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

Photo Credit: shock (Bigstock)

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.

Continue Reading »

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

purpose

Photo Credit: kevinbrine (Bigstock)

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.

Continue Reading »

Life Isn’t About Proving Yourself (It’s About Being Yourself)

purpose

Photo Credit: Andrushko Galyna (Bigstock)

They were so nervous they could barely pronounce their own names.

Last month, my oldest son Aidan participated in his first Scholastic Bowl match. His younger siblings and I arrived, not really knowing what to expect. In hindsight, though, I should have known. After all, I was thirteen once.

I remember.

I remember what it was like to feel like my worth was up for grabs every time I opened my mouth, to feel like the outcome of every endeavor would either prove my worth or reveal my lack thereof. In other words, I remember what it was like to feel shame. The truth is, somedays, I still feel it. We all do.

Because we’ve still got a scared kid inside of us somewhere.

As rookie Scholastic Bowl spectators, we wound up in the wrong room with two teams from other schools, but we watched anyway. At the beginning of the match, the captain of each team had to rise, introduce himself, and introduce his four teammates. Both captains, upon standing, turned bright red, spoke with quavering voices, spat out the names as clearly as possible through all the adrenaline, and sat down as if someone had kicked their legs out from under them.

When you don’t know that your worth is infinite, eternal, and precisely equal to everyone else’s, any moment of life can feel exquisitely dangerous.

Continue Reading »

Why Dreaming Small Is Way Better Than Dreaming Big (A Child’s Wisdom)

dreams

Photo Credit: Bigstock (mandygodbehear)

I made my daughter’s dreams come true.

On an ordinary Thursday afternoon, Caitlin and I went to the drug store with her older brother Quinn to pick up a prescription. We had to wait for it and, surprisingly, the waiting wasn’t a total disaster. The kids went to the toy aisle and no one ended up in tears about plastic nonsense I refused to buy them. Then, we went to the candy aisle, and they endured my lecture about diabetes with preternatural patience.

I was so pleased, I bought them each a roll of Mentos.

As I drove home, prescription in hand, they opened the candy in the back seat. Caitlin gently unwrapped hers—first pulling out one Mento, then a second—before breathlessly saying to her brother, “Look, Quinn. The first one was yellow, and the second one is yellow too. It’s my dream come true.”

Conventional wisdom says that kids dream big and adults dream smaller and smaller until they quit dreaming altogether. But what if the opposite is true? What if, when we are young, we actually dream quite small, but as we grow up, our dreams get bigger and more grandiose and more unrealistic? What if that’s why we big people eventually give up on our dreams?

And what if we all started dreaming like a child once again?

Continue Reading »

How to Find Your Brave Place (and the Good Thing Waiting for You There)

What is the key ingredient in bravery? The answer may surprise you. And what is bravery the key ingredient in? The answer to that one might surprise you even more…

courage

Photo Credit: Bigstock (CherylCasey)

I put it off as long as I could.

Last spring, my kids each earned a free pass to Six Flags Great America by meeting a reading quota at school, so we promised them a summer trip to the theme park. I’m not a huge fan of shelling out silly amounts of money to fight crowds and wait in long lines under a blazing sun. But a promise is a promise. So, finally, on a Friday in late July, we’d run out of excuses and we went to the park. My kids had never ridden a roller coaster.

I wasn’t sure how brave they’d be.

My youngest, Caitlin, at six years old, didn’t think she could handle the coaster with the big drop, two loops, and four inversions in total. But she rode it, and she said it was the most terrifying thing she’d ever done.

Our middle guy, Quinn, at eight years old, didn’t think he could handle the high velocity wooden coaster with the teeth-rattling turns and eleven stomach-churning drops. But he rode it, and he said it was the most terrifying thing he’d ever done.

And our oldest son, Aidan, a twelve-year-old adrenaline junky, didn’t know if he could handle the biggest coaster in the park, The Goliath. It’s the world’s fastest, tallest, and steepest wooden coaster—boasting a 180 foot drop at a nearly vertical, 85-degree angle, while flying 72mph. But he rode it, and he said it was the most terrifying thing he’d ever done.

It turns out my kids are brave, because bravery isn’t the absence of fear.

Bravery is going one step farther than you think you can.

It’s not being fearless during that step. It is simply taking it. In fact, fear is a necessary ingredient for bravery. If you aren’t afraid, there is nothing, really, to be brave about.

Continue Reading »

The Point of Life Isn’t to Be More Happy (It’s to Be More You)

“Today you are you! That is truer than true! There is no one alive who is you-er than you!”

–Dr. Seuss

identity

Photo Credit: forayinto35mm via Compfight cc

Seven years ago, my wife was the recipient of her college’s Junior Faculty Achievement Award, a symbol of a promising academic career in bloom. It was awarded for excellence in research, teaching, and every other skill of the academy. She hung the placard on her office wall. She went on to run international research projects, head her program, write a textbook, and mentor twenty-four students through their dissertations, amongst countless other achievements, both large and small.

