Talk about listening

I gave this speech in May, at my high school, for graduation.

Thank you, Mr. Williams, parents, teachers, and especially, class of 2016. Thank you. It’s such an honor to be here this evening. You know, when Mr. Williams called to ask me if I would do this, I was taken aback. Not because I was surprised. I mean, I was. Let me tell you: Mr. Williams voice is not a voice you expect to hear on the phone when you are 32 years old and have, to be honest, a spotty track record of annual giving to Cate, particularly in recent years. No, I was taken aback for the very natural reason that I don’t see myself as the kind of person who has much in the way of advice to bestow upon graduates. This isn’t a self esteem thing. It’s more a sense that advice, especially graduation advice, baccalaureate advice, is meant to be a passed down wisdom, and wisdom comes from the wise, which is to say, the experienced, which is also to say: older people. Parents. Teachers. Not me. I am very much still figuring this out.

So I did something I do all the time, pretty much professionally, at this point: I asked a question, and listened to the answer. My question was simple: Why me? Mr. Williams’ answer was less simple: Well, Ryan, he said, We like to choose people for this who are engaged with the world.

After he said that last thing, about being engaged with the world, I wrote it down on my notepad and underlined it, twice. It sounded important, and right, and righteous. And it sounded like maybe if I figured out what that meant to me, how I was engaged with the world, then maybe I’d have something to tell you, today, that would perhaps be worth listening to.

Then I went to work, which means a lot of different things everyday, but that afternoon it meant I met up with a woman who is barely older than you, just 19, in her first year of college, who comes from a part of Los Angeles that pretty much for its entire history has been an industrial dumping ground. Rosemary grew up there. And that afternoon she took me around her neighborhood, by the homes and yards where lead has seeped in from a battery recycling plant, and she took me past the residential streets soon to be bulldozed for a freeway extension, and, finally, she took me to a high school where a sink hole had appeared, a sink hole that traced the outline of what was there before: A gigantic pile of pulverized concrete. 

The concrete pile was known, in her neighborhood, as La Montaña, the mountain. And the concrete dust from it that filled the air was the reason Rosemary could hardly recall a day growing up she didn’t wake with a nosebleed. Her older sisters had played a crucial part in removing La Montaña from the landscape—protesting, rallying the community. Rosemary told me that her sisters were the reason that, for the last few years, she had devoted so much of her time toward getting the lead cleaned up from the yards and walls, protesting, rallying, engaging. La Montaña was their battle, she told me, and this is mine. As she took me around her community, and as I listened to her story, and watched her interact with her neighbors—nodding at them, smiling, acknowledging their presence, I was reminded of another community. This one.

I remember the last week of Cate and the first week of college so vividly: and I bet that you will, too, in ten or fourteen years and for probably a lot longer. For me the biggest, most significant change, the thing that has stuck with me and that I still think about, was how once I left the Mesa people didn’t see me the same way they saw me at Cate. This is a small community. I don’t need to tell you that, but it’s remarkable to think about just how difficult it is to go un-seen here. It’s so difficult to go unseen that most of you are probably sick of it, and ready to move on to some bigger and more anonymous place. That’s natural. That’s good. I was exactly the same way—and still am. Since Cate, I’ve only lived in gigantic, anonymous cities. But still, this feeling of being unseen, it’s going to be weird, I promise you: you’ll have this tendency, which is something I still have, which was formed at Cate, to look random passersby in the eye and maybe nod a little, or smile, or at least acknowledge the presence of another—to see them and say without speaking, greetings, fellow human.

Why am I telling you this? To prepare you, I suppose. But mostly to demonstrate that although you are leaving a small campus on top of a hill for something that is almost certainly going to be larger, your world might get smaller. And this won’t be your fault. Not really. It’s a passive process. You can do everything quote unquote correctly, and your world can and does still shrink. I know this because after college I moved to the biggest city in America, worked my way up the ladder at a series of increasingly large and successful magazines, and by the end of it my title was quite impressive, and my days were filled with meeting after meeting with groups of people who looked a lot like me, and shared a lot of the same opinions, and my world, I realized, had become quite small.

