s been eight days since the launch of my first book, and already I’m planning my next two blog posts and at least two brand new projects. I have not allowed myself a cool down phase. I have not allowed any space between what was and what will be.

Sometimes, we treat the finish line of one race like the starting line of the next.

For the next few days, I pay attention, and the truth is, though I have a lot going on, there is plenty of space between in my life. It is everywhere, intertwined through all things. The space between happens at the fuel pump and at the red light, in the line at the supermarket and in the line at the drive-thru. On long straight stretches of interstate and winding country roads. And when the kids are sent to their rooms so I can have a moment of silence.

Indeed, the space between is present in the space of a single breath.

But like the cool down phase on the bike, I skip it. Or more accurately, I fill it up. We all do. These days, we fill up the still, quiet spaces between the hard work of being alive with gigabytes. Data and Wi-Fi. Streaming and tweeting. News and noise. Instead of delving into the space between, we dive into our devices.

We do this for a reason.

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How to Survive (Maybe Even Thrive) in Life’s Most Vulnerable Moments

vulnerability and gratitude

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Last week, I released my first book.

Wait! Please don’t quit reading! I know, for the last month or so, I did the first-time-author thing and wrote repeatedly about Loveable. But that is behind us now. Sort of. This week, I don’t want to tell you about Loveable; I want to tell you about how I survived the vulnerability of publishing it. This is what I did:

I let it be vulnerable.

What I mean is, several weeks before the book was released, I was beating myself up for feeling so anxious: “Kelly, this whole book is about trusting you’re loveable and living from it. Where’s your confidence? Where’s your joy?” Of course, self-condemnation doesn’t produce much joy, so I just kept feeling worse. Eventually, though, what I realized (okay, what my wife told me) was this:

There is no way to live vulnerably without feeling vulnerable about it.

So, instead of trying to eliminate my sense of vulnerability, I decided to choose how I would live my vulnerability. That is, instead of trying to live my vulnerability with no anxiety, I decided to live it with no regrets. At first, I wasn’t sure how to do this. Eventually, though, what I decided (okay, what my wife recommended) was this:

Try to live your vulnerability gratefully.

This whole writing journey of mine began with a practice of gratitude—writing down one thousand gifts I noticed in my everyday life—so why not bring it full circle and start paying attention to the gifts right in front of me once again? Why not begin to notice this:

Vulnerability and gratitude can co-exist.

Then, in the weeks leading up to the launch, this is what I noticed:

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The One Place We Forget to Look for Our True Self

My new book Loveable is available wherever books are sold! If you order it before this Friday, March 24, at 11pmCT, you will receive a FREE BONUS—The Year of Listening, Loving, and Living—a second full-length book I’ve written as a practical companion to Loveable. You can click here to find out more about how to get both! 

Today’s blog post is an excerpt from the companion book…

worthiness

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The library books are overdue.

In our house, that’s no small concern. My kids are obsessed with books. When the monthly book order forms come home from school, they pour over them and circle the books they want, as if pouring over a toy catalogue and constructing a list for Santa. The book order forms are like Christmas, and the library is like Halloween, where a stranger who acts kind and seems really interested in them distributes free and seemingly infinite delights.

We go trick-or-booking frequently.

When we do, the kids want to gorge themselves. So, like Halloween candy, we’ve set a limit to the number of books they can consume—they are each allowed to check out ten books per visit. Yet, with three kids, that’s still a lot of books and a lot of dimes each day they’re overdue. So, realizing they’re overdue, I ask my wife where I can find them. She says she thinks they’re already in her car. I make a mental note to check the minivan before she leaves.

But I forget.

Now, the kids are home from school, they want to get their next library fix, and I want to minimize the damage to my wallet. We pile into my car, drive to my wife’s office, and dig through the debris field that is our minivan. Amidst the carnage I find a shoe that had gone missing, a desiccated apple core, and a weird purple puddle that was probably a crayon before the summer heat melted it into molten color.

But the books are nowhere to be found.

So we return her keys, clamber back into my car and head home, preparing to search the house with a fine-toothed comb. However, we don’t need the comb, because as soon as I open the door, I see the books immediately. Actually, I don’t see the books; I see the bag—a repurposed grocery bag that has seen better days—in which all of the books have been collected. They’ve been sitting there in the entryway all day. I’d walked past them countless times, probably even looking directly at them, but never actually seeing them. Having been told the treasures I was looking for were somewhere else, I’d failed to see what was right in front of me.

Our worthiness is like those library books.

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This Is the Difference Between Getting Rich and Living Richly

The following is an excerpt from my new book Loveable, which officially releases today!

grace

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I was born to a drug dealer and his quiet wife.