Now, seven years later, shortly after reaching the summit of the academic life—tenure—my wife is resigning from her professorship. Now, she will be working in a small, rural health center, providing services to families who need help, but usually can’t get it. Her decision, on the surface of it, is perplexing at best and crazy at worst. I’ve tried to explain it many times in the last six months, but this is the closest I can get:

She’s a little closer to knowing who she is.

Continue Reading »

Why It’s Exhausting to Hide

It’s exhausting to hide who we truly are, because the true self is like a beach ball. It wants to float, and it takes an awful lot of work and energy to keep it pushed beneath the waves…

true self

Photo Credit: PKMousie via Compfight cc

The cold brick dug into my forehead.

Spring 2005. Early morning. I’d walked out the back door of our small, third-floor apartment, and I was leaning my head against the brick wall on the outside landing. I was exhausted and I had all sorts of good excuses for that—a clinical internship, a young and struggling marriage, a sick baby—but the truth was, my false self was slowly killing me.

Or, rather, the work of maintaining my false self was killing me.

Building an image. Preserving a reputation. Appearing confident and competent. Keeping everyone happy with me. Feeling like I was never enough but always looking like I was more than enough. Falling apart but acting like I had it all together.

Utterly draining.

It’s tiring to hide your true self.

Continue Reading »

It’s About Time (To Make Peace in Your Most Important Relationship)

“Know your fight is not within; yours is with your time here.” 

–John Mayer

mindfulness

Why would four generations of formally dressed people gather in a pub on a Thursday afternoon? If you can picture it, you can probably guess.

A funeral.

Two toddlers are alternately laughing about nothing and wailing about French fries. Their mother looks tired and sad. I wonder if it’s because of the person she lost or the little people she still has. Their father wrangles one of the kids while trying to carry on a conversation. A baby boomer eats quietly, while another gives her attention to her phone and the digital distractions it contains. And sitting at the end of the table is a married couple from the greatest generation. They trade the kind of sparse but loving conversation only possible after sixty years of marriage.

I came to the pub to take a break. I invited my wife, but she told me I needed some time alone. Wise woman. Life has been moving fast. Faster than I can handle, I think, and I entered the pub hoping time would slow down a little bit.

Instead, it expanded.

Into four generations.

As I watched them, I realized: time isn’t racing by; time is marching on, at the same slow and steady cadence it has since it exploded into existence. And, as I watched the subtle and sacred exchange of love and relationship amongst four generations, I realized: there is at least one relationship in my life with which I still need to make peace.

My relationship to time.

I’m always fighting with her.

Continue Reading »

How to Feel Joy (With These Five Little Words)

The key to a joyful life often seems mysterious or unattainable. It doesn’t have to be. In fact, it may be as simple as listening and responding to five little words…

purpose

Photo Credit: waferboard via Compfight cc

I’m drying dishes and putting them away when I see it once again.

I open a cabinet door, place a cup on the shelf, and I notice the unopened Star Wars video game nestled next to a stack of cups. I think to myself, “I really should do something with that video game.” I close the cabinet door. And then I stop. The video game was given to my son at his sixth birthday party. We already owned it so, amidst the chaos of the party, I’d decided to toss it in the cupboard and figure out what to do with it later.

My son is now eleven.

For five years I’ve opened the cabinet door, noticed the game every time, and then closed the door again, telling myself I should do something with the game. It’s a silly story when it’s about a video game. But it’s not such a silly story when we do the same thing to our relationships and our passions and our dreams…

Continue Reading »

The Real Scandal Behind the NFL Domestic Violence Controversy

The real scandal is not about football or domestic violence or big business. The real scandal is about what’s happening in our living rooms…

NFL Domestic violence

Photo Credit: Camil Tulcan via Compfight cc

Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice gave his wife a right hook before he gave her a wedding band.

He knocked her unconscious and then dragged her halfway out of the elevator they’d been riding. Just far enough to keep the elevator door ajar and the security camera recording. Just far enough so the NFL could witness the totality of the brutality. When they saw it, they suspended him for two games.

Until the video went public.

Then the team cancelled his contract and the league suspended him indefinitely. In the wake of the news, more allegations of domestic violence amongst NFL players are emerging.

But really, none of this is terribly scandalous. Is anyone surprised that a sport rooted in violence toward others cultivates violence at home? Is anyone surprised that a billion dollar business will hide bad press until it can’t hide it anymore? No, the real scandal is in the results of an NBC poll: while 60% of football viewers disapprove of the way the NFL has handled the scandal—and presumably even more disapprove of domestic violence—90% of people will not watch less football as a result.

The real scandal is not about football or domestic violence or big business.

The real scandal is about what’s happening in our living rooms and in our lives.

The real scandal is our tendency to ignore what we value and to live out something else.

Continue Reading »