I am also telling you this because that acknowledgement, that seeing of others, was what was happening in Rosemary’s community, too. At the high school, standing there next to the sinkhole, Rosemary told me about how she’d traveled to the Paris climate talks, and how frustrating the experience had been for her. How she kept hearing about how her home state was such a leader in climate policy, but it didn’t seem that way to her at all, from her unique perch in a terribly corrupt and polluted neighborhood. She told me how sad she had felt, traveling so far away and seeing the bigness of the world, and realizing the smallness of people who do not want to listen to you, when what you have to say does not line up with how they imagine the world to be. 

As I was listening to her, I realized that that was it, there it was: the way I engaged with the world. And that was the thing I could offer you, today, the one piece of wisdom or advice is something you’re already extremely good at, that you’re already doing right now. It’s listening. 

And I don’t just mean listening in a finger wagging—listen to your mother-ish sense. Though that’s not always a bad idea, either. And I don’t even mean listening when it comes to seeking advice from the experienced and the wise. Or even people who are talking to you behind a microphone, like me, right now. (But, please, do listen to me, if only for a little bit longer).  I mean the kind of listening that is outside of what you are used to doing, what you have come to expect, that confirms what you already believe about how the world is. I mean the kind of listening that is most likely difficult and even uncomfortable.

You are all basically professional listeners, now. And it’s possible that some of you have already peaked as listeners, or will soon. I’m talking to you, students, who have been listening to older people for most of your lives and are extraordinarily good at it already. It gets harder, especially the sort of formal, active listening demanded by a classroom. The older you get, the more exhausting active listening becomes. I’m sure all the parents understand this, having had to sit in on classes during parents weekends. It’s tiring! And this is listening in those formal listening spaces we call classrooms—or the even more formal listening spaces you’ll soon enter, called lecture halls. 

But I want to focus on the informal and, to me, much more important form of listening, that usually requires just two people. 

I have one more observation about leaving Cate: About the world here, and the world out there, and what you lose when you step away from here, that you must fight for once you’re out there. Cate was the first place I had adults in my life beyond my parents who took me and what I had to say extremely seriously. In other words, they listened to me. I still can not quite articulate how important this was, their listening, and how much I am indebted to them for these moments—none of which, by the way, I remember taking place in the classroom, but in their homes, or around a dinning hall table, or on a trail in the wilderness, or some other not formal listening space. I realize now that what those teachers, in those moments, were showing me, was a template for how to go forward into the world, and how to listen to, and take seriously people whose life experience may be entirely different from, and even lesser than their own, and still grant them the extremely human act of listening. 

It took me a long time to realize that the lesson they were teaching me was not simply one of courtesy and common human decency, either. It wasn’t a favor to me; it was a favor to themselves. Because listening is, of course, also an act of learning. Because listening, really listening, and hearing another person, forces us to confront the limitations of our individual experiences. It forces us out of our own perspective on the world. Listening enlarges our world. 

Listening also puts an end the excuse that we are all human beings, and all, deep down, the same. Saying that we are all the same can be a way of silencing someone’s experience and completely unique point of view. It robs the listener of the opportunity, if only for a moment, of imagining what it might be like to be somebody else. That is what makes listening uncomfortable, and vital.

We are, as a world, more connected than ever before in history. There are more voices we can access if we so choose, all at our fingertips. And yet it seems increasingly difficult to remain open to the world, to fight against it closing in, to fight against hearing the same agreeable voices and perspectives and opinions all around us, in real life, and, especially, online. It’s not that people set out to create a bubble around themselves. But we are creatures of comfort, and you have to actively seek discomfort to break out of this chamber of voices and opinions and likenesses we naturally, inevitably surround ourselves with. It is so easy to build up this chamber of validation, and it is so hard and uncomfortable to leave it. But you must. You must. 

What happened after I realized my world in my midtown Manhattan office had become pretty small was, I admit, sort of dramatic. I quit. And since then, for the past two years, I’ve focused on what I initially fell in love with about journalism, which was, at the very heart of it, going out into the world and listening to people. And not just giving voice to the voiceless, which is a journalistic cliche, but an important one. No, I think it’s more essential than that. And I’m certain it’s something you can all do, too, everyday, from now on. It is this: To fight to listen to the people you have not yet made a habit of hearing. 

Thank you all, but especially you, expert listeners, class of 2016, for inviting me here, tonight. And for listening to me. Thank you.