When I was two, he was caught in the act and incarcerated, and by the time I saw him again, he had become a Christian. I was too young to remember any of it, but a lot changed after that. That’s when we started going to church on the weekends and, a little later, my parents started going to college during the week. Two tuition payments plus three children equaled eight years of scarcity. By the time I was in third grade, we were scraping by in a mobile home, with my mother working as a nurse at night and my father going to school during the day. What they did was heroic.

 Sometimes, heroism is not very glamorous. 

We had a television that broadcast mostly static, a car that couldn’t make right turns, and the constant trailer park fear of tornadoes. We had fights about grocery money. We had fights about every kind of money. We had a claustrophobic hallway that ended at a claustrophobic bedroom I shared with my brother. We had a basketball hoop down the street—an old rusted rim tied to a telephone pole with yellow twine. No backboard. No net. We had bullies who chased me home from the basketball court.

I usually got away.

We had a tiny bathroom in our trailer with a tiny bathtub. Sometimes we had hot water. Sometimes we didn’t. One night, when we didn’t, my dad had a little anger. My mom was at work, and he said he was leaving too. He tried, but I wrapped myself around his leg and wouldn’t let go. He stayed.

But my shame stayed too…

To read the rest of this exclusive excerpt from Loveable, click here to read it at annvoskamp.com.

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REMINDER! Loveable is now available for purchase and, if you order it before this Friday, March 24, at 11pm CST, you will immediately receive a free bonus companion book. Click here to find out how to get the free bonus!

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Dear Little Ones, You Are Good Enough (No Matter What)

The following letter to my children—and to the little one in each of us—is an exclusive excerpt from my new book Loveable, which will be released on Tuesday, March 21…

grace

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Dear Little Ones,

I’m sitting in a parking lot as I write this. On one side of the parking lot is a playground where kids are laughing and playing. On the other side of the parking lot is a transitional living unit for troubled youth, where kids are hurting and struggling.

On one side, the dream of every parent.

On the other side, the fear of every parent.

I’ve often wondered why the county would put this facility next to a park. But as I sit here today, the message seems clear: the line between our brightest dreams and our darkest fears is a fine one, isn’t it? Finer than the width of this parking lot.

Little Ones, what you do matters. Each and every choice has a creative potential as powerful as the Force that hung the stars and spun the planets. So the fearful part of me wants to give you one more lecture about the importance of your choices. But I’m not going to do that. Instead, I want to tell you about who you are, regardless of the choices you make.

Regardless of which side of the street you end up on, I want you to know: your core is untarnished, your center is unaltered, your heart is unblemished, your spark is still burning, and your original identity is uncorrupted. Little Ones, regardless of your choices, I want you to know you are worthy.

You are enough.

On the day you bring home your first A and on the day you bring home your first F. On the day you make the game-winning shot and on the day you get cut from the team. On the day you sit at the cool-kids table and on the day you eat lunch with your loneliness. On the day you get a standing ovation and on the day you freeze up and forget your lines . . .

You are enough.

On the day you resist peer pressure and on the day you give in. On the day you enter college and on the day you enter rehab. On the day you get your first promotion and on the day you get your first pink slip. On the day you run a triathlon and on the day of your diagnosis . . .

You are enough.

On the day you were born you were enough, and on the day you die you will be enough, regardless of what comes in between.

Little Ones, I’m not saying you’re free from consequences. But I am telling you this: while many poor choices do have a consequence, most poor choices are already a consequence—the consequence of doubting our worthiness. The task of our lives is simply to rest into the truth of our worthiness and to walk the path of who we already are.

So, Little Ones, when you’ve lost your way and you wish you could do something impossible like rewind time, remember this: there is one thing that is always possible—it is always possible to return to the center of who you are. You will find there the truth of your worthiness whispered upon the tongue of grace and it will, quite simply, never steer you wrong.

To my Beloved,

Daddy

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What We’re Hiding Just Behind Our Faces

vulnerability

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Marcos Alberti is a Brazilian photographer and, last year, he made some really good art.

He selected a number of people, and he took a series of photos of each person. Following an initial photo, he then took a photo of each person after one glass of wine, two glasses, and three glasses.

In each set of photos, a remarkable transformation occurs.

In the first photo, faces are guarded and usually emotionless, sometimes defiant. Even the rare smiles in the first photos are muted, tempered, and safe. In the second photos, however, after one glass of wine, the faces are loosening up and lips are carving out larger smiles. And there is at least a hint—at least a glimmer—of light in the eyes.

After the second glass of wine, in the third photos, everything is changing. There is a casualness about every expression—smiles and postures and even hairdos look somehow freer. By this third picture, it is beginning to look like there might actually be living, breathing human beings behind the stoic facades.

Why do I call this good art?

Because good art tells the truth.